Fourteen competitive sections and close to 3,000 flat-out miles stand between 368 competitors and possible victory on the 2010 Dakar, which starts from Buenos Aires, Argentina tomorrow.
The event, which traditionally starts on New Year's day, is running in South America for the second consecutive year, following the cancellation of the 2008 edition, which was schedule to run to the well-known African route.
Mitsubishi, winner of the event 12 times since its inception in 1979, has pulled out of cross-country racing, but Volkswagen - the marque which dominated last year's rally, is well represented with five Race Touareg's making the Buenos Aires start.
BMW returns with Team X-Raid GMBH running X3s and, while Mitsubishi might not be present officially, JMB Stradale is running five of the Racing Lancers, which were used for the first time on the 2009 Dakar.
Last year's winner, VW's Giniel de Villiers will be first of the cars away, running with number 300 on the flanks of his Race Touareg.
De Villiers said: "The anticipation immediately before the Dakar Rally starts is now very high. My co-driver Dirk and I start the rally as defending champions. This is an honour, however, on the other hand it doesn't change much.
"How we approach the tasks ahead remains the same; we'll contest the stages in a focused and patient manner in order to avoid mistakes. If we manage this we can be right at the front again this year."
His co-driver Dirk von Zitezewitz, who also celebrated his first Dakar success in 2009, added: "You notice how the tension rises. We completed the first kilometres in the car during the roll-out, the final preparations are finished.
"It's now time for the rally to start and I'm already looking forward to the first competitive stage, when the stress falls and you can finally explode in a sporting sense. Giniel and I welcome the role of defending champions very much. It provides positive pressure."
Despite just missing out on a clean sweep of last year's Dakar podium - when long-time leader Carlos Sainz fell foul of what he saw as a mistake in the organiser's roadbook - VW's motorsport director Kris Nissen says this year's event will be tougher than ever.
He said: "To return to the site of this great triumph wakes positive memories. The energy and positive anticipation before the world's toughest rally are enormously high within the team. We've never been so well prepared.
"As motorsport director I'm very confident even though it will be even more difficult than ever before to win the Dakar in 2010. We have the car, we have the team and we have the driver/co-driver pairings to win this rally again."
Having come so close last season, double World Rally Champion Carlos Sainz has only one result in mind on January 16.
"We won both the Sertoes and the Silk Way Rally. Now we want the same from the Dakar," said the Spaniard, who has a new co-driver for this event: Lucas Cruz.
Sainz continued: "The Dakar is only held once a year and it is the most important rally in our sport. Over the last few weeks and months the entire concentration was focused on the preparation. It's fine that things finally got started. Our approach is, in contrast, always identical and also the way in which my co-driver and I tackle the rallies."
Some of the fiercest competition will come from within the VW team. As well as running Race Touaregs for de Villiers and Sainz, Production Car World Rally Champion Nasser Al-Attiyah, Mark Miller and Mauricio Neves will also drive for the German firm.
Al-Attiyah said: "My goal is very clear - to win the Dakar. I've been counting down the days and hours for months until I can climb into my car. It'll be important to find the right pace. If you are too careful the competition exploits this, if you are too fast the risks at the start of the rally are especially high. So, you have to be clever. I hope that my co-driver Timo Gottschalk and I can manage this balancing act well."
While the VW team has an undoubtedly strong line-up, many are pointing to the JMB Stradale team as dark horses. The Racing Lancers have been fitted with petrol engines in place of the troublesome diesel units used by Mitsubishi last season.
The petrol engines come from the highly successful Pajeros which won seven successive Dakars between 2001 and 2007.
Carlos Sousa, Miguel Barbosa, Guilherme Spinelli, Orlando Terranova and team owner Nicholas Mislin will start in Racing Lancers.
Mislin said: "We have replaced the Lancer's diesel motor with a gas engine, because the costs of getting the most out of diesels are very high. So, we will have to try to distinguish ourselves on the difficult stages, with lots of obstacles. But there are at least 20 credible cars capable of finishing in the top 10."
Ensuring the BMWs remain a threat this year will be former Mitsubishi official driver Stephane Peterhansel. Nobody can boast a Dakar CV like the Frenchman, who has won this event six times on a motorbike and three times in a car. Joining Peterhansel in an X3 will be his former Mitsubishi colleague Nani Roma and Guerlain Chicherit.
The Dakar's first competitive action starts from Colon on January 2. The event runs through west from Buenos Aires and crosses into Chile on January 5. The crews will cross the Atacama Desert - the driest place on earth, where it's reckoned it didn't rain for more than 400 years - four times.
They return to Argentina on January 13 and arrive back on the Atlantic coast in BA on January 16. Splitting the 14 days of competition is just one rest day, on January 9, in Antofagasta.
2010 Dakar router
January 1: Buenos Aires - Colon 317km (0 competitive) January 2: Colon - Cordoba 684km (251 competitive) January 3: Cordoba - La Rioja 687km (355 competitive) January 4: La Rioja - Fiambala 441km (182 competitive) January 5: Fiambala - Copiapo 629km (203 competitive) January 6: Copiapo - Antofagasta 670km (483 competitive) January 7: Antofagasta - Iquique 598km (418 competitive) January 8: Iquique - Antofagasta 641km (600 competitive) January 9: Antofagasta rest day January 10: Antofagasta - Copiapo 568km (472 competitive) January 11: Copiapo - La Serena 547km (338 competitive) January 12: La Serena - Santiago 586km (238 competitive) January 13: Santiago - San Juan 434km (220 competitive) January 14: San Juan - San Rafael 796km (476 competitive) January 15: San Rafael - Santa Rosa 725km (368 competitive) January 16: Santa Rosa - Buenos Aires 707km (206 competitive)