Two very unusual competitors in the form of the Fiat Panda Cross will line up on the grid at the start of the world?s most gruelling automotive experience, the Dakar 2007, when it kicks off in Lisbon on Saturday, 6th January 2007.
The event ends on the 21st in the Senegal capital after covering 8 696 kilometres, 5 100 of them in the form of timed specials. It will cross Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Mauritania, Mali and Senegal.
The two participating Panda Cross's - renamed PanDAKARs for the occasion - are in the hands of Miki Biasion, paired with Tiziano Siviero, and Frenchman Bruno Saby, with the Italian Rudy Briani as co-driver. Both are racing in the colours of Team Fiat PanDAKAR, which has also entered an IVECO Eurocargo truck driven by Livio Diamante, Giorgio Albiero and Nicola Montecchio.
Twice world rally champion in the Lancia Delta, Miki Biasion drove trucks before moving over to the decidedly smaller dimensions of the Panda. He has already driven in six editions of the Dakar, four at the wheel of a truck and two in cars.
Team-mate Bruno Saby is a real expert, world champion in the Rally Raid speciality in 2005 and winner of the Dakar in 1993. Biasion and Saby were team-mates in the Eighties when both drove for Lancia.
The two Panda Cross's are racing in the T2 class which allows only a minimal number of modifications compared to production versions. To confront this toughest of courses and its 8696 km length, the Panda Cross fits safety devices like a roll-bar, a fire extinguisher system and specially-made dampers, and FPT engineers have upped the power output of the 1300 cc Multijet diesel engine to 78kW of power without losing any of the considerable torque.
Inside, room has been found for a 160 litre fuel tank to guarantee noteworthy independence even on difficult terrain like sand and gravel, three spare wheels and all the equipment they will need to dig their way out of sand: shovels, sand jacks and two aluminium plates. Add to all this the water reserve of 10 litres (5 litres each) which takes the vehicle's total weight to about 1400 kg.
Before the official presentation at the Bologna Motor Show on 5 December, the PanDAKAR went through a series of tests in Tunisia, enjoying a first look at the desert landscape where it demonstrated its ability to "float" on the dunes, and great manoeuvrability.
After these tests, the two drivers had nothing but praise for the performance of the Panda Cross, even though the route they will have to face is testing in the extreme. Completing the PanDAKAR expedition are three service vehicles: a Fiat Sedici and two Iveco trucks.
The Fiat Panda Cross is very similar in concept to the Panda 4x4 which is available in South Africa. It uses the same four-wheel drive hardware but features additional cosmetic mods and boasts a 1.3-litre MultiJet diesel powerplant.
It should also not be forgotten that during its development stage the Panda 4x4, from which the Cross version is derived, was tested in every corner of the Earth for sturdiness, character and road performance, especially in road situations and climate conditions that were often at the limit.
In all, the Panda 4x4 covered more than one million kilometres before going into production.