No wonder he earned the nickname “Mr Dakar”. Stephane Peterhansel gave the world of rally enthusiasts and professionals another lesson on how to win the most difficult cross country rally on earth. Twelve stages crossing Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina with a total of 8,818 km of the harshest motorsport challenge, starring man and machine against Mother Nature, the Frenchman, who won his seventh title since he started racing in the car category, continued to add to his legend.
The 39th edition of the historic motor sport event continues to build on the great legacy of the rally first known as the Paris Dakar, founded in 1978 by Amaury Sport Organisation, with its original route being Paris, Dakar and Mauritania. But with the unstable political events in Africa, the organisers had to take the rally to South America.
This year, in the cars overall, fierce battles were expected among the three determined manufacturers Peugeot, Toyota and Mini. With big names behind the wheels like Peterhansel, Sebastien Loeb and Carlos Sainz, each driving a Peugeot buggy, Nasser Al-Attiyah on the Toyota Hilux Evo and Yazid Al-Rajhi and Mikko Hirvonen each driving a Mini, hopes were high among all camps.
A total of 491 competitors from 59 countries competed in 316 vehicles broken down into five general categories: 73 cars, 10 UTVs, 146 bikes, 37 quads and 50 trucks, ready to test their guts through 12 days from 2 to 14 January 2017.
Right from the start of stage one, Al-Attiyah was on fire, driving the Hilux Evo as if he was racing in the WRC, trying to recapture his glory moments when he won Dakar in 2011. The fans were thrilled with Al-Attiyah’s driving as he pushed hard on the car to lead the overall standings. Unfortunately, only 10 kilometres before the finish of stage one, his engine caught fire. He knew it was the end of his 2017 Dakar.
Another blow for the Arabs was meted out to the Saudi driver Al-Rajhi who started the rally ill. Al-Rajhi hoped he would get better but no such luck. It prevented him from completing a stage, which meant leaving the competition, continuing as an assistance car for his Mini teammates.
Peterhansel and Loeb were way behind the podium battle from the start but that was never the time to judge. They were just waiting for the best moment to attack while Sainz managed to finish fourth in stage one. Dakar 2016 was the first for Loeb, the nine-time WRC champion. The French ace came to the rally with the WRC mindset and didn’t have the enough experience for the rally raid, which ruled him out early with a big accident. This year the difference in his attitude was noticeable with better pace and a combination of speed and safe driving.
That was not the case with the more experienced Sainz who suffered a crash on the fourth stage, rolling over a cliff while he was attacking a corner, going a little over the limit, to end his fight in the race.
With drama refusing to take a break in the 2017 Dakar, the title holder in the bikes category, the Australian Toby Price suffered a fracture after he fell off his bike and had to fly back and leave the rally. That gave the talented British biker Sam Sunderland the chance to prove how badly he wants the title.
And with maximum concentration, Sunderland managed to be consistent through all the stages, focusing on doing his best despite finishing fifth in the 11th stage. But he managed to push hard and win the rally in the 12th stage only a couple of minutes behind the runner up, the Australian Walkner who received a five-minute penalty in stage 12. With this historic win, Sunderland wrote history to be the first ever Briton to win the bikes category, at age 27.
“Loeb is ready to win Dakar this year,” said Peterhansel. Mr Dakar saw the performance of Loeb only five stages from the start but that was enough.
Loeb was going sharp with total control and concentration with his co-pilot Daniel Elena.
Loeb concentrated on taking advantage of fast stages that looked like WRC in which he had the upper hand over Peterhansel, a fact that made him win several stages through the end, leading the overall standings. However, he was unlucky in some decisive sectors through the rally, especially stage 11 where he was expected to fly, but suffered a puncture early in the stage, giving Peterhansel the chance to take command to win the Dakar 2017.