More than 180 motorcycles will participate in the 2012 Dakar Rally with Marc Coma (above) returning to defend his title.
As millions of Americans gather to watch the ball drop in Times Square, our neighbors to the south are kicking off the New Year in a much different fashion. Nestled in the seaside resort of Mar del Plata in Argentina, many are anxiously awaiting the start of the 2012 Dakar Rally
raid. Considered by many to be the toughest off-road rally in existence, there’s no shortage of motorcycle contestants lining up to try their hand in the 34th edition of the Dakar Rally, which is set to cover approximately 5600 miles of varied terrain within 14 days.
Roughly 80% of participants in the 2012 rally will be amateurs running against some of the toughest and most accomplished rally racers. While more than 50 nationalities are scheduled to start the rally raid, the vast majority will hail from France. Perhaps the most well-known Frenchman competing this year is Cyril Despres, winner of three Dakar titles, who will attempt to reclaim the crown with the help of his teammate, Ruben Faria.
“I’m on a very rigid training schedule as the Dakar gets closer,” commented Despres. “I’m training four days out of five and on the weekends I’m trying my best to keep the race off my mind. The training period before the race is such an important part of having a successful Dakar, I treat it like a job and put in long hours.”
Despite Despres previous success, however, he will face a major challenge from Spaniard Marc Coma, who aims to defend his 2011 victory. Coma and Despres have split the last six Dakar victories, leading to their dominance in the competition since 2005. And when it comes to claiming victories no team knows better than KTM
. The Austrian giant has nabbed 10 consecutive Dakar titles and is showing no signs of stopping with its competitive 450 Rally bike
. Beginning last year rally organizers placed a strict limit on
The KTM 450 Rally bike offers many advancements and will be the weapon of choice for Marc Coma and Cyril Despres.
450cc motorcycles, which forced KTM to heavily modify its 690 rally machine. The result is the 450 Rally Bike, which features an overall weight reduction and improved handling from its larger sibling. To re-emphasize the new engine regulations, event organizers have implemented new penalties for 2012 which include bigger fines for repeat offenders.
To keep competitors on their toes, organizers have also changed the route for 2012. The South America continent is no stranger to Dakar, but instead of a loop-styled course the new route will have participants traveling north along the Andes Mountains and into Peru for the first time. The new route will also give riders a view of the Pacific Ocean, while obstacles like the Atacama Desert will return to make navigation difficult.
“I think this year will be the most African edition since the race change continent,” said current Dakar champ, Marc Coma. “What we were able to see shows that it changes to be a linear race with Finish in Lima, Peru's capital. It seems that until the last day the scenery we will have will be the desert, very similar to what we remember from the African race.”
On the evening of January 11th competitors will face an added semi-marathon stage that prohibits assistance vehicles from accessing a specially designed bivouac. This will prove especially demanding on riders who lack endurance and rely heavily on support teams. According to David Castera, Sports Director of the Dakar, daily surprises will play a major role in determining the next champion.
From Mar Del Plata to Lima, Peru - the new route features updated obstacles that span 5600 miles along the Pacific coast of S. America.
“The changes of pace will be constant, linked to the diversity of the terrains provided by each stage,” said Castera. “I have the feeling that the most experienced competitors, those who know how to cope with unexpected events, will be in a better position than the technical specialists.”
’s Francisco ‘Chaleco’ López may be just the experienced rider to cope with these challenges. Finishing third and fourth in the last two editions, Lopez has fully recovered from an accident in the Tunisian Rally and is motivated to land his best finish ever at the Dakar Rally. The 36-year-old Chilean will ride a new version of the Aprilia RXV 4.5 prepared by Aprilia Racing, a bike that has been redesigned to make it faster, lighter and more reliable.
With vast distances making it easy to get lost or injured, there’s always the chance for an upset. Last year, Portuguese Yamaha
rider Helder Rodrigues broke into the top-three for the first time and also won a stage. He’s just one of many riders who lack the stats, but may have the talent to overthrow the likes of Coma or Despres.
“My objective is to finish even better [than last year],” Rodrigues said. “Like last year I worked all season to improve. This year's route should allow me to show that I know how to take on the pitfalls and complexities of the rally.”
Perhaps the best hope America has at ruling Dakar comes from Jonah Street on his Yamaha WR450F. Last year Street suffered an inconsistent rally that was filled with setbacks, but he also showed a faint glimmer of potential when he won Stage 9. Prior to last year, Street notched a solid ride to finish seventh overall in the 2010 Dakar Rally – showing
Aprilia's Francisco Lopez is aiming for his best finish in the series after grabbing fourth overall in the 2011 rally.
he’s maybe capable of a top finish this year. Honda’s Quinn Cody is another American to watch out for after he landed ninth during his debut in 2011.
Aside from KTM, one of the biggest factory threats comes from Husqvarna
’s German Speedbrain team, which consists of Paulo Goncalves, Zé Hélio, Ike Klaumann and Joan Barreda. Goncalves was another rider to win a special stage last year and displayed promise on the TE449 RR platform. The team has already been dealt a setback, however, as Frenchman David Fretigne was unable to pass medical clearance due to a vertebrae injury at the Rally dos Sertoes. José Manuel Pellicer has replaced Fretigne in the team’s lineup.
The 2012 Dakar Rally begins January 1st and runs until January 15th (14 days of racing with one rest day on January 8th). Make sure to check back with MotoUSA for daily updates as the rally unfolds.