The 37th Dakar Rally gets underway on Sunday with 406 vehicles facing a 9,000km odyssey through Argentina, Chile and Bolivia and with competitors ranging from 18 years of age to 73.
There may not have been a repeat of the 600,000 spectators who watched the eve of race parade through the streets of Buenos Aires when the epic event was transplanted from Africa in 2009, but Al Jazeera correspondent Andrew Simmons said anticipation of the first stage was reaching fever pitch.
“The crowd don’t really need warming up, there’s an amazing atmosphere here,” he said. “Argentinians love the event – it’s second to football it seems.
“The event is absolutely gruelling – there’s more than 9,000km of salt flats, deserts, ravines, mountains. It’s an event that has its origins in Africa but it’s really been adopted by the Latin Americans now.”
“It’s the country of Juan Manuel Fangio,” said David Castera, the event’s sporting director in reference to the country’s legendary five-time world motor racing champion.
|The Mini of Nasser Al-Attiyah finished third last year but the Qatari Olympian was champion with VW in 2011 [Getty Images]|
“In each town, in each village, there is an autodrome, a real passion for motor sports.”
Saturday’s parade featured defending champions Nani Roma of Mini and Marc Coma on a KTM.
Former champions – and challengers again in 2015 – Stephane Peterhansel, Cyril Despres and Carlos Sainz were also on hand as members of the powerful Peugeot team which is making its return to the Dakar after 25 years.
The biggest cheer was reserved for Orlando Terranova, the Argentine driver who is also expected to be amongst the front runners with the factory Mini squad which swept the podium in 2014.
But there are other winners in that team.
Mini driver Nasser Al-Attiyah finished third last time, having been champion with Volkswagen in 2011 – a year before he won a bronze medal in skeet shooting for Qatar at the London 2012 Olympics.
Three days of scrutineering in the Argentine capital saw eight vehicles – one car, three quads, three motorcycles and a lorry – ruled out of the race which will cross the Andes as well as the deserts of Chile and Bolivia.
In all there are 13 stages with the finish set for Buenos Aires on January 17.
Peugeot may boast the biggest budget and a trio of former champions, but race director Etienne Lavigne insisted that does not guarantee success.
Recalling how it took Volkswagen four years to record a first victory in 2009, the race chief said: “They have the best drivers, that’s for sure, but just this isn’t enough.”
Peugeot and Mini will be the overwhelming favourites, but there are other potential headline makers.
Catherine Houles and Sandrine Ridet make up the only all-female team while Spanish alternative technology giants Acciona sponsor a 100 percent electric vehicle.
Santosh Chunchunguppe Shivashankar, alias CS Santosh, is India’s first ever representative and he will be riding a KTM motorcycle.
Jorge Lacunza is an 18-year-old rider while 73-year-old lorry driver Yoshimasa Sugawara is starting his 32nd Dakar.
Sunday’s first stage will be over 838km from the capital to Villa Carlos Paz but only 175km will be timed.
The serious racing begins on Monday with the longest stage of 625km of which 518km is against the clock.