Here on Speedhunters we've been posting links to video updates on the 2012 running of the Dakar Rally, which this year has seen Stéphane Peterhansel in a Mini emerge victorious after another tremendously hard-fought event. But it's easy to miss out on what is the toughest car event of the year and the most challenging off-road rally in the world. This is an event that is worth paying attention to. "A challenge for those who go on. A dream for those who stay behind," is how the founder of the Dakar Rally, Thierry Sabine, once described the epic endurance event.
The Dakar was previously famously known as the Paris-Dakar, an event that ran from 1978 until 2007 and that originally ran between the two towns of its title: Paris in France, south through Europe, crossing into North Africa and then through to Dakar, Senegal, on the western tip of Africa.
The starting point began to vary in the '90s, with Paris on and off the route, until the threat of violence on the African route led to the cancellation of the 2008 event and the entire Dakar package shifted several thousand miles west.
The term 'endurance rallying' does not begin to sum up the hardship off the Dakar. The 2012 route took in 14 stages over 15 days across 5,500 miles of terrain through Argentina, Chile and, this year, Peru, and kicked off on its traditional date of January 1.
The rally started off in the sand dunes of the east coast of Argentina, heading directly west through the country before turning north and tracking the Chilean border. It then crossed the mountain border between the two countries and followed the coast up through Chile and into Peru, finally arriving at the capital, Lima, for the finish 15 days later.
14 stages might not sound like much against the World Rally Championship for instance, which has up to 30-odd individual stages over a single weekend. But when you consider that a Dakar stage can be up to 750km long it begins to put things in perspective. It's a marathon runner against a 100m sprinter in comparison.
The stages are impossible to police properly – there aren't taped, patrolled and marshalled; there's simply no chance with distances involved. Imagine the pod racing scene in Star Wars Episode 1, complete with Tuscan Raiders taking pot-shots at competitors.
The sobering reality is that the threat of violence was what led to the original Afro-European route being cancelled and the whole event moving a continent away to South America. The route is down to the skills of the driver and navigator: the Dakar is truly unleashed in the wild. Imagine how it was before GPS! It's no wonder that competitors frequently went missing.
465 entrants from 50 countries, in car, trucks, bikes and quads took the start two weeks ago: barely half reached the finish in Peru. The Dakar is as much a battle against the extreme terrain as the other competitors – it can be a fight for survival that unfortunately not all win.
Crashes and injuries are common, particularly in the rolling dunes and dry deserts, but still the competitors come back year after year to take on the challenge. Mud, dust, rocks, water, sand; up, down, through – though rarely round, as that would take too long…
The images from this year's running are as breath-taking as ever. It was expected to be one of the most open Dakars for some time as the dominating factory teams of Mitsubishi and Volkswagen were both absent, meaning a privateer win was likely – and Mini were favourites to take the honours.
The Minis used 3-litre diesels producing 315hp at 4,000rpm, packing plenty of the low-down torque that they'd need to power across the difficult terrain and still providing a top speed of 181kph. That's not bad when you consider the dry weight is 1900kg and it has to carry 420 litres of fuel, the driver and navigator and a whole pack of spares.
The transmission featured a Sadev six-speed shifter with an X-Trac diff and AP Racing clutch; the brakes were ventilated AP 320x32mm discs at the front and water-cooled at the rear. Rubber was supplied by BF Goodrich: 245/80R16s all round.
After the first couple of days of racing and many thousands of miles covered the gap between the leaders was still only measured in single-digit minutes. Even by the mid-point the top four were still within 20 minutes of each other – time that can disappear in a flash if a car hit trouble or got stuck.
Heavy rain and snow led to the cancellation of Stage 6, which was due to tackle the difficult Andes mountains and take the teams through from Argentina and into Chile, but the rally resumed for its final run to Peru.
Hummers, Toyotas and BMW X3CCs headed the four-wheeled challenge to Mini, but it was Peterhansel who came through to claim his tenth – that's tenth – Dakar win. This gave the Frenchman his fourth win in cars, as previously he won six times on bikes!
This year he was part of a massive five-car assault on the rally by the German All4 X-Raid Racing team, and Peterhansel controlled the rally from early on.
A couple of punctures and being stuck in a sand dune on stage 12 were the only major issues he had to deal with on his way to a 40-minute winning margin over another X-Raid Mini, that of Spanish driver Nani Roma.
Toyota picked up the final podium position, ahead of a third X-Raid Mini, but US legend Robby Gordon and his Hummer team had been pushing the Minis hard during the race (Gordon: "Minis are for girls!"), showing great pace but succumbing to too many problems to maintain their challenge. Gordon eventually finished in fifth as top Hummer runner after last year's winner and Hummer team-mate Nasser Al-Attiyah was forced to retire.
This is the first win for Mini in the Dakar, despite the original car having such a strong history in traditional rallying. All five X-Raid Minis finished, which is another amazing achievement. Peterhansel is already thinking about 2013. As they say, "After the Dakar is before the Dakar"…
Images courtesy of the X-Raid Mini Team