The world’s wildest motorsport race just finished and announced its winners! Racers crossed the Andes into Chile on January 6th beneath the watchful cone of the world’s highest volcano, Nevado Ojos del Salado (6879m/22,563ft) in the Parque Nacional Nevado. Almost 500 competitors in some of the world’s toughest vehicles rolled through the Paso de San Francisco, an epic, arid, and almost airless border crossing that winds through the desert at 4748m (15,573ft), an altitude that can be dangerous even when it isn’t snowing.
But although this is the height of the southern hemisphere’s summer, the snow was so severe that the sixth stage of the multi-day rally was cancelled, and competitors crossed the pass (closed by Chilean and Argentine authorities to other travelers) as a caravan. “(This) raises problems in sporting terms and also frustrates the rally’s riders and crews,” said race director, Etienne Lavigne, noting that this was the first time in Dakar’s 33-year history that snow affected the race. “However, this type of event is also part and parcel of life on the Dakar.”
The Dakar Rally began in 1978 after legendary driver, Thierry Sabine, got lost in the Libyan Desert during the Abidjan-Nice Race, and decided that would be a fine spot for an endurance competition. He perished a decade later during the deadly 1986 Dakar, but the race lives on thanks to the Amaury Sport Organization, also responsible for the Tour de France and Central European Rally.
While the race was originally run from Paris, France to Dakar, Senegal, ASO was forced to cancel the 2008 run due to threats of terrorist attacks in Mauritania. In 2009, the race was moved to South America – Argentina, Chile and Peru – where it has been run ever since.
There are four vehicle classifications: motorcycles, quads, cars and trucks. All competitors run 15 “stages” (planned daily routes) through sand dunes, boulder fields, streams, the snow-capped Andes, and just about any other obstacle event planners can find. Distances of up to 900km (560mi) have to be covered each day. 2012 competitors covered some 9000km (5,600mi) between Mar de Plata, Argentina, where they set out on January 1, and Lima, Peru.
Dakar is a legendary test of both the driver and vehicle, both subjected to serious – and sometimes deadly – strains. Current car class champion, Qatari Nasser Al-Attiyah, is already just about out of the running, thanks to mechanical problems with his souped-up H3. Chile’s top contender, motorcyclist Francisco “Chaleco” Lopez, suffered a knee injury in the sand dunes outside Copiapo (best known for the high-drama 2010 San Jose Mine collapse that trapped 33 men underground) shortly after crossing into his home nation, leaving behind a two-way contest between Spain’s Marc Coma and Cyril Despres of France.
This excellent and inspiring promotional video produced by the Chilean government may have you considering a trip as well. No need to race; this isn’t just the wildest race in the world, it’s also among the most photogenic.
To see more about this year’s race visit Dakar.com, the official website of the Dakar Rally, which has all the information you need in a range of languages. This is Chile.cl, also has videos of the race (mostly in Spanish) along with commentary.