/ 2 January 2009

New-look Dakar Rally braced for continental shift

The 2009 Dakar Rally gets under way on Saturday with the gruelling two-week event switched from terror-threatened Africa to South America.

Twelve months ago, the Dakar, for so long dogged by security concerns, was cancelled at the last minute after four French tourists were killed by al-Qaeda-linked terrorists in Mauritania.

In response, the race has been switched to Argentina and Chile, a safe 7 000km from Senegal, but with the race’s character still intact, claim organisers.

”I have no doubt that this is still THE Dakar,” said veteran race organiser Etienne Lavigne.

”The people who are taking part in the race know that this is THE Dakar. This race has been organised for 30 years. It attracts professionals and amateurs. Nothing in this has changed.”

Lavigne insisted that he was happy the race, which will end here on January 17, has not been renamed to accommodate its new home.

”Historically, it was called the Paris-Dakar, then changed to Dakar. It has crossed 30 countries. Just as you don’t change the name of a boat, the Dakar does not change its name.”

The 2009 edition is made up of 14 stages with 5 591km of specials in the total distance of 9 578km, and will see 530 teams taking part in a race that, instead of desert and dunes, will tackle the Pampas and tracks in the shadow of the Andes.

Japanese manufacturer Mitsubishi is chasing an eighth successive title with Frenchman Stephane Peterhansel aiming for a 10th personal crown to add to his six on a motorcycle and three in a car.

Peterhansel won in 2004, 2005 and 2007, with compatriot and former skiing ace Luc Alphand taking the 2006 title.

Japan’s Hiroshi Masuoka, the winner in 2002 and 2003, also returns for the 2009 event with Spain’s Joan Roma, a former champion in the motorcycle event, making up Mitsubishi’s four-car assault.

There will be added interest in Mitsubishi’s campaign in South America after the global financial crisis dealt a series of bodyblows to motorsport in Japan, with Honda quitting Formula One and Subaru and Suzuki pulling out of the world rally championship.

Mitsubishi’s main challenge will once again come from Volkswagen, whose four-car bid will be spearheaded by former double world rally champion Carlos Sainz, who is no stranger to South America having won the Rally of Argentina three times in 1992, 2002 and 2004.

South Africa’s Giniel de Villiers, Germany’s Dieter Depping and Mark Miller of the United States make up the Volkswagen team.

In the motorcycle section, KTM dominates with France’s Cyril Despres, the 2005 and 2007 champion, likely to tussle with Marc Coma of Spain, the 2006 winner, for the title.

Meanwhile, Lavigne would not commit the rally to an eventual return to Africa.

”The Dakar in the past has gone through Algeria, Niger, Libya, Chad … and year by year, the territory for the race has been reduced,” he said.

”We talk a lot about the threat from al-Qaeda. Last September, 12 Mauritania soldiers were kidnapped and beheaded.

”That’s a country we went to 30 times. I cannot take people to these countries.”

Argentina, meanwhile, will present its own particular challenges.

On average, 22 people a day die on the country’s roads: from January to August 2008, 5 427 people were killed in car crashes. — Sapa-AFP