Dakar rally gets tougher

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The 30th Dakar rally begins Saturday in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, with organizers raising the bar for what was already the world's toughest endurance race on wheels.

3rd January 2008

"It's going to be a real Dakar again," said Etienne Lavigne, the French director of the event, with relish.

The fact that 300 of last year's 490 entrants finished the event was a sign for Lavigne that the rally was perhaps getting a bit too easy.

So now the organizers have increased the overall distance by 17 per cent to 9,273 kilometres, with the number of kilometres raced over 15 stages up by 33 per cent to 5,736 kilometres.

There will be more competitors - up 60 to 570 - and there is going to be far more desert sand to endure, with eight of the stages running through the Mauritanian Sahara.

Organizers have only just given the green light to the Mauritania stages after already cancelling two stages originally planned for Mali following concerns of instability in the west African country.

But they have now dismissed any security fears for Mauritania after recent attacks, although to be on the safe side Mauritania is to mobilise some 4,000 police and soldiers to monitor the rally.

"The security situation is back on track," Lavigne said.

"The Mauritanian government has assured us they will be doing everything for the security of the participants during the rally in Mauritania and this goes for our part too."

The rally, however, remains controversial, with a total of 55 fatalities in the history of the event, among them 25 competitors. Last year's race was marred by the deaths of two bikers, the South African Elmer Symons and Frenchman Eric Aubijoux.

After the first two stages in Portgual, this year's rally - featuring cars, motorcycles, trucks and quads from about 50 countries - winds through Morocco and Mauritania before reaching Dakar in Senegal on January 20.

In the car race, Mitsubishi are seeking an eighth successive title, with Stephane Peterhansel of France looking for a fourth victory behind the wheel of a car and a 10th Dakar victory in all.

He can again expect a tough challenge from fellow Mitsubishi driver Luc Alphand of France, the 2006 winner and last year's runner-up. Two-time winner Hiroshi Masuoka from Japan and Spaniard Nani Roma, another former bike competitor, complete the team.

Volkswagen meanwhile hope to challenge with two-time world rally champion Carlos Sainz, partnered by Frenchman Michel Perin, the American Mark Millar - fourth last year - and the South African duo Giniel de Villiers and Dirk von Zitwewitz.

VW, running the diesel-powered works Race Touareg 2, also have hopes for three-time German rally champion Dieter Depping, who is making his Dakar debut.

Sainz, who won five stages of last year's Dakar Rally, but finished ninth after mechanical problems, said in view of the sandy stages in Mauritania this year's race will be "a real challenge" for both the drivers and their vehicles.

The stages in Mauritania from January 11-19 will hold the key to the race. "Victory will be played out during these stages," he said.

The bike race will meanwhile see Frenchman Cyril Despres seeking another victory following his 2007 triumph for what would be his third title in four years.


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