Chile - The 2016 edition of the Dakar Rally promises to be one of the fastest, longest and toughest tests yet in the 37-year history of the legendary, world-renowned event.
Scheduled to start in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on January 3rd and finish in Rosario 13 days later after a loop of close on 9300km through Bolivia, a total of 556 competitors from 60 nationalities will participate in the 38th running of the race.
Altogether 354 vehicles –110 race cars, 189 motorcycles (including quad ’bikes) and 55 trucks – have been entered for the marathon race, the eighth on South American soil.
The youngest competitor, the American Robby Gordon's prodigy and team mate Sheldon Creed, will be 18 years, 3 months and 3 days old at the start of the rally, while the oldest competitor, Japan’s Yoshimasa Sugawara, participating in his 33rd Dakar, will be 74-years-old.
A total of ten female competitors – including the top motorcycle competitor Laia Sanz from Spain (she finished ninth overall this year) – will partake in the 2016 event, three of them as navigators.
Meet SA's Dakar Rally competitors
The challenging route on dirt tracks, through fine fesh-fesh, over towering sand dunes, rocky mountains and rivers will take competitors from altitudes of just 31m above sea level (in Buenos Aires) to a breathless 4600m (San Salvador de Jujuy to Uyuni) in temperatures ranging from of 4 to 45 degrees Celsius.
Dakar director Etienne Lavigne warned that the 4701 km of special stages will gradually build up in difficulty, with the harsher terrain of the second week the deciding factor.
YOUNG GUNS: The event's youngest competitor yet, North American Sheldon Creed will be 18 years, 3 months and 3 days old when the Rally starts. Image: Instagram
Who’s Who of rally and off-road
Also, with the entry list reading like a venerable Who’s Who of international rally and off-road racing in the car category, the competition is going to be fierce, as acknowledged by Lavigne:
“Our field of car drivers is absolutely exceptional this year. I think we have the best drivers of the world in 'traditional' rally and rally-raid, which is very satisfying.”
Most of them will be in competitive vehicles such as the all-conquering diesel-powered X-Raid Mini All4 Racing and revised Peugeot Total 2008 DKR 16, the Toyota Gazoo and Overdrive Hilux V8’s, the revised Renault Duster and Ford Ranger V8’s, as well as the American Gordini V8’s of Gordon and Creed.
Besides local favourite and 2009 Dakar champion Giniel de Villiers the list include Dakar regulars and multiple champions Stéphane Peterhansel (Peugeot), Carlos Sainz (Peugeot), Cyril Despres (Peugeot), Nasser Al-Attiyah and Nani Roma (Mini), and exciting newcomers and WRC converts Sébastien Loeb (Peugeot), Mikko Hirvonen (Mini), Xavier Pons (Ford) and Martin Prokop (Toyota), as well as WEC regular Romain Dumas (Peugeot).
Other possible winners include the exciting youngster Yazeed Al-Rajhi (Toyota), Vladimir Vasilyev (Mini), Christian Lavieille (Renault), Orlando Terranova (Mini), as well as our very own young lion Leeroy Poulter (Toyota) and the youthful Brit Harry Hunt (Mini).
Says Lavine: “It's great to see this melting pot of various experiences and generations. It brings fresh blood to the Dakar field, which will make it more competitive.”
Watch: 2016 Dakar Rally teaser clip
A new biker era
With the Coma and Despres era drawing to an end this year the bike category is up for grabs with a new generation of riders vying for the title and the number one race number.
It will also see a continuation of the KTM-Honda rivalry, with Yamaha and Husqvarna now also fielding some leading riders.
Favourites are Paolo Gonçalves (Honda) from Portugal (the runner-up this year), Aussie Toby Price (KTM), Portugal’s Helder Rodrigues (Yamaha) and Ruben Faria (Husqvarna), David Casteu and Olivier Pain (KTM) from France, Spaniards Jordi Viladoms (KTM) and Joan Barreda (Honda) and Pablo Quintanilla (Husqvarna) from Chile.
The quad category will see the return of Argentine brothers Alejandro and Marcos Patronelli (Yamaha), winners of four Dakars in this discipline, and they will surely provide stiff competition for Polish defending champion Rafal Sonik (Yamaha) and Chilean runner-up Ignacio Casale (Yamaha).
Russian truck dominance
In the truck category the Russian Kamaz armada of Andrey Karginov, Eduard Nikolaev and Airat Mardeev must be the overwhelming favourites in 2016 after winning the last three Dakars.
However, Dutch challengers Gerard de Rooy, now with the Czech master Ales Loprais in his Iveco team, Hans Stacey and Pieter Versluis (MAN), as well as Czech Martin Kolomy (Tatra) will be chasing them hard.
Sporting director Marc Coma (the Spaniard is still the reigning Dakar motorcycle champion) added that the nature of the terrain will force competitors to employ a different approach to the event. “They will have to shift up a gear,” he said.
Yet he simultaneously cautioned that the marathon stages after the rest day at Salta will be extremely tough, and that any small mistake by the frontrunners will cost them victory…
DOMINANT RUSSIANS: The Russian Kamaz armada has won the truck category for the last three years, can it do it again in 2016? Image: Instagram