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Motorsport | Off-Road

Guerlain Chicherit - BMW

378 Drivers face Dakar test

Considered the most dangerous race on the planet, the Dakar Rally starts on Friday with 378 drivers taking part in the second event to be staged in South America because of African security concerns.

Dunes, desert, mountains and other hostile terrain lie in wait for 138 cars, 161 motorbikes, 29 quads and 50 trucks in the 16-stage race that covers 9,030 kilometers across Argentina and Chile before finishing 16 January in Buenos Aires.

Last year's winner, Giniel De Villiers of South Africa, leads the favourites. The 2009 winners in other categories also return: Spanish motorbike rider Marc Coma, Czech quad driver Josef Machacek and Russian truck driver Firdaus Kabirov.

The symbolic start of the race will take place Friday, with a 349-kilometer drive from emblematic Buenos Aires monument, the Obelisk, to the city of Colon.

Racing begins the following day from Colon with a 684-kilometer first stage to Cordoba. Drivers then head to La Rioja and Fiambala in Argentina before going to Copiapo on 5 January, the first Chilean city to host the Dakar, followed by Antofogasta, Iquique, La Serena and Santiago. The race returns to Argentina, passing through San Juan, San Rafael, Santa Rosa and finally Buenos Aires. The only rest day in the 32nd running of the Dakar Rally will be 9 January.

Teams from Volkswagen and BMW are the favourites in the car section. Volkswagen boasts De Villiers, as well as former World Rally Champion Carlos Sainz from Spain and Qatari driver Al Attiyah.

BMW will have French driver Stéphane Peterhansel behind the wheel, a six-time champion on motorbikes and three-time winner in cars of the Dakar Rally in Africa, plus Nani Roma of Spain.

"The Dakar is the hardest race in the world, you have to work hard and suffer a lot," said Roma, the 2006 winner. "But when you get to be champion, it's worth it." 

Sainz, meanwhile, will be looking for revenge after leading the race in 2009 before being forced to retire following an accident, apparently due to an error in the map produced by the race authorities.

"I'm worried about the road book being correct," Sainz said. "It's such a long race over so many days that you run into all sorts of obstacles. You have to be patient and prudent to solve them." 

Safety will be an important feature after Pascal Terry died in the last race. The French motorcyclist died of a pulmonary oedema on 7 January in the second stage between Santa Rosa and Puerto Madryn which was unrelated to the race. In another incident, Cristobal Guerrero of Spain had an accident in the 10th stage in the middle of the Atacama desert, and spent several days in a coma.

Argentine quad driver Marco Patronelli said the 2009 stage between Neuquen and San Rafael was "terrible."

"It looked like a movie," he said. "At the side of the road were cars on fire, trucks turned on their sides. I was thinking: 'What's happening here?' The cars (drivers) accelerated even when they couldn't see anything. They didn't care. There was a lot of irresponsibility."

In order to reduce accidents, organisers have decided to make motorbikes and quads race almost 100 kilometers less than the other vehicles, along with special sections to avoid crashes with cars and trucks and prevent the problems from 2009.

"Those that are in the lead don't care (about the crashes). They look the other way and carry on," said Patronelli, who came second in 2009. "You could be dying at the side of the road and they would pass by at top speed."

The rally was moved to South America in 2009 because of safety concerns and the possibility of a terrorist attack in Africa. The 2008 race was canceled after the deaths of four French tourists in Mauritania in December 2007. The deaths were linked to Al-Qaeda. It was the first time the rally had been suspended since the first race in 1979. After the cancellation, organisers vowed to prevent the rally disappearing and decided to move to South America.


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