By John Rettie
Ever since the Dakar race moved from Africa to South America some have suggested that the event, billed as the world's toughest annual race, has not been as arduous as it once was. This year the Dakar Rally began Jan. 5 and finished Jan. 18, covering 5,825 grueling miles through Argentina, Bolivia and Chile.
Halfway through this year's race, which started in Rosario, west of Buenos Aires in Argentina, some were saying it was too tough. True enough — it was exceptionally hot with temperatures often exceeding 120 degrees in the deserts of western Argentina. Many of the trails in the first few days of the race had been washed away by heavy rains. But once competitors hit their stride during the second half — mainly run in the dry deserts of northern Chile — the complaints evaporated.
The X-Raid ALL4 Racing Minis team — all 11 of them — was among the top competitors. Based on last year's race, there were really only three teams with a chance of beating them. They were:
- Robby Gordon in his new HST Gordini, a crowd favorite. As always, he had his sights set on nothing but an overall victory. But it was not to be. His all-new truck, which is lighter and lower than his old Hummer, suffered from fuel delivery problems in the heat, which set Gordon back in the running. He did manage a sixth-place finish on Day Three. The fuel problems returned with a vengeance on the 11th day; he ran out of time making repairs and had to withdraw from the race.
- Giniel De Villiers was another potential winner. He won in 2009 in a VW Race Touareg and finished second last year in a newly developed Toyota HiLux. De Villiers suffered from some early mechanical issues as well as navigation problems and eventually settled for a fourth-place finish. He was fastest on the final day's stage and finished among the top 10 in all but two of the stages.
- Carlos Sainz, who won in 2010 in a VW Race Touareg, looked strong in a new Chevrolet V-8-powered SMG Buggy when he stormed to a stage win on the fourth day and took the overall lead away from Nani Roma. Roma, who last won on a bike in 2004, was driving one of the many Minis. Sainz's effort was undone by mechanical issues; he withdrew when his buggy crashed on Day Nine.
With so many Minis competing, it was almost a race within a race with the leading Mini drivers competing among themselves. Stéphane Peterhansel, who has won the Dakar 11 times, was a clear favorite but even he had one of the worst days in his 25-year Dakar career during the third stage when he suffered several tire punctures. He gradually shrunk his 24-minute deficit down to 2 minutes with just three days left.
The only person in front was Roma, who finished in the top six every day. Nasser Al Attiyah, who won the Dakar in 2011 in a VW Race Touareg, was in third place but a one-hour penalty for missing a waypoint on the fifth day meant he had little chance of winning unless something happened to the two Minis in front.
It was then that team orders took over. Sven Quandt, who manages the Mini team and is a member of the family that owns BMW, told the three leading Mini drivers they had to maintain the same finish order so they could have an all-Mini podium. Quandt did not want to give De Villiers a chance to take third place should the Minis run into problems by driving at full speed.
Not surprisingly, this mandate was not popular with the drivers or the organizers. Roma did run into some problems on the penultimate stage and although Peterhansel slowed down to let Roma pass, Peterhansel ended up winning the stage. Due to a "miscalculation" he took the overall lead by just 26 seconds. That was a no-no, so during the last stage on the last day he stopped about 28 miles from the end of the race to let Roma pass him and officially win by 5 minutes. Al Attiyah finished third, some 57 minutes behind Roma. Ironically it meant that Al Attiyah had actually taken the shortest time of 50 hours and 42 minutes to cover the 3,341 miles of competition stages, so the one-hour penalty was really costly; he could have been a contender for first place.
In the end, all three of the Mini drivers deserved to win. It was the first time since 2011 that the drivers of three cars from the same team sat on the podium. But when VW did it in 2011 it was with three of four cars. This time it was three of 11. Amazingly, all 11 Minis finished, with seven of them in the top 12.
Although these Mini ALL4 Racing cars look like a Mini you can buy from a dealer, they are remarkably similar to trucks and buggies under the skin with a tubular frame chassis. The Minis have permanent all-wheel drive and are powered by BMW twin-turbo 3-liter diesel engines. The Toyota HiLux trucks are also all-wheel drive and powered by Lexus 5-liter V-8 engines. Gordon's HST Gordini and Sainz's SMG Buggy are powered by more powerful Chevy V-8 engines, but are only allowed to drive the rear wheels.
It's worth noting that a second Toyota HiLux, driven by Marek Dabrowski, finished in seventh place overall. A Chinese-made Haval SUV, driven by Christian Lavieille, was the only other non-Mini in the top 10. Meanwhile the two Team Ford Racing Rangers, also powered by V-8 engines, did not fare so well. One of them retired on the first day while the second one, driven by Lucio Alvarez, finished in 22nd place. He finished four stages in the top 10, showing the truck has potential.
Only 62 of the 147 cars that started this year's Dakar managed to finish the 14-day event — a completion rate of 42 percent, which made it the toughest Dakar in a decade.