LIMA, Peru - The Dakar Rally kicked off its 34th edition on January 5 2013 with question marks over the gruelling 8400km event's environmental impact and safety record.In all, 459 vehicles will blast their way from the Peruvian capital, Lima, en route to the finish 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, was run on South American soil for the previous five years as a result of security issues that hit the original route.'MANY SKELETONS'However, 2013's race has come in for criticism after palaeontologists warned that the heavy-duty vehicles would once again pose a serious risk to whale and dolphin fossils dating back more than 20-million years.Carlos Vildoso, director of the Peruvian Institute of Palaeontology, told AFP: "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." Organisers have also been keen to play down the dangers associated with Dakar races which have claimed 59 lives, among them 20 spectators, over the years. Argentine rider Jorge Martinez Boero was killed on the first day of the 2012 race.'EXTREME SPORT'This year, 2013, 150 security staff and 60 doctors and surgeons will be deployed 24-hours-a-day with back-up from five helicopters and 10 medical vehicles."This is an extreme sport," said race organiser Etienne Lavigne. "Zero risk doesn't exist."One could ask: Has climbing Everest been banned despite the dozens who have died on its slopes?Frenchman Stephane Peterhansel, a 10-times champion, is defending 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.Not to mention the strong South African contingent in a fleet of South African-assembled Toyota Hilux racing bakkies.HONDA'S BACKThe route will wind along the Pacific coast before two diversions into mainland Argentina and some rugged roads in the Andes mountains: 14 stages across three countries.The motorcycle category sees the return of a Honda team, absent since 1992. The 2013 event will again feature intense rivalry between defending champion Cyril Despres of France and Spaniard Marc Coma who have shared the last seven titles.Coma, however Coma, crashed in the recent Morocco rally and did not make Saturday's start so Helder Rodrigues of Portugal is the main threat to Despres after finishing on the podium in 2011 and 2012.Among the 459 vehicles taking part is a strong South American contingent - 70 participants, the most after France.The race began for the first time on the desert sands south of Lima but will gradually become more difficult as it enters Argentina and a series of dangerous stages through valleys and canyons.Lavigne warned: "It is far from a country drive along the sea between Lima and Santiago and the difficult sections will set up a thrilling battle."Wheels24 will be following the 'Dakar' rally throughout the race. Keep up with things on our Dakar Rally section.