Shortly after New Year, on January 6th, the 29th edition of the Dakar Rally will traditionally kick off the 2007 motor sport season. Ever since the first event ‘The Dakar’ has been the most grueling test for both man and machine, whereby for bike competitors things are quite a bit rougher then for the car drivers. For the second time in the event’s history the caravan will start from the Portuguese capital Lisbon, when a total of 525 competitors from 42 nationalities will embark on the intimidating journey across some of the toughest desert landscapes on earth.
Formerly known as the Paris-Dakar, the current race is the lasting legacy of one man and his dream: the pioneering French motorcycle racer, late Thierry Sabine. Back in 1977, Sabine was a bike competitor on the tough Abidjan-Nice rally who stranded in the deep Libyan sands. Although he was defeated by the challenging conditions, Sabine fell in love with the harsh beauty of the desert and vowed he would return. One year later, on December 1978, Sabine’s unique event was ready and the first Paris-Dakar took off from Place du Trocadéro in Paris. Since then the event has withstood many challenging issues mostly connected with safety and politics. In 1986 the number of entrants soared to 603, while the event nearly perished in 1993 when only 154 competitors enlisted. Since that low point the Dakar has recovered year by year and although both the name and the routes have changed, the spirit of the original event lives on. Sabine’s vision says it all; ‘it’s a ‘challenge to those who go; a dream for those who stay behind.’
Yamaha is the most victorious motorcycle manufacturer with nine overall victories and has been involved in the rally from the very beginning. At the tender age 21 years old Cyril Neveu won the first event on the iconic XT500, a feat he repeated in the following year. The Dakar’s most successful competitor, Stephan Peterhansel, made the biggest contribution to Yamaha’s victory tally which consists out of the following victories;
1979 Cyril Neveu (F)
1980 Cyril Neveu
1991 Stephan Peterhansel (F)
1992 Stephan Peterhansel
1993 Stephan Peterhansel
1995 Stephan Peterhansel
1996 Edi Orioli (I)
1997 Stephan Peterhansel
1998 Stephan Peterhansel
After Peterhansel’s last win Yamaha withdrew officially from the rally to return to the event five years later putting their latest groundbreaking technology to the ultimate endurance test. Back then Dakar rookie David Frétigné caused a stir by winning three stages as he challenged the big capacity twin cylinder bikes on his revolutionary WR450F 2-Trac mono cylinder, the first off-road competition motorcycle to have two-wheel drive. “Fretos” convincingly won the 450 class in 2004 and 2005, but on the many long ‘flat-out’ desert stretches the lower top speed of a 450 single cylinder prevents it to fight for the overall victory, yet Frétigné managed to finish fifth overall in 2005.
For this year’s edition Frétigné (#12) is again one of Yamaha’s favorites, although he saw his participation endangered when his new Spanish team failed to put together a competitive team. With two months to go, Yamaha and other loyal sponsors came to David’s aid enabling him to organize his own set up. With the support of long term technical partner Franck Helbert, Frétigné is confident to score a career best result; “On paper, one can’t win with a 450, but I still aim for podium finishes. With the imposed top speed of 160 km/h for bikes on some of the very fast stretches, two stages where no technical assistance is allowed and the 450cc bonus points system, we can challenge the factory teams with the bigger bikes. If we are smart in terms of management and race strategy we might be able to close the performance gap completely
From the 230 motorcyclists, 57 will be equipped with WR450F machines in either 2-trac or rear wheel drive specification. Some other competitors to look out for are the 27-year-old Portuguese rider Helder Rodriques (#10), who scored a ninth position finish overall in 2006. Yamaha Team Holland fields a strong effort with five times sidecar world champion Daniel Willemsen (#233), who looks forward to enter his first Dakar participation, while Daniel’s team mate Mirjam Pol (#93) aims to go one better after finishing second in the female class last year.
What is sure is that the majority of the starters will not make it to the finish, while the skilled and fortunate ones will see their superhuman efforts rewarded when they ride on the Dakar beach, the traditional finish of the monster event. On the 21st of January after 7.915 km, including 4.309 km of timed special stages we will know who made it and who didn’t.