Luc Alphand and his co-driver/navigator Gilles Picard scored two stage wins, three second-fastest special finishes and two third places on their way to notching their first Dakar victory. Racing for the Mitsubishi Ralliart team, the Frenchmen gave Mitsubishi their sixth consecutive Dakar title. Mitsubishi now has increased their record to 11 as the all-time leading manufacturer in the Dakar rally.
Alphand was always in the hunt in the car category as they sailed their Pajero across seas of sand dunes, winding through the forest tracks, trekking around and through local African villages, across rocky trails and floating across river crossings. They had their moments of scare -- the third stage being the one that caused them to drop to ninth overall.
Yet they persevered, and when teammate and overall leader Stephane Peterhansel hit a tree on the 12th special, Alphand took over the lead and kept Volkswagen's Giniel de Villiers at bay with two of the three final stage wins.
At the half-way mark on the one rest day over the 16 days of Dakar, Alphand had admitted that he could not have overtaken the defending champion, who had built a bit of a cushion, even though he and Picard could taste the possible Dakar crown. However, the key at the end was consistency and navigation.
"It is always a big relief to be in Dakar. And when you win, it is incredible. It has been a beautiful race, with a real battle. We had to push ourselves further every day in the car, even when we were more than tired," said a very relieved but happy Alphand. "I don't really realize what is happening to me, even I have believing I could since Labe, after Stephane hit a tree. But I had to remain focused on everything till the end. And today, I am very happy."
The duo did not back down from the de Villiers' late-race challenge and earned the coveted status of not only surviving Dakar but becoming a legend.
The Frenchman joins two-time car winner Peterhansel on the list of legends, Peterhansel was defending his back-to-back title from last year, until the tree jumped out and bit him. Still, Peterhansel has a total of eight Dakar titles in both car and bike categories.
Prior to Peterhansel, Hiroshi Masuoka scored the wins in 2002 and 2003 following Jutta Kleinschmidt's victory for her former ride with Mitsubishi in 2001 -- the first and only woman to win Dakar. And even though Peterhansel bettered Ari Vatanen's record of 50 career stage wins, Vatanen still has the most car category wins in Dakar at four. Peterhansel now has 52 career stage wins.
"Of course it's a little bit frustrating but I'm also satisfied for Mitsubishi team and for Luc (Alphand) and Gilles (Picard). Their happiness makes me feel glad. Let's say that our team's satisfaction is more important than my own disappointment," explained Peterhansel. "I'm going to think about something else now. I'll be focusing on the next Dakar in a few months".
Other legends include the man who finished sixth this year: Jean-Louis Schlesser in his Schlesser-Ford buggy, who has two victories to his credit. Bruno Saby won in 1993 (Mitsubishi); this year he was eighth and, like Kleinschmidt, ran for Volkswagen this year. Kenjiro Shinozuka, Pierre Lartigue, Hubert Auriol, Juha Kankkunen, Rene Metge, Patrick Zaniroli (the first winner in a Mitsubishi), Jacky Ickx, Claude Marreau and Freddy Kotulinsky have all taken victories in the past as well.
De Villiers gave it all he could, but still lost to Alphand by nearly 18 minutes. However, he and his Volkswagen teammates proved that they can run with and beat the Pajeros in their new Race Touareg 2 prototypes. The factory team will return next year for the 29th challenge of Dakar.
"I'm so glad to finish 2nd behind Luc (Alphand)who did a really good job. Maybe I would have needed to be more lucky to win Le Dakar. Globally speaking, the race has been very good for me and for the whole team Volkswagen," de Villiers said. "We had competitive cars and great pilots. The race was a fast-breaking one and each competitor paid cash any mistake. I would like to thank Tina (Thorner) for her excellent navigation work".
Nani Roma, Dakar bike champion in 2004, placed third this year in the car category for the Mitsubishi team. "It's been a very positive rally. The Repsol Mitsubishi Team has taken the victory and that was our aim. Luc Alphand has been the winner and I'm on the podium, which was also my aim, and the best has been my progression. Now I think that I'm able to fight for the victory next year," said the Spaniard.
After finishing second last year to his main rival, Marc Coma rode his Repsol-Red Bull KTM 660 Rallye bike to his first Dakar title. The quiet Spaniard, who notched the 2005 Cross Country Rally World Championship title in mid-November, admitted at the time that his biggest challenge would be Dakar.
"My big challenge is with no doubt the Dakar Rally," Coma said in November 2005. "It's my immediate target and I've been fighting for it for a long time. It's a hard and treacherous race, but we are in a great moment and we'll try to do everything we can to make it."
And his main rival? That would be Cyril Despres who came into Dakar as the bike category defending champion. "Cyril is the current Dakar Champion, and that is why he's going to be the man to be beaten and my highest rival," said Coma back in November. "He won in Dubai and proved that he's in good shape too, but so are we and we'll fight to beat him."
Indeed it was. The remarkable showing by both men during the event would make a good story unto itself. Despres crashed hard, was unconscious when Coma came on the scene. Even though the two race hard against one another, that was put aside to come to the aid of a fallen rider. Isidre Esteve Pujol and Carlo de Gavardo were already on the scene and yet the rider who had lead from stage three on stayed also. The two rival racers rode side-by-side to the finish of the sixth stage.
Coma earned his title, not only for just his talent in cross-country rallying but for the type of person he is which was also shown in the 2005 Dakar, Coma was one of the first riders to reach Fabrizio Meoni when the champion who exemplified the spirit of Dakar had a fatal accident.
This year, the riders had to again face losing a fellow comrade when Andy Caldecott died in an accident on stage nine, on the same tracks that one year earlier had taken Meoni's life.
"I'm very happy because bit by bit I'm becoming conscious of what I've made. I want to dedicate the rally to Andy Caldecott because he paid a very high price for his passion," commented Coma. "I want to thank the team for the whole work they've done, the people from KTM, the people from Repsol, and especially Jordi Arcarons who helped me a lot during this rally".
The riders proved their care and their mettle when they had the day of mourning by not racing and yet, when racing resumed, they again gave it all they had. Coma's Dakar victory, along with his World Championship, was well deserved by the Spaniard who remarkably never won a single stage this year!
Coma's win gave the KTM factory their sixth consecutive title; Yamaha still holds the rights to the most Dakar wins at nine, but KTM has now tied BMW for the second-most wins in the 28 year of Dakar. As for Coma, he joins the ranks of the best riders in the world: Richard Saint, Roma, Despres, Meoni, Edi Orioli, Cyril Neveu, Gaston Rahier, Auriol (owns a car title also), Gilles Lalay and the all-time winner on two wheels, Stephane Peterhansel.
Even with a dislocated shoulder, Despres did not give up and placed second overall on his Gauloises KTM France ride in a bike race that started out with only seconds between the top runners.
"I have a mixed feeling but it's more positive than anything else as far as my result is concerned. Of course I lost my title but it's a real satisfaction to be here on the podium because I thought I would give up after my accident," said the French rider. "I can't forget all the efforts I made to reach Dakar and I'm pretty happy about that. The race was a good 'millesime' (vintage) this year. We've been spoiled by the organizers."
Coma's teammate Giovanni Sala finished third on the podium. The best American finish in this year's Dakar was Chris Blais who steadily climbed his way up the leaderboard on his Red Bull KTM to take fourth overall. The top Yamaha rider was Helder Rodrigues from Portugal, the privateer finishing ninth.
The Italian Sala was very pleased to reach the Dakar podium: "Yesterday, it was very difficult. I got lost and was tense since I could see the American. So I took risks and rode fast to make I'll stay third. And I am on the podium just a few minutes ahead.
"And I am 'contentissimo'. I started very safely on this Dakar. But day by day, I felt myself much more at ease and got closer to the leaders. If I had been told in Lisbon that I would be in the top 5 in Dakar, I would have signed for it immediately," expressed Sala. "And I am on the podium! Really, it is so great!"
And the legend continued for Vladimir Tchaguine who notched his fifth Dakar championship. The Russian dominated the heavy truck competition and, except for one stage, he drove from Lisbon, Portugal to Dakar, Senegal like a man on a mission. No doubt the loss last year, when mechanical woes took him out of contention for a fifth title in 2005, was on his mind.
This year, the Russian Kamaz 4911 pilot and his two co-drivers Semen Yakubov and Serguey Savostin blasted out of the gate in Lisbon and grabbed six consecutive stage victories. And then came the seventh stage, the 499km special in Mauritania, which saw Tchaguine get stuck in a sand dune. With the help of his assistance truck, he was able to get out but lost forty minutes.
Fortunately his lead was still over an hour but he aimed to protect it and allowed others to battle for the stage wins; his fifth stage win came on the ninth marathon special. He even stated after stage 12 that he was enjoying watching the battle for stage wins between his teammate Firdaus Kabirov and MAN driver Hans Stacey: "Actually I can afford losing 18' today on Stacey. On the other hand, the fight between Stacey and Kabirov will be interesting until the end. So tomorrow, I will content myself with following my team mate to assist him in case of trouble," he said.
And, true to his word, the legend in heavy trucks, did what he explained he would do over the final two stages: "We just had to control the race." Leading from stage 1 to today's un-timed special, Tchaguine indeed controlled the race. After all, the man scored three consecutive wins (2002 through 2004) before Kabirov took the title in 2005. Tchaguine's first victory came in 2000.
"We will remember for a long time this Dakar and its wonderful start in Portugal. The race has been very tight this year. The first stages were classical, then we have had three very difficult sandy stages. And then, the job was made," reflected the Russian on this year's Dakar.
For the Kamaz team, this is their fifth consecutive championship; they scored their first win in 1996 and now have notched seven Dakar events, setting a new record in the truck category. They were previously tied with Tatra for the most wins at six.
Stacey and Kabirov put on a show in the final stages. The Exact-MAN driver won four consecutive specials (10 thru 13) before the Russian answered back with yesterday's win. Still, the Dutchman placed his MAN TGA 4X4 between the two Kamaz machines at the finish, proving that the dominant Kamaz team has at least one, if not more, serious challenger for next year's event. Stacey ended second overall with a total of five stage wins.
"So, it's done. I am at the Lac Rose. I am so happy about this second place. I really have a lot of respect for every other truck. I leave with the strong will to work hard and already prepare next year's race," Stacey said. "And I also notice that the atmosphere has been very cool, especially between the Kamaz and us."
The defending title holder finished third; Kabirov had two stage wins and had one bad stage, as stage 10 moved him from second behind Tchaguine to third overall. He never was able to make up the time lost, especially with Stacey seeing the carrot that if Tchaguine again had woes -- whether mechanical or difficult tracks -- it could hand the first victory to himself, MAN and his team.
"We have had good results. For our factory, this sixth victory is very important. The race was very well organized, the road book was good. Every thing was OK," commented Kabirov. "As every past year, the first stages were quite easy before two very difficult days in the dunes. Personally, I have been on the podium many times this year. I am very happy about my Dakar, but my best memory on the rallye will always be the first time I reached the Lac Rose, in 1999."
This year proved that their are manufacturers out there that could unseat the Kamaz team.
And for Tchaguine, the Russian needs to only win one more Dakar to tie the all-time truck category record held by Karel Loprais (Tatra). Gerald de Rooy, whose DAF was disqualified before the event, won Dakar in 1987. Other winners in the truck category who are now legends include the first winner for Kamaz Moskovskikh, Reif (Hino), Villa, Houssat and Perlini in Perlini heavy trucks. Four Mercedes drivers have notched wins: Vismara, Groine, Lalleu and Capito. Early winners included Villette and Ataquat.
"With this fifth victory I get closer to Loprais records of six victory," commented Tchaguine. "Even if I hope I'll win next year, my main ambition is not to beat him. I hope I'll win many others Dakar in the future. And I also hope there will be many competitors in the trucks race."
The 2006 Dakar closed out the day with the ceremonial finish at Lac Rose. The special was not a timed event due to the recent deaths of two young spectators. The 31km stage across the sandy beach of the Atlantic Ocean was peaceful.