Dakar Rally security issues remain
As the 30th anniversary running of the Dakar Rally heads for Western Africa, security and safety issues once again remain a priority for organisers.
The first two stages will be held in Portugal before taking in Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal.
Mali was excluded from the route for security reasons. In April two stages that were supposed to take place in the western African
country were cancelled following recommendations from the country's Foreign Affairs Ministry.
"There is still a certain amount of instability in this region and we feel it's very important to race in total security," said
Etienne Lavigne, the French director of the event.
Mali's absence bodes well for Mauritania which will host a rest day on January 13 at its capital Nouakchott, however Mauritania is not
without its risks either. Organisers only gave the green light last week to proceed as planned through the African state despite security
fears prompted by recent Al Qaeda-linked attacks. Mauritania has announced that it would mobilise 2,000 soldiers and 2,000 plainclothes
police to monitor the rally as it passes through the country between 11 and 19 January.
"We are going ahead with the Mauritanian stages of the rally," Lavigne told AFP. "It now seems that the security situation
is back on track."
"There is nothing to fear, every precaution has been put in place," added Interior Minister Yall Zakaria.
Zakaria said he told the rally inspectors that "all necessary measures have been taken by the government to ensure that the event's
passage through Mauritania takes place in the best possible conditions."
But whatever safety precautions are taken by officials the rally's death toll steadily increases each year. The 2007 rally was marred by
the death of South African Elmer Symons and Frenchman Eric Aubijoux who were the latest victims of this endurance and navigation race which
has a competitor death count fast approaching 50 since its inception in 1979. Ten spectators have also died, most recently in 2006 when two
boys lost their lives when hit by race vehicles in separate incidents in Guinea and Senegal.
For the race's 30th anniversary organisers have prepared a course that focuses mainly on sand racing.
"This will be a Dakar the colour of sand," said Lavigne earlier in the year, warning that the 2008 Dakar will be "rough
and difficult. The contestants will encounter a lot of sand - 6,000km compared to 4,300km in 2007."
Last year's winner, France's Stéphane Peterhansel, will be hunting his fourth Dakar Rally title in the car class and his tenth overall -
he has won six Dakar bike titles, while compatriot Cyril Després will be hoping to build on his 2007 triumph and win his third title in
four years in the bike category. However Peterhansel and Després will have stiff competition which includes former double World Rally
Champion Carlos Sainz and 2006 bike winner Marc Coma.
Spaniard Coma crashed out of last year's Dakar which he had dominated up to that moment and will be looking to make amends for that
error, while compatriot Sainz admitted that he was confident it would be a case of third-time lucky in the 2008 Dakar Rally. The 45-year-old
believes that the stages in Mauritania - from 11-19 January - hold the key to a Dakar triumph.
"Victory will be played out during these stages (in Mauritania)," said Sainz, who will be behind the wheel of a Volkswagen
Touareg. "It's all to play for."
Sainz conceded that he has less experience than Peterhansel, winner last year for Mitsubishi. The Spaniard, the world rally champion in
1990 and 1992, won five stages of last year's Dakar Rally, but finished ninth after mechanical problems.
"For me the important thing isn't winning stages but winning the Dakar, that's why I've been preparing for this all year,"
The 2008 Dakar will set a benchmark for the number of vehicles registered with around 272 motorbikes, 214 cars, 102 trucks and 20 quads,
and about 50 different nationalities represented.
The rally starts in Lisbon on Saturday and there will be daily highlights packages on SuperSport TV.