Dakar faces environmental, safety questions
The Dakar Rally kicks off its 34th edition on Saturday with question marks over the gruelling 8 400km event's environmental impact and safety record.
In all, 459 vehicles will blast their way from the Peruvian capital of Lima on their way to the finish line in Santiago, Chile, on January 20.
The race that originated in 1978, when it traditionally started from Paris on New Year's Day and made its way to Africa, has been run on South American soil over the past five years as a result of security issues that hit the original route.
However, this year's edition has already come in for criticism after paleontologists warned that the heavy duty vehicles will once again pose a serious risk to whale and dolphin fossils dating back more than 20 million years.
"We have many skeletons of large mammals, especially whales and dolphins, and the fossilised remains of invertebrates that have suffered damage due to passing vehicles," Carlos Vildoso, director of the Peruvian Institute of Paleontology, told AFP.
Organisers have also been keen to pay down the dangers associated with the Dakar which has claimed 59 lives, including 20 spectators, over the years.
Twelve months ago, Argentine rider Jorge Martinez Boero was killed on the first day of the race.
This year, around 150 security staff as well as 60 doctors and surgeons will be deployed, backed up by five helicopters and 10 medical vehicles, all mobilised 24 hours a day.
"This is an extreme sport," said race organiser Etienne Lavigne. "Zero risk doesn't exist."
Frenchman Stephane Peterhansel, a 10-time champion, defends his title as strong favourite in the auto category, but faces a stiff challenge from former winners, Nasser al-Attiyah of Qatar and Spanish driver Carlos Sainz who won the race in 2011 and 2010 respectively.
The route winds along the Pacific coast before two diversions into mainland Argentina and some rugged roads in the Andes mountains featuring 14 stages across three countries.
The motorcycle category sees the return of the Honda team who have been absent since 1992.
It was set to feature another intense rivalry between defending champion Cyril Despres of France and Spaniard Marc Coma who have shared the last seven titles.
However Coma suffered an accident in the recent Morocco Rally and will not make the start line meaning Helder Rodrigues of Portugal is the main threat to Despres after finishing on the podium in 2011 and 2012.
Amongst the 459 vehicles taking part is a strong South American contigent.
Argentina has 70 particpants – the second largest number behind France.
The race begins for the first time on the desert sands south of Lima before gradually becoming more difficult as it enters Argentinian soil and a series of dangerous stages through valleys and canyons.
"It is far from a country drive along the sea between Lima and Santiago and the difficult sections sets up the race for a thrilling battle," said Lavigne.