By John Rettie, photo credits: DPPI
Dune driving was the order of the day for the first few stages of the Dakar Rally 2013 as hundreds of bike and quad riders along with hundreds of vehicles headed south into Chile.
The competitors of the two-week race, which started on Jan. 5 and finished Jan. 20 with podium celebrations, then headed across the Andes into Argentina and back across the Andes into Chile again for a relatively tame last few days to the finish line in Santiago, Chile’s capital.
Pickup trucks, as we know them, are classified as cars in the Dakar Rally, so SCORE-type trucks such as the infamous Hummer driven by Robby Gordon and the Chevrolet Silverado run by California-based Frenchman Eric Vigouroux are competing head-to-head with highly modified four-wheel-drive SUVs and two-wheel-drive buggies. Although a handful of pickups compete regularly, they’ve never really been in contention for an overall win.
This year the organizers adjusted the rules to give trucks and buggies more power so they could better compete with the sophisticated four-wheel-drive cars (SUVs).
Fan favorite falters
Gordon is a favorite with the millions of spectators who watch the race; his bright orange Speed Energy Hummer is the most spectacular vehicle in the car class. Gordon has had mixed success in the eight years he has competed in the Dakar. His best result was in 2009 when he finished third overall behind two VW Race Touaregs. Last year he was fast but suffered mechanical problems. He also ran afoul of rules and was officially disqualified.
This year Gordon was confident of doing well. Sadly, it was on the very first stage that he lost the rally he so desperately wanted to win. "I stopped at the top of a dune after Kellon (Welch, his navigator) told me to be careful since we could not see the other side, and I was being super conservative. We got stuck and lost the transmission trying to get out,” Gordon said after the finishing 137th.
Racers never give up in the Dakar because even an hour’s deficit can be made up as every competitor is likely to suffer a mechanical problem, get stuck in a sand dune or get lost due to a navigational error.
Gordon could not afford to be conservative from then on. He finished second in Stage 3, which brought him back up to 13th place. However, his confidence got the better of him on Stage 4. “We went over a dune that was about 8 feet high, and on the other side, it went straight down, damaging the radiators and laying the Hummer on its back,” he said. “The Hummer is fine; the suspension did not take a hit. I did not want to take a chance hurting the motor any, so we had to wait for two different assistance trucks, which took hours. It is unfortunate and disappointing to not be racing for the overall now, but the good thing is we are still here and willing to fight for stage wins."
With no hope of a win, Gordon seemed to do better from then on – he took two stage wins and only finished out of the top five once in the remaining 10 stages. He eventually finished 14th overall and suffered no mechanical problems or even flats in his Toyo tires. He says he will be back again next year, looking for that elusive win.
If you think Gordon’s Hummer is the biggest, baddest truck in Dakar wait until you witness the giant trucks racing. These monsters are amazing as they leap over dunes as if they were buggies. They make Trophy Trucks in Baja look like toy trucks.
Minis Snare Spotlight
There was no elusive win for Stéphane Peterhansel who won the Dakar for the 11th time. Unlike the other competitors, he did not lose time on any stage nor did he suffer any mechanical problems in his X-Raid All4Racing Mini. A look at the results shows that he took just two stage wins but finished in the top six every day until the last two when he drove cautiously to ensure his win. His margin of victory was 42 minutes after 38.5 hours of competitive driving over 14 days.
It’s no surprise that the Minis were the stars at this year’s Dakar as they also took third and fourth spots.
Consistency also paid off for Giniel De Villiers who finished second in the best-ever result for a “real” pickup truck. De Villiers, the South African who won the Dakar in 2009 driving a VW Race Touareg, formed a team last year with Imperial Toyota in South Africa and finished third overall in the HiLux.
He finished in the top five on all but three stages. A navigational error on the third stage, which cost 28 minutes, caused him to drop to fifth place at that stage of the race. His only hope of taking the win would have been if Peterhansel had a problem.
Consistency is Key
This year’s winner, Eduard Nikolaev, is just 26 years old and started his career with the famous Kamaz team as a riding mechanic before he switched to driving.
Consistency paid off again as Nikolaev did not win any stages but finished no lower than eighth each day. It was last year’s truck winner, Dutchman Gerard De Rooy, who won six stages in his Iveco truck. He was in a commanding lead until Stage 9 when he lost 85 minutes after suffering mechanical problems. He eventually finished in fourth place behind the three Kamaz trucks.
It’s worth noting that the winner of the 2011 Dakar, Nasser Al-Attiyah from Qatar, who drove Gordon’s second Hummer last year, entered his own team this year with Carlos Sainz, who won the 2010 Dakar. Instead of opting for a traditional SUV, he elected to have two buggies built by Demon Jefferies in California. The team was only formed a few months before the race so there was little time to test the Chevy-powered buggies.
Nonetheless, right from the start the buggies proved to be quick with Sainz setting the fastest time on the first stage and Al-Attiyah winning three stages and finishing in the top seven spots each day until a water pump failed on the ninth day. He joined Sainz, who dropped out on the sixth day with mechanical problems, on the sidelines.
It’s always been said that it takes several years for a new team to find success in Dakar. That was true of the VW team, which only achieved success after five years before winning four years in a row. The Minis have now won two years in a row.
Could next year see a pickup win for the first time or will a buggy take the honors for the first time since 2000? Or could Gordon finally manage to win?