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Dakar Rally set for second running in South America

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – The Dakar Rally starts Saturday with 378 drivers ready to test themselves against dunes, desert and mountains in a race that is being held in South America for the second straight year because of security concerns.

The field of 138 cars, 161 motorbikes, 29 quads and 50 trucks will cover 5,610 miles of hostile terrain in a 16-stage race that begins in Argentina and crosses into Chile before finishing Jan. 16 in Buenos Aires.

Defending car champion Ginield De Villiers of South Africa leads the favorites, with NASCAR driver Robby Gordon looking to improve on his third-place finish. The 2009 champions in other categories also return: Spanish motorbike rider Marc Coma, Czech quad driver Josef Machacek and Russian truck driver Firdaus Kabirov.



The rally was moved to South America in 2009 because of the possibility of a terrorist attack in Africa. The 2008 race was canceled after the deaths of four French tourists in Mauritania in December 2007 was linked to Al-Qaida. It was the first time the rally had been suspended since the first race in 1979.

After the cancellation, organizers vowed to prevent the rally from disappearing and decided to move to South America.



The symbolic start of the race will take place Friday, with a 217-mile run from Buenos Aires to Colon.

Racing begins the following day from Colon with a 425-mile first stage to Cordoba. Drivers then head to La Rioja and Fiambala in Argentina before going to Copiapo on Jan. 5, the first Chilean city to host the Dakar, followed by Antofogasta, Iquique, La Serena and Santiago.

The race returns to Argentina, passing through San Juan, San Rafael, Santa Rosa and finally Buenos Aires. The only rest day in the 32nd edition of the Dakar Rally will be Jan. 9.

Teams from Volkswagen and BMW are the favorites. Volkswagen boasts De Villiers, as well as former world rally champion Carlos Sainz from Spain and Qatari driver Al Attiyah.

BMW will have French driver Stephane Peterhansel behind the wheel, a six-time champion on motorbikes and three-time winner in cars of the Dakar Rally in Africa, plus Nani Roma of Spain.

“The Dakar is the hardest race in the world, you have to work hard and suffer a lot,” said Roma, the 2006 winner. “But when you get to be champion, it’s worth it.”

Sainz, meanwhile, will be looking for revenge after leading last year’s race before being forced to retire following an accident.

“I’m worried about the road book being correct,” Sainz said. “It’s such a long race over so many days that you run into all sorts of obstacles. You have to be patient and prudent to solve them.”

Safety will be an important feature after Pascal Terry died in the last race. The French motorcyclist died of a pulmonary edema on Jan. 7 in the second stage between Santa Rosa and Puerto Madryn after it reportedly took several hours for him to receive help.

In another incident, Cristobal Guerrero of Spain had an accident in the 10th stage in the middle of the Atacama, the world’s most arid desert, and spent several days in a coma.

Argentine quad driver Marco Patronelli said the 2009 stage between Neuquen and San Rafael was “terrible.”

“It looked like a movie,” he said. “At the side of the road were cars on fire, trucks turned on their sides. I was thinking: ‘What’s happening here?’ The cars accelerated even when they couldn’t see anything, they didn’t care. There was a lot of irresponsibility.”

To reduce accidents, organizers have decided to make motorbikes and quads race almost 62 miles less than the other vehicles, along with special sections to avoid crashes with cars and trucks and prevent the problems from 2009.

“Those that are in the lead don’t care (about the crashes). They look the other way and carry on,” said Patronelli, who finished second in 2009. “You could be dying at the side of the road and they would pass by at top speed.”


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