The 33 edition of the Dakar Rally got off to a symbolic start on Saturday ahead of a 15-day race that will take 466 registered competitors from Argentina through Chile to a finish in Lima, Peru.
This is the fourth straight year that the event takes place in South America. After three years of racing on a loop course that started and ended in the Argentina capital Buenos Aires, the race begins this time in the Atlantic coastal city of Mar Del Plata with the finish 9,000 kilometers away on the Pacific coast in Peru.
Saturday's processional ride does not count in the timed standings, with the first official leg from Mar del Plata to Santa Rosa to be held Sunday, January first.
The rally was held in Africa until 2007, but moved for security reasons to South America beginning in 2009. The race was not held in 2008.
Nasser Al-Attiyah of Qatar, who won last year's car category driving a Volkswagen, is back this year in a Hummer. Defending bike champion Marc Coma of Spain is back with KTM. Al-Attiyah was one of the last drivers to sign up for the race and has little time to get used to his new vehicle.
I am comfortable inside this car, I am getting the feel of it, he said. But I still have to get acquainted with it, so I will play things safe in the first stages and then step things up a notch every day.
The 9.000 kilometres of which 4.200 in very demanding terrain will have competitors climb mighty mountains, cross deserts, transit areas still covered in volcanic ash, lunar landscapes, unending dunes, discover remains of pre-Columbian civilizations and the multiplicity of environments from three different countries, Argentina, Chile and Peru, linking two oceans.
“It’s the brand name of Dakar” said proudly Etienne Lavigne, master of the competition and chief of the 3.000 nomads’ tribe that surrounds and demands the fifteen-day event.
And the competition in its South American fourth edition will have the echo of millions of followers. As faithful to football, car racing and mechanics are another passion of South America and it is estimated that five million people turned out in the 2011 edition to cheer and support Dakar rally competitors.
Argentina will host five stages, Chile four and Peru the last four completing a 14 day competition, two more than in 2011.
According to Lavigne more challenging than distance are a couple of legs, numbers 12 and 13, Arequipa-Nasca, 245 kilometres and Nasca-Pisco, 275 kilometres, “rather short but with tricky sand dunes”.
The competition includes 173 cars, 185 motorbikes, 76 trucks and 32 four wheeled cycles. They will climb up to 4.748 metres with no competing while crossing the Andes, too full of highly dangerous cliffs and precipices. According to the organizers 80% of competitors are amateur and their only purpose is to reach the finishing line, a feat only accomplished by 50% of them in the 2011 edition.
The five stages in Argentina are: Mar del Plata-Santa Rosa de la Pampa (57km of special terrain and 763km liaison); Santa Rosa de la Pampa- San Rafael (290km special and 487km liaison); San Rafael-San Juan (270km special and 291km liaison); San Juan-Chilecito, (326km and 424km); Chilectio-Fiambalá (151km special and 265km liaison).
Stage 6 is the crossing to Chile: Fiambalá to Copiapó with 247km special and 394km liaison; competitors will climb to 4.700 metres to cross the Andes, with below zero temperatures and then continue to the heat of the Atacama desert.
In Copiapó the rally includes 419km special and 154km liaison. From Copiapó the next stop is Antofagasta (477km special and 245km liaison). Antofagasta-Iquique (556km special and 9km liaison)
From Iquique the rally crosses to Arica, Peru with 377km special and 317km liaison. This is particularly treacherous sandy terrain. Follow the legs of Arica-Arequipa with 478km special and 120km liaison; Arequipa-Nasca (245km special and 412km liaison) and Nasca-Pisco with 275km special and 100km liaison.
Finally on January 15 the last leg is Pisco to Lima capital of Peru after 29km special and 254km plain. Competitors will be received at the emblematic Plaza de Armas in downtown Lima.