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As challenging and unpredictable as the desert always is, the 2006 Dakar cross-country rally is even harder to call than its predecessors. While the Dakar experience is key, especially with the new regulations' emphasis on navigation skills, new hardware may tip the scales and produce surprises in all three classes.
Mitsubishi who has won the last four Dakar rallies, the first two with Hiroshi Masuoka, and the last two with Stephane Peterhansel, is clearly the team to beat. With four Mitsubishi Pajeros entered for Masuoka, Peterhansel, Luc Alphand and Joan 'Nani' Roma, the Japanese team has not only the depth of experience, but also the breadth, with four cars running, should one or more falter in the grueling conditions.
"The car has run more than 15,000 kilometers since the beginning of the year and is now fully tested," Peterhansel explained. "That fact makes me confident for Dakar 2006. Nevertheless, the overall win is still open to everyone. In order to outperform rivals who have a similar performance potential to us, we will have to be perfect as a team."
The biggest challenge to the Mitsubishi hegemony is expected to come from Volkswagen, whose Race-Touaregs finished third (behind Peterhansel and Alphand) and fifth last year. While the German team showed strong reliability, lead drivers Jutta Kleinschimdt and Bruno Saby were not able to keep up with the pace of the Mitsubishis on the marathon stages.
However, the German team was continuing thier development in parallel with the racing program, and the Race-Touareg 2 debuted in Rallye Baja Portalegre in October, scoring a 2-3-4 finish behind Alphand's Mitsubishi, with Kleinschmidt leading the pack of Touaregs, followed by new recruit and WRC legend Carlos Sainz and Saby.
Volkswagen Motorsport: presentation in Morocco with Jutta Kleinschmidt, Fabrizia Pons, Mark Miller, Dirk von Zitzewitz, Bruno Saby, Michel P?rin, Carlos Sainz, Andreas Schulz, Giniel De Villiers, Tina Thorner and Volkswagen Motorsport team members. Photo by Volkswagen Motorsport.
The older Race-Touareg was no slouch on the FIA Cross-Country World Cup circuit, either, though, as Saby took three victories and the championship -- but, admittedly, the events are considerably shorter than Dakar.
"This rally is extremely tough," said Saby. "We sit for many hours in the car, and have to concentrate intensely for hours-on-end. On top of this, we often have sleepless nights, since a tent is not quite as peaceful as a hotel room. However, I have prepared myself mentally and physically the whole year for this challenge."
Besides the titanic nine-car Mitsubishi-VW battle (Mitsubishi has four works entries, and Volkswagen five), BMW X-Raid has four cars entered, with new X3 models for Nasser Al Attiyah, Alfie Cox -- the South African veteran switching from bikes to cars -- and Guerlain Chicherit, plus a 2005-spec X5 for Jose Luis Monterde. While the Bavarians were not able to fight for the lead a year ago, the performance of the new X3 could yet surprise and throw a banner into the works for Mitsubishi and Volkswagen.
Nissan is also back in strength with the Nissan Dessoude team, with no fewer than ten entries in the car class, consisting of a mix of Pathfinder, X-Trail, Paladin and pickup models. The team will be looking to improve on last year's seventh-place finish, although matching the 2001 performance -- when Peterhansel claimed the overall win for the team -- does not look likely.
Another team looking to make an impression is Robbie Gordon's Team Dakar USA. Gordon, who scored two stage wins last year with Volkswagen has returned with a factory-backed Hummer H3.
"I had a good time with Volkswagen last year and I learned a lot," said Gordon. "But I wanted to come back with my own program. Now we'll see what happens but we don't quite know what to expect against the other guys that we've never competed against. Anyhow, this time or next time: we want to win this race. We're not here to play."
On the two-wheeled side of the rally, KTM is represented by no fewer than 120 of the 234 motorcycle entries, and is headed by the powerful Gauloises and Repsol squads, which have dominated recent Dakar events. KTM hasn't rested on its laurels, though, and the works riders will be riding on a largely redesigned bike.
Cyril Despres will be defending his 2005 victory for the Gauloises KTM team, accompanied by Isidre Esteve -- starting his ninth Dakar -- as well as "water carriers" or supporting riders David Casteau and Michel Gau.
The rival Repsol KTM team can count on Marc Coma, Jordi Duran, Carlo De Gavardo, Jordi Viladoms and Giovanni Sala. Coma, the World Cup champion, is the lead rider for the Spanish team, and less experienced riders will be focused on supporting Coma's quest for victory.
"I try to focus on navigation and the final target, without getting distracted, despite spending several hours on the bike," Coma laid out his plan for the rally. "You have to understand the desert. I think that if you understand it and enjoy it, it can be your friend."
The threat to the KTM domination will again come from Yamaha, which has grown from 11 to 55 entries in a few years, and is again led by experienced Frenchman, David Fretigne, on the two-wheel-drive WR450F 2-Trac.
Fretigne won three stages in 2005, and finished fifth overall, behind the four leading KTMs and 33 minutes off the pace -- but, notably, 15 of those minutes were lost on the tragic 11th stage, when Fretigne was the first rider to arrive at the scene of Fabrizio Meoni's fatal accident.
"The Dakar is hard but it's also very exciting," said Fretigne of his outlook. "I learned a lot in the past two years, not only when I rode but also while watching, listening, seeing what other experienced rally riders do and talking to guys like (team manager Jean-Claude Olivier). For this year my approach is to be more competitive than before; now I have the skills and the experience!"
BMW is making a low-profile return to the event with the "Race to Dakar" team: Charley Boorman, who filmed the "Long Way Round" documentary with Ewan McGregor, is leading a three-man team that will be looking to finish the race -- and to create a TV series based on the experience.
Finally, in the heavyweight category, Kamaz is the reigning champion, with 2005 winner Firdaus Kabirov and four-time winner Vladimir Tchaguine. The Kamaz-Master team has been a model of reliability and teamwork in the past years, winning the last four years on the run, and is bound to be once again a force to be reckoned with.
Loprais Tatra Team: Karel Loprais, Petr Gilar and Ales Loprais test the Tatra Dakar 2006 4x4. Photo by Milan Loprais.
Yoshio Sugawara will be doing his best to stop that streak, though: the 64-year-old will be making his 24th start, having entered all but the first four Dakar rallies. Sugawara, who progressed through motorcycles and cars before settling on the truck category in 1992, has stood on the second step of the podium five times, but has yet to taste victory.
"Our truck isn't powerful enough to compete with the Kamaz team so I'll be driving with my head,"Sugawara said. "The goal is to win the 10L category. It would be great to one day win the (overall) truck race."
The veteran pilot will again be joined by his son, Teruhito Sugawara, and the two will be piloting a pair of Hino Ranger 4x4s in the quest for the elusive Dakar win.
And speaking of veterans, Karel Loprais is back once again, the Czech veteran taking part in the Dakar for the 17th time. While 2005 turned out to be somewhat disappointing, with a seventh-place finish, the 55-year-old has six truck wins to his -- and his Tatra team's -- credit already, and is still hungry for more.
"Dakar is a drug, an adventure, a trial," Loprais explained to the Prague Tribune. "You find yourself in places people don't usually frequent. It's different each time -- sometimes we create a completely new route."
Another veteran certainly addicted to the Dakar, even at the age of 63, is Jan de Rooy, who has a pair of Gauloises-sponsored DAF FAV CF75.530 4x4 trucks entered for himself and his son Gerard. With one Dakar victory to his credit, Jan led the team to a 4-5 finish in the 2005 and is always a threat.
Unless ... unless, that is, the blue de Rooy trucks are unable to take the start. The team has had to delay scrutineering until tomorrow, as they do not have the required FIA licences in hand yet. de Rooy has asked FIA to expedite the delivey of the licences, and the team is hoping to complete scrutineering tomorrow.
"I hope that they will be able to start the event because we have come to compete in a race and without competition, the rally would lose in interest," commented Semen Yakubov, the manager of the Kamaz-Master team. "I hope that the FIA will send them the necessary document and that we can enjoy a great race."
The dark horse in the truck category is the Motorsport Italia team. The team entered the event for the first time last year with Iveco Eurocargo 140E24 4x4 trucks, with rally aces Miki Biasion and Markku Alen at the wheel.
Alen managed a seventh-place finish in the 2005 Dakar, in spite of being out-powered by most of the competition, the Eurocargo's six-litre engine, like that of the Hino's, being the only ones of the top finishers with a capacity of less than 10 litres.
This year the team is running heavier Trakker 190T44 trucks -- with 13-litre engines -- for Biasion, Alen and Spanish veteran Pep Vila, as well as two Eurocargos, piloted by Luisa Trucco and Riccardo Garosci.