Dakar Rally 2016

Hard Road 2
(Mohamed Abu Issa of Maxxis Super B races his quad during the prologue stage)

The 2016 edition of the Dakar Rally was punchy, hotly contested and once again highlighted the sheer toughness of the competitors.
Sanjeev Kumar

Hard Road 3
(Sebastian Loeb is towed by Cyril Despres from La Rioja to San Juan)

Hard Road 7
(Winner of the Dakar Rally 2016 Stephane Peterhansel of France, with Despres, at the finish line)

Even as Stephane Peterhansel cemented his position in record books with his 12th win, the world’s hardest driving challenge threw up some new stars who are sure to shine brighter with each passing milestone. In particular, Santosh Chunchunguppe Shivashankar–or C.S. Santosh as he’s better known–the first Indian to take part in the rally, really proved his mettle as a rider again, even as a freak accident forced him off the race. As anyone knows, just being able to finish is an achievement, and we’re looking forward to his exploits in the coming years. Astride his Suzuki, he rode well through most of the race, matching some of the best in the world.

Another star was KTM’s Toby Price, who became the first Australian to capture the bikes title with almost 40 minutes between him and second-placed teammate Stefan Svitko. He finished third in his maiden Dakar last year, and has come back stronger than ever. His speed was one thing, but his ability to adapt to the terrain saw him overcome some hairy moments. In fact, the 28-year-old from New South Wales initially finished fourth in the final stage. “I’m in shock. Winning in my second participation is awesome, but being the first Australian to win the Dakar is just insane. I would’ve never imagined this two years ago. Finishing the rally is already a triumph.”

Hard Road 1
(A bird's-eye view of the Bivouac Peugeot around Belen)

At the end of the gruelling race, Team Peugeot Total and its drivers dominated the finishing line, as Frenchman Peterhansel won overall and teammate Sebastien Loeb won the final Stage 13 between Villa Carlos Paz and Rosario in Argentina, seven minutes ahead of Peterhansel. As everyone already knows, Loeb was driving in his first Dakar after nine World Rally Championships, and he won the stage by over a minute from Mini’s Mikko Hirvonen. But it was Peterhansel who was the most relieved to cross the finishing line and add more success to his storied Dakar career.

“It’s extraordinary. The pressure was very high, but we came through,” said the 50-year-old. “Crossing the finish line was a release after the extremely stressful last three days. I’m also delighted to write a new page in the history of Peugeot because the guys in the team have been working their socks off for two years.”

Peterhansel took a commanding lead as the Sainz challenge ended, one hour ahead of reigning champion Nasser Al-Attiyah for Mini. He won the 278-km stage from Belen to La Rioja by five minutes, ahead of fellow countryman and Team Peugeot Total team mate Cyril Despres. The other teammate, Carlos Sainz, saw his hopes of victory all but disappear with a puncture and gearbox failure. But the category was full of drama till the end. Like a bolt of lightning, Finnish driver Hirvonen, competing in his first Dakar, took victory in the 12th and penultimate stage as he negotiated his Mini over 931 km between San Juan and Villa Carlos Paz. He finished nine seconds ahead of Al-Attiyah.

Hard Road 4
(Jordi Viladoms from Red Bull KTM Factory manoeuvres his way through Stage 2)

Hard Road 5
(Helder Rodrigues of Yamaha Racing rules a dirt tract near Salta)

The bikes category was no less spectacular. Stage 12 saw Helder Rodrigues win his first stage of this year’s rally by four minutes and 32 seconds over bike class leader Toby Price. And KTM’s Svitko took a big chunk out of Price’s overall race lead with victory in the same stage, as the Slovakian won by almost three minutes from Argentina’s Kevin Benavides, with Price in third. Still, Price finished first with some brilliant riding.

Loeb also added his patent blend of drama and action to the mix. The Dakar freshman finished strong in ninth place even after he crashed at the end of the eighth stage. After hitting a hole in the route near the finish line, Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena rolled several times but they managed to reach the finish. Despite extensive damage and a time loss of more than one hour, the team’s mechanics fixed the Peugeot 2008 DKR overnight and both men were able to take the start of the ninth stage. “The plan was always to come here to get experience. Now we know which points we have to work on. Hopefully we know that on normal, WRC-like stages, we are OK. It’s more on the off-road that we have to work, for Daniel and I, for the car and the sand. We have one year to prepare. We will be stronger and I hope we will fight for the win for sure.”

Hard Road 6
(Last year's truck winner, Ayrat Mardeev, making his way through a sandy patch.)

As any Dakar driver will tell you, the race is more about nerves and strategy, because skill is pushed to the back of your subconscious. The role of the co-pilot is as important as the driver, as Sainz highlights, “The instructions of the co-driver in rally raid are more about the crossings and dangers—danger one, danger two and danger three, that’s where he has to be very precise. If you miss a “danger three”, you can have a big accident so it’s very important to be precise in the situations where you are approaching a danger indication of the road-book. It’s crucial to have a very good co-driver. He can make you lose or win a lot of time in rally raid.”

Hard Road 8
(Ivan Cervantes of Himoinsa Racing around Uyuni.)

Hard Road 9
(Marek Dabrowski from Orlen at a tricky stretch around Termas de Rio Hondo)

Sainz, Peterhansel and Despres have 17 Dakar victories between them, but they did face some heavy challenges from Nasser Al-Attiyah, the Qatari speedster who, with co-driver Mathieu Baumel, was not only the reigning Dakar champion, but also won the season’s FIA Cross-Country Rally World Cup. The desert racing duo returned in the X-raid MINI they used to win the 2015 Dakar, with the team boasting of Polish drivers Adam Malysz and Kuba Przygonski, co-driven by Xavier Panseri and Andrei Rudnitski. Giniel de Villiers and Dirk von Zitzewitz in their Toyota Hilux also had another string showing.

Austrian rider Matthias Walkner looked primed for success, having won the season’s FIM World Cross-Country Rallies Championship, but his outing was cut short by an accident that left him injured. Riders Joan Barreda and Paulo Goncalves failed to reach the finish, as the Spaniard was hit by a mechanical near Uyuni and the Portuguese rider had engine trouble in Fiambal. The 38th Dakar also heralded a new generation of riders who made their debut this year, including Argentinian Kevin Benavides. The quad race, from the beginning, looked the most likely category for a local victory with two-time Dakar winner and Argentine Patronelli, though Mohamed Abu Issa from Qatar did cut his teeth during the race. Ignacio Casale had to retire with a broken collarbone.

Hard Road 11
(Speeding through La Rioja, Antione Meo of Red Bull KTM Factory.)

Hard Road 110
(Giniel De Villiers of Toyota Gazoo races during Stage 11)

Through this edition of the Dakar, 218 vehicles—67 cars, 84 motorcycles, 23 quads and 44 trucks—crossed the finish line. At the end, the overall standings were a veritable who’s who of raid: Peterhansel with Jean-Paul Cottret finished first in cars, followed by Nasser Al-Attiyah with Mathieu Baumel, and Giniel de Villiers with Dirk von Zitzewitz. In bikes, Price was followed by Stefan Svitko and Pablo Quintanilla. In trucks, Gerard De Rooy took the top spot, followed by Ayrat Mardeev and Federico Villagra. In quads, Yamaha’s Marcos Patronelli won, followed by Alejandro Patronelli and Brian Baragwanath.

Driving the varied and intense terrain is unlike any challenge most drivers and riders have faced, and the result rests as much on control as on speed. You also need a trusty machine, of course, but it is the power and determination of the driver and co-pilot. Sainz—who competed in his ninth Dakar and won the race in 2010—fought until the last moment, when he had to retire because of some technical faults with the car. He scored a solid victory over the 336-km course from Uyuni in Bolivia to the Argentine city of Salta, and exemplifies the triumph and trials of the race. “In rally raids, one of the most difficult things is to anticipate what type of terrain you are approaching, what type of corner. Sometimes you think it’s flat and then you have a really big surprise that puts you on the limit–that’s when it’s very easy to roll. If you think the terrain you’re approaching is flat and then you find a hole, you will go to the end of the suspension and the car will try to flip over. This is the most dangerous part in rally raids because you are pushing hard. If you miss a hole, a corner after a crest or a breaking point, it’s dangerous and this is why you have to be careful,” said Sainz.

Hard Road
(Dmitry Sotnikov of Team KAMAZ Master races during Stage 11, from La Rioja to San Juan)