As expected, once again the 38th edition of the Dakar Rally 2017 proved that nothing could be predicted outright. As the ninth successive year that the event was held in South America it kept participants – veterans, winners and first timers on their toes virtually at all stages. This year, the event saw one of its most competitive line-ups in recent years.
Dakar rally is popular because it tests man and machine to the limits in various terrains under extreme weather conditions and hence the potential for thrills, spills and the unexpected. Here teams representing cars, motorcycles, quads and trucks are looking at supremacy by remaining on top in their respective categories.
Proceedings for this year’s event started at Asunción, Paraguay on January 2, then run through Bolivia and Argentina, before returning to Buenos Aires on January 14 after 12 action-packed stages of the competition. This year, additional challenges came from unpredictable and tough weather conditions like extreme heat to torrential rains and landslides, stage cancellations or last minute modifications.
Prior to the event, Dakar watchers began working on the possible top stories and scenarios in the various categories. Most predictions were however, based on performance of the 2016 event which had seen a lot of action that highlighted strengths and weaknesses of man and machine. Several car brands were expected to be watched closely with Peugeot and Toyota topping the list. Peugeot came well-prepared with an all-new car for the title defence – essentially, the 2016-spec version of the 2008 DKR. In the 2016 edition of Dakar, Peugeot was dominating force in the “WRC-style stages” with 12-times winner Stephane Peterhansel aka Mr Dakar in command.
WRC legend Sebastien Loeb and five-time bikes winner Cyril Despres were keen to make up for their experience deficit. Carlos Sainz who was 2010 champion would bank more on reliability [he suffered gearbox issues in 2016] and hence considered a top rank contender. The current Dakar set-up promises a lot of potential from WRC-experienced drivers particularly for Loeb’s co-driver Daniel Elena. Debutant in 2016, Mikko Hirvonen, Loeb’s long-time WRC rival also drew praise for his handling of off-road sections on his way to a very impressive fourth place.
From Middle East, we have two candidates to watch for. First is Qatari Nasser Al-Attiyah as he bids for a Dakar hat-trick. After three seasons with X-Raid Mini, Al-Attiyah will drives for Toyota Gazoo in a pick-up. Al-Attiyah’s team switch means that in this event Toyota is pitched against Peugeot as its biggest rival. Al-Attiyah has dominated several FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies last year, winning six events – among them Rally Morocco, where he emerged victorious in a duel against Carlos Sainz, who was debuting the new Peugeot. The second is Dubai-based British KTM rider Sam Sunderland in the motorcycle category.
The event’s organisers have indicated that they wanted to test navigational skills more this year. As the days progressed in the rally it became cleared that inaccurate detailing in road-book caused most of the navigation problems that participants encountered which not only was confusing but also cost them their precious times and in some cases, rankings.
End of the day, Stephane Peterhansel proved once again that he is made of steel and Sam Sunderland became the first Brit to win the Dakar rally after putting in a sterling performance from stage 5 onwards.