BUENOS AIRES, December 31 – The Dakar Rally has come a long way in the three decades which have elapsed since its inception in 1978 – though few would have forecast that its current incarnation which gets underway on Friday would have seen the race transmutate into a journey across a large chunk of South America.Yet last year’s trans-Atlantic switch proved successful enough to persuade organisers of the merits of a return to latino climes and the competitors will be going after South African Giniel de Villiers and Spaniard Marc Coma’s titles in the car and motorcycle sections respectively.
The race, formerly known as "The Paris-Dakar" once bridged Europe and Africa, starting off in the French capital – at least until 1995 – before graduating to the gruelling terrains of Africa.
Political instability brought a change of scenery in 2009 – the 2008 edition was cancelled amid security concerns after the murder blamed on terrorists of four French tourists in December 2007 in Mauritania, where the rally was to spend several days.
Ironically, the race had been due to start, not from France, but Lisbon for a third straight year.
Somewhat less dangerous the political terrain may have been adjudged to be in South America – but the mainly amateur caravan of racers who set off from Buenos Aires on Friday could hardly imagine tougher terrain in the geological sense as they embark on their 9,000km adventure.
After a relatively smooth opening trio of stages the race will head into terrain in Chile which is the most unforgiving anywhere on the planet, not least the bone-dry Atacama desert, a lifeless, ultra-arid zone which is said to be 50 times drier than death valley.
Stunning as the area is, the competitors will have no time to admire the scenery as they negotiate the martian-like dune crossings along the route to the city of Iquique.
By the time the racers have their rest day on January 9 at Antofagasta they will have earned it having trundles across around 6000km of mainly off-road tracks by then.
After that ultra-tough middle section the terrain will become a little easier as sand gives way to various types of soil and other surfaces marking the route back to Buenos Aires via the hills of Mendoza province coming out of the Andes Cordillera.
The final three stages are all upwards of 700km long after the caravan leaves Santiago for San Juan before the adventure comes to an end in the Argentine capital on January 16.
Tough as the race is, French legend Stephane Peterhansel, a six-time winner of the motorcyles event and a three-time auto section winner, can’t wait to do battle once more.
"Dakar is a passion," said the 44-year-old on Wednesday, having threatened to pull down the curtain on his career after quitting following stage seven last year with a broken engine and then seeing Mitsubishi leave the sport for financial reasons.
Peterhansel has now joined BMW and says: "this is really different. This time I am with a team whiuch has never won Dakar. Maybe I’m an outsider but in my head I’m up there with the favourites," he opined.
"Latin America gives me renewed motivation. But equally, I’ll miss Africa," the Swiss-based Frenchman reflected.
He may yet retire again after this year – "but it would be good to sign off with a win!"
January 1: Buenos Aires – Colon (317 km)
January 2: Colon – Cordoba (652km/219km special for motorbikes, 684km/251km special for cars)
January 3 janvier: Cordoba – La Rioja (626km/294km special for motorbikes, 687km/355km special for cars)
January 4: La Rioja – Fiambala (441km/182km special)
January 5: Fiambala – Copiapo (629km/203km special)
January 6: Copiapo – Antofagasta (670km/483km special)
January 7: Antofagasta – Iquique (598km/418km special)
January 8: Iquique – Antofagasta (641km/600km special)
January 9: rest day
January 10: Antofagasta – Copiapo (568km/472km special)
January 11: Copiapo – La Serena (547km/338km special)
January 12: La Serena – Santiago (586km/238km special)
January 13: Santiago – San Juan (434km/220km special)
January 14: San Juan – San Rafael (796km/476km special)
January 15: San Rafael – Santa Rosa (725km/368km special)
January 16: Santa Rosa – Buenos Aires (707km/206km special)