The 2012 Dakar Rally, which starts in Argentina on Jan. 1, is expected to be one of the most open events in years. While the event has been dominated for a decade by Volkswagen and Mitsubishi's factory efforts, both of those manufacturers are missing from this year's entry list so the first privateer winner since Jean-Louis Schlesser in 2000 is on the cards.
Last year's winner Nasser Al-Attiyah has replaced his Race Touareg with a Hummer from Robby Gordon's team this year. While the defending Dakar champion bids to become the first person since Ari Vatanen to win the event consecutively in different cars, the German-based X-Raid team looks like the outfit most likely to halt the former Production Car World Rally Champion's charge.
X-Raid fields a total of eight cars in this year's Dakar, running five Mini All4 Racings and three BMW X3CCs. Nine-times Dakar winner Stephane Peterhansel is the team leader. The Frenchman, who won the car category of the African-based Dakar three times, has failed to translate that success to South America, although he came close to winning in 2010, only to be foiled by a transmission failure. Peterhansel is joined in a Mini by Spanish off-road ace Nani Roma.
The 2012 Dakar route has changed considerably, with the event starting from Mar del Plata, south of Buenos Aires and running through Argentina and into Chile and Peru, finishing in Lima on Jan. 15. Roma's co-driver Michel Perin says the change of route will mean a more open event until the finish.
"We'll have to deal with much more sand than in the past rallies," he said. "I think the rally will only be decided on the final stages in Peru."
Peterhansel said he was pleased with the organisers' decision not to continue with the route starting and finishing in Buenos Aires.
"I had the feeling the organizers found it hard last year to find new and difficult routes," said Peterhansel. "Now we are entering new territory again."
Al-Attiyah admits that Peterhansel and the Mini team are the main threat to his potential back-to-back Dakar wins, but the Qatari says he will go flat-out to realize his dream.
"The Hummer will be a different kind of car to the Touareg I drove last year," he said. "But I know where it will suit the road and I will go flat-out there. I want to win, that's all I want!"
The Dakar starts with a 474-mile liaison section out of Mar del Plata and up towards Rally Argentina territory in Santa Rosa tomorrow. The 465-strong entry will face a 35-mile competitive section on day one, before they hit the dunes on the road to San Rafael on Jan. 2. Unlike in years gone by, there's no rest day on the 2012 event. The crews drive for 15 days before arriving in Lima after a 5,500-mile route.