Stephane Peterhansel will set out from Buenos Aires on Friday in his quest for a historic tenth victory in the Dakar Rally. A former motorbike rider, the Frenchman won the event's motorbike class six times before switching to cars to win titles in 2004, 2005 and 2007. He was the favourite to win a year ago before the event was scrapped for the first time in its 30-year history after four French tourists were murdered in Mauritania. On-going security fears have seen the event relocated to South America this year, with competitors tackling 9,000 kilometres over the course of just 16 days.
And Peterhansel, 44, warned he would be just as competitive over the new terrain as he was in the event's more traditional African base. "For me, the move to South America doesn't mean the event loses any of its character," he said. "I still think it will be a very difficult race, with dunes and hard stages. Maybe in the past I have managed to take advantage of the sand dunes in Mauritania but I still feel this will be a close and exciting race. I'm going there to win."
Peterhansel heads up the Mitsubishi team, which is bidding for an eighth consecutive win on the event. The team also boast three other former champions in their ranks: 2006 overall winner and former downhill skier Luc Alphand, 2002-3 champion Hiroshi Masuoka and former motorcycle champion Joan Roma, who has switched to four wheels. The biggest challenge from a field made up of 230 motorcycles, 188 cars, 82 trucks and 30 4x4s is expected to come from Volkswagen.
The former World Rally Champion Carlos Sainz, who arguably knows the Argentine terrain better than the rest of the field from his world rallying days, heads up the VW bid. However, he brushed off the advantage ahead of today's start, warning, "that's very different to the Dakar. None of my past rallies of Argentina will really count for anything". For starters, the risk is far greater, with 48 competitors having lost their lives in the event's history.
The prestigious motorbike class is expected to be a head to head between Cyril Despres and Marc Coma, who between them have two of the last three Dakars on two wheels, and Despres insisted he had one solitary goal. "As far as finishing is concerned, my firm intention is to be at the very top of the podium," said Despres. "I'm sure Marc will be my main rival - wherever we race in the world, it is usually between me and him and I can't see that being any different. That's fine by me."
Despres has been passing on tips to some of the amateur riders in the field, among them former France rugby international Christian Califano, who is tackling the event for the first time in the motorbike class. Califano is one of just 530 crews entered from a variety of backgrounds. Others include an Australian grape grower, an Argentine who is so committed he has already has his race number tattoed on his arm and a Spanish paraplegic.
Esteve Pujol has entered 20 Dakars on a motorbike but will tackle it on four wheels this year in a specially adapted car after a serious accident in March 2007 left him severely disabled. He said: "Today my life is different. It isn't better or worse. For me, the accident wasn't the end of something but just the start of a new period. I'm looking forward to this new Dakar." Many of those entered are unlikely to complete the course through Argentina and Chile, which takes in Patagonia, the Andes mountains and routes along the Pacific Coast and through the Atacama Desert.