Dakar. One word which means everything. Everything except the capital of Senegal, that is.
Dakar is the start of the season. It's those amazing television pictures of cars, bikes and trucks flying through the dunes, howling along the desert floor or picking their way past Charles Bronson on what looks like the set of Once Upon a Time in the West.
Whether you're a Dakar die-hard or just marking time until Melbourne, you can't ignore this great event. This year's event is going to be slightly different, without the massive Volkswagen effort which has gone into winning the marathon for the last three years. But the fact that Carlos Sainz won't be trading times in a Race Touareg hasn't deterred almost 500 others from joining the fun.
There might not be any pure factory-entered cars, but there will be supported cars from Mini, BMW, Volvo and Hummer. And there will be three former winners in the shape of Stephane Peterhansel, Nasser Al-Attiyah and Giniel de Villiers.
But, let's face it, this event's not really about the cut and thrust of competition. Granted, there have been some extraordinarily close finishes in years gone by, but the Dakar is about the stories which come from two weeks on the planet's most inhospitable roads.
First run in 1979 and known originally as the Paris to Dakar Rally, the event has evolved considerably since then. No longer does it start in Paris or finish in Dakar. The name remained, despite the Amaury Sport Organisation's (ASO) decision to ship the whole event across the Atlantic to run it across South America, having become tired of the consistent threat from one North African terrorist group or another.
The Dakar was the brainchild of one man, Thierry Sabine. This French motorbike racer got lost during the Abidjan-Nice race in 1978. It was while he searched for his way out of Libyan Desert that he conceived a race from the centre of Europe to the city furthest west in Africa.
Sabine's stated aim for his new venture was: "To cause those who stay behind to dream."
Dakar Rally 2010. VW Race Toureg in action over the notorious dunes
The following year, the deal was done and Range Rover driver Alain Genestier claimed a maiden victory in the car category, while Cyril Neveu won the first bike race.
Much as the car drivers are heroes, it's the boys and girls on the bikes who are the superheroes. Or extreme mentalists. Depending on what you do on your days off.
These riders set out an hour or so ahead of the cars and then pick their way through the desert with one eye on the roadbook and one eye on the road ahead. And let's not forget that road is often passing beneath their two wheels at close to 100mph. And, when that track-trained one eye fails to spot an errant rock at such speeds, they fall off.
And when they fall, they'd better haul their broken bones out of the way sharpish because the cars will be coming through moments later. And if the cars don't get them, then the trucks will be following soon after...
The bike section remains the most popular this year, with 188 people deciding to spend the next two weeks standing on their pegs wondering where they're going and why they've decided baking themselves alive inside some shiny Alpinestars overalls. For the record, there are 173 cars starting, 32 quad bikes and 76 trucks.
And it will be hot for them all.
Hotter and drier, in fact than any of us can possibly imagine. This is because the route crosses the Atacama Desert, officially the world's driest place. It hasn't rained here.
Were you expecting that last sentence to have another part? Did you think I missed something out? I didn't.
There are weather stations in the Atacama Desert which have never been rained on. The official average for Antofagasta is a millimetr a year, similar to the hourly average in Aberystwyth.
Chile and Atacama provide some of the toughest competitve stages anywhere in the world
Chile and its Atacama nightmare provide some of the toughest competition on the event, but it's the world's longest continental mountain range which provides the backbone of Dakar. Crossing the Andes and moving from Argentina to Chile provides an emotional as well as sporting occasion.
Even when you're talking to as fierce a competitor as Carlos Sainz about this kind of thing, you can still see the way these journeys have moved him. Driving through this kind of terrain puts you in your place and hammers home the realities of the wider world.
This year the start of the event has moved further south in Argentina, away from Buenos Aires to the resort town of Mar del Plata. The seaside town, which hosted games in the 1978 Word Cup, has 56,000 hotel rooms - 5,000 more than BA and a good chunk of the 440,000 available nationwide.
On day two, the Dakar crews will touch briefly on the Rally Argentina territory of Santa Rosa before heading north and trekking through the foothills of the Andes before returning to a westerly setting for Friday's (January 6) run out of Fiambala. The crews will cross the border from Argentina to Chile at 4,700 metres, where the achingly hot Atlantic-side temperatures will be replaced by a dip below freezing point.
From then on, however, it's downhill all the way to the sea. The Pacific, that is. And by Tuesday (January 10) the crews will be cascading down that final mountain of sand into Iquique.
And boy, will they be pleased to see the sea; largely because it will mean the end of the event's longest section. Stage eight runs from Antofagasta to Iquique and includes a fast stretch from the start, before some of the toughest navigation sorts the men from the boys in the last hundred or so miles.
It's sentences like that which mark the Dakar out.
The last hundred or so miles...
Oh, yes. Don't forget, this is the big one. We're crossing South America here, not the work of a moment. The route for the year's first major motorsport event is 5,500 miles and the biggest day of the 15 to come is stage eight. The good news is that the liaison section is only five miles long. But the competition goes on for 350 miles.
I know, 350 miles!
I wrote a story about the 2012 Rally Argentina and how the organisers of the event had gone all radical with the longest route in the recent history of the World Rally Championship. And Nasser, Stephane and their mates will do the same distance in a day...
Everything's relative, though. If you think this is a tough Dakar, it's nothing (well, not quite nothing...) compared with the 1994 event - which went from Paris to Dakar. And then back to Paris.
This was the first year the event was run by ASO rather than the Thierry Sabine Organisation. Sabine himself had died in a helicopter crash mid-way through the 1986 Dakar.
It's not all sand and dunes in the Dakar
The new organiser was keen to shake things up and put event more endurance into the world's most arduous endurance rally. So, the ASO hit the ground with Paris-Dakar-Paris. Granted, the route was a pretty linear, crow-flying dash through France, Spain, Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania and Senegal - as opposed to the previous year, which had delved deeply into Algeria. But, in 1993, when Bruno Saby and his victorious Mitsubishi team arrived on the shores of the Lake Rose after 15 days and 5,500 miles, the celebrations began.
Twelve months on from that and, 15 days in, there was another week and 3,000 miles to go. The good news for the Frenchies that year was that, as the battle weary crews wound their way back up Europe, there were a brace of Citroens out front. The bad news was that the planned victorious run up the Champs Elysees had to be canned after the Parisian mayor kicked off about the disturbance the event brought to the capital city.
It was no surprise the next two Dakars started from Granada in Spain, while some of the following editions shunned Europe entirely, such as the 1997 Dakar-Agadez-Dakar or the 2000 event, running right across the top of Africa from Dakar to Cairo.
That's the Dakar for you. It's quite simply insane. It doesn't make sense. But at the same time, the season wouldn't have started without it. It's a genuine hero-maker of an event - one of the last great, great races.
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