Wednesday, March 8, 2017

This Year in Motorsport: Rally Monkey

38th Dakar Rally
Monday thru Saturday, 2-14 January 2017

In many ways, this year's running of the legendary, relocated Dakar Rally was a humdrum affair. New Year's Day falling on a Sunday resulted in the disappointing decision to shorten the Dakar to just twelve stages. Of that paltry dozen, in keeping with current fashion the first & last stages were short, relatively flat, & easily navigable sprints, not lengthy, tortuous, grueling Dakar stages. Of the ten true stages, two were shortened by weather & two were cancelled outright. So, the "mighty" Dakar consisted of a measly six stages. The weather cancellations were not voluntary & I do not mean to make light of them; torrential rain fell upon drought-blighted areas, resulting in flooding & a landslide that buried an entire village in Argentina. Lives were lost. But with all the interruptions leaving only so few competitive stages to be run, even by the end of the not-quite-fortnightly journey it felt as if the Dakar had only just begun. (Obviously, that opinion was formed in the comfort of my easy chair, not from a dirty cockpit hurling through the Patagonian countryside & the high Andes at speed.)

There was also a lack of competition in both the Bikes & Cars categories. Peugeot swept the Cars podium, with "Monsieur Dakar," Stéphane Peterhansel, securing his preposterous thirteenth Dakar victory (six on Bikes & now seven in Cars) over second-year Dakar competitor, & nine-time World Rally Champion, Sébastien Loeb by a paltry five minutes; five-time Dakar winner Cyril Despres (all on Bikes) rounded out the French marque's triumph. In Bikes, due to a team strategy error, all of the Hondas were handed a one-hour time penalty, severely dampening their chances of victory. K.T.M.'s Toby Price, the 2016 Bikes winner, crashed out with the broken femur; his K.T.M. teammates than endured to sweep the podium, with Sam Sunderland earning his maiden Dakar title. Honda's Joan "Bang Bang" Barreda finished forty-three minutes in arrears of Sunderland, leaving all to wonder what might have been without the Hondas' one-hour penalty.

A fierce battle in Trucks between the Russian "Kamaz Army" & two-time winner Gerard de Rooy's Iveco squad saw Kamaz return to the top two steps of the podium, with Eduard Nikolaev winning his second Dakar as a driver, his third overall. (Each behemoth truck boasts a crew of three: driver, co-driver, & mechanic.) All the favorites in Quads ran into difficulties early & often, leaving Sergey Karyakin to claim a maiden victory aboard his Yamaha. (This year also saw the introduction of a new category, U.T.V.s, which received almost no television coverage on the N.B.C. Sports Network.)

Attrition was low in this year's Dakar, befitting the dramatically shortened course. In no category did less than fifty-nine per cent (59%) of entrants finish the rally, & a ridiculous ninety per cent (90%) of the Trucks competitors were still in it at the end. I'm not pleased to see anyone crash out, but the Dakar is meant to be the world's most grueling test of man & machine, not just a time trial. Ninety per cent is an unusually high finish rate for a Formula One grand prix; it is quite simply embarrassing for the supposedly intimidating Dakar Rally.

Cars: 58 of 79 (73%)
Bikes: 97 of 143 (68%)
Trucks: 45 of 50 (90%)
Quads: 22 of 37 (59%)
U.T.V.s: 5 of 8 (63%)

Overall: 249 of 317 (72%)

I'm looking forward to the thirty-ninth running of Dakar, scheduled for January 2018, but for the first time I'm looking forward with jaundiced caution, instead of with unbridled glee. A certain trust was broken this year; a certain luster has been lost, though I am not prepared to stipulate that it cannot be recovered. More stages! Harder stages! A Dakar worthy of the name, even if it does not conclude in Dakar, Senegal. (Given the ongoing threat of jihadist terrorism, it is not at present feasible to return to the original Paris to Dakar course through the Sahara Desert.)

2017 World Rally Championship
I would love to be actively following the World Rally Championship (W.R.C.), especially in light of a twofold shake up. Teams: Quadruple World Champion manufacturer Volkswagen withdrew from the sport, part of the continuing fallout from the V.W. emissions scandal, while Toyota & Citroën reentered as full-time competitors alongside Ford & Hyundai. There are also new World Rally Car regulations for 2017, allowing for the glorious combination of greater engine power (torque & horsepower) & increased grip (mechanical & aerodynamic), which should result in higher speeds & greater overall awesomeness. Alas, I have been unable to discover any U.S. television coverage of the W.R.C.! To this point, I have never found the available online coverage to be a worthy substitute for traditional T.V. coverage, but these are desperate times that might just call for desperate measures.

Two rallies have been run so far this year, Monte Carlo & Sweden; Mexico is coming up this very weekend, 10-12 March. I franlly don't have the time, but I might just have to make the time to make an effort. I sleep too much anyway.

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