There is more to life in motorsport than just Formula 1, and at this time of year the attention turns to the Dakar Rally – the greatest automotive challenge left.
The 35th annual Dakar Rally kicked off on Sunday in the city of Rosario in Argentina, with a field of nearly 350 vehicles setting off for two weeks of adventure.
For the sixth year running the race is being held in South America and this year visits not only Argentina and Chile, but also Bolivia. The raid covers 3100 miles of some of the toughest terrain in the world and, as usual, the first three days thinned out the field in dramatic fashion with around 20 per cent of the competitors falling by the wayside, quite literally in some cases.
Notable among the retirements was Argentina's Marcos Patronelli, the leader in the Quad Bike class, who ran wide in a fast corner and had to leap to safety just before his Yamaha went over the edge into a 500-metre deep ravine.
The favourite to win the car class is France’s Stephane Peterhansel, driving one of the four Monster Energy-sponsored Minis, entered by Sven Quandt’s X-Raid organisation. Peterhansel, a five-time Dakar winner in cars (in addition to six wins on motorbikes), quickly moved to the front and was ahead of the Red Bull-sponsored SMG buggy of multiple World Rally Champion Carlos Sainz by almost half a minute after two days.
But raid rallying is never predictable and on the third day Peterhansel suffered no fewer than six punctures and dropped down the order to fifth, 24 minutes behind the new leader Nani Roma, in another of the Monster Minis. He was ahead of team-mate Orlando Terranova of Argentina with Nasser Al-Attiyah of Qatar third, also in an X-Raid Mini, but with different sponsorship.
Sainz was fourth in the SMG, which is prepared by Philippe Gache, a one-time Formula 3000 driver, who grew up racing around the streets of Avignon with his best mate Jean Alesi. Gache is a big player in raid rallying these days, entering not only a pair of SMGs but also a couple of Havals for China’s Great Wall Motor Company, one of which is running seventh thanks to the efforts of driver Christian Lavieille, a man who does not live up to his name - La Vieille translating into English as “the old lady”.
Among the others to watch is former IndyCar/NASCAR driver Robby Gordon, who is in a Hummer sponsored by his own Speed Energy drink company. He had troubles on the opening days and is well down the order.
In the bikes classification there is some excitement this year for Britain with Honda’s Sam Sunderland winning the second stage, but he then dropped down to 30th leaving Honda team Joan Barreda to battle with Yamaha’s Cyril Despres and KTM’s Marc Coma, both former winners of the event. The race continues until the survivors arrive in Valparaiso, Chile on January 18.In France the Dakar is still big news, but many of the old guard in raid rallying do not believe that the event should ever have left Africa, despite the fact that the 2008 race had to be cancelled in the wake of security threats, following the killing of four French tourists in Mauritania.
Some of the countries that were involved agreed and in 2009 the governments of Morocco, Mauretania and Senegal got together and started a Mauritanian company called Organisation de Competition et de Tourisme SARL and asked former Dakar winners Hubert Auriol and Jean-Louis Schlesser to create a new event, based on the original Paris-Dakar concept.
The result is an event called the Sonangol Africa Eco Race, which departed from the French town of St Cyprien, close to the Spanish border near Perpignan, on 29 December and will finish in Dakar on January 11. The event features 38 cars and around 30 bikes.
The Dakar organisers stopped Auriol being involved, using a non-compete clause in his contract with them that dates back to 2004; and so Schlesser has coordinated the event, handing over the operational organisation to Jean-Louis Dronne, a former pop star who used to work with Dakar founder Thierry Sabine back in the 1980s. The race director is none other than René Metge, now 71, who won the Dakar in 1981, 1984 and 1986!
The first Africa Eco-Race attracted only 20 competitors but five years on that number has risen three-fold. The event produces its own TV coverage for global distribution by Eurosport and all profits go into funding long-term projects, including the planting of 5,000 acres of trees around the city of Nouakchott, in order to protect the city from the advance of the surrounding sand dunes.
The Eco-Race also uses local service providers wherever possible. Thus far all five events have been won by Schlesser himself, driving one of his Buggys and he is ahead again this year – not bad for a man of 65.
Jean-Louis was French Touring Car Champion as long ago as 1985 and went on to race with much success, winning the World Championship with Sauber Mercedes in 1989 and 1990. He started building his own desert buggies in 1992 and won the Dakar in 1999 and 2000.
He is best remembered, however, as a Williams F1 driver at Monza in 1988 when a late-race collision with Ayrton Senna handed the victory to Ferrari and deprived McLaren of a clean sweep of victories that season.
At Monaco this year I happened to be with Schlesser when McLaren's Ron Dennis appeared. “This is the man who ruined my life,” Dennis said when he introduced Schlesser to his girlfriend.
“Bah!” replied Schlesser, “I just made sure that he remained hungry for success..."