By John Rettie
(Editor's note: Report filed Wednesday Jan. 8)
Robby Gordon is quite possibly the best-known racer from the U.S. in South America. And that's no surprise, since his spectacular driving style and his underdog attempt to win the famous Dakar Rally has made him a hero to the millions of fans who follow the annual Dakar, which is underway right now in South America, instead of Africa, for the sixth time.
True to form Gordon got thousands of screaming fans on their feet at the formal start of the world's toughest auto race by jumping off the podium. Alas, his spectacular start was marred during the first two days when his newly built HST Gordini off-road racer suffered from some frustrating teething troubles, which placed him in a humbling position among the back markers at the end of the second day.
He did make up for it in the following two days when the stages got tougher, and he clawed his way back up to 31st position, some four hours behind the leader.
One of the most impressive new teams in this year's Dakar is the Team Ford Racing outfit that has two 5.0-liter V-8-powered Ford Rangers. Although the team is based in South Africa, it received plenty of assistance from Ford's Special Vehicle Team in Detroit and has an international team of engineers. As rookies it would be tough for the team to win the Dakar, but once Lucio Alvarez from Argentina hits his stride, after overcoming some mechanical problems, his Ranger finished in 16th place on the tough 313-mile-long stage on the fourth day as the rally crossed hot desert areas along the foothills of the Andes Mountains.
Giniel De Villiers, who won the Dakar in 2009 in a VW Race Touareg, returned this year in a much improved Toyota HiLux prepared by Imperial Toyota in South Africa. De Villiers has always been a consistent driver who gets the job done without a lot of drama. Despite mechanical issues, by the end of the fourth day he was in sixth position overall, just 40 minutes behind the leader. He could win overall if others run into the troubles that seem to be affecting everyone so far this year.
No less than 11 X-Raid ALL4 Racing Minis started in this year's race, and after their tremendous success last year they are clear favorites for this year's win. After three days Nani Roma had a clear lead in one of the Minis. Stéphane Peterhansel, who has won the Dakar 12 times, said he had one of his worst ever days when he suffered four punctures during one stage, which dropped him down the leader board.
Carlos Sainz, who won the event in 2010 in a VW Race Touareg, is in a new SMG Buggy. After three days he stunned everyone by storming through the field on the fourth day to take the day's stage win and grab the overall first place ahead of Peterhansel. It was the first stage win for a two-wheel-drive car this year. Perhaps the Minis are not invincible after all.
Saturday is rest day at Salta in northern Argentina. From there the motorcycles and quads will head into Bolivia for the first time ever. The cars and trucks will run two stages in Argentina before all the competitors cross the Andes and head south through the fabulous deserts of northern Chile to the finish in Valparaiso, Chile, on Jan. 18.
You can track rally progress in real time at Dakar.com, and catch up with the previous days' action each day on NBCSN. Click here for the TV schedule. You can also keep track of Gordon's exploits by visiting Toyo Tires. And you can track the Team Ford Racing Rangers here.
We'll bring you a wrap up of the whole event along with some great action photos after the Dakar ends. Will a Mini win again or will it be a buggy or a pickup truck? It's far too early to predict as only a third of the total 1,250 miles of the rally's competitive racing has taken place so far.