For Aussies, this year's Dakar Rally was all about the breakthrough win by our own Toby Price in the motorcycle division, but in the car section, another milestone was achieved, with Stephane Peterhansel winning his twelfth Dakar (across motorcycle and car categories) and Peugeot claiming their first win in the marathon event since 1990.
As previously reported in JUST 4x4s' News pages, concerns over the impact of the El Nino weather pattern saw both Chile and Peru abandon their participation in the 2016 Dakar, leaving the hosting to Argentina and Bolivia. This, in turn, led to a major restructure of the event route, with a number of stages consisting of "loops" that started and finished in the same town or region.
A number of these daily tests were seen by some as being more like a World Rally Championship stage than a typical Dakar rally-raid stage. This, of course, suited a number of competitors, and one particular Dakar debutante, right down to the ground.
The 2016 Dakar already featured an all-star lineup in the car category, including past victors Stephane Peterhansel (5 wins and now in his second year with Peugeot), Carlos Sainz (1 win), Nasser al-Attiyah (2 wins), Giniel de Villiers (1 win) and Nani Roma (1 win). However, all were eclipsed by the arrival of Sebastien Loeb.
The nine-time World Rally Champion was making his Dakar debut in 2016 alongside Peterhansel, Sainz and multiple motorcycle division champion Cyril Despres in a strong Peugeot lineup.
The French manufacturer had made a fairly dismal debut with their '2008 DKR' 2WD turbo-diesel racer last year, but came to the 2016 event better prepared and more confident in taking on the X-Raid Mini squad that had claimed victory for the past four years. A dozen of the Mini ALL4 Racing machines were entered this year, with the likes of al-Attiyah, Roma, Orlando Terranova (making the switch from Toyota) and Mikko Hirvonen all saddling up the German-built 4WD machines. Like Loeb, Hirvonen has WRC pedigree and was also making his Dakar debut.
Given the nature of this year's route, as well as his performance in lead-up events to the South American enduro, much was expected of Loeb, and when the event got underway, the Frenchman didn't disappoint.
The 9,500km event started in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on 2 January with a short 11km prologue that was marred by an accident that injured spectators. The following day, the first stage was cancelled by bad weather, which meant the Dakar didn't properly get underway until Stage 2 on 4 January, where Loeb took a debut win, despite losing time when bogged. Peterhansel finished second and Russia's Vladimir Vasilyev (Toyota) third.
The WRC-like stage, with no serious navigation required, also suited Hirvonen, who finished fifth on the stage, while Sainz lost eleven minutes with unidentified engine problems. Roma and 'hometown hero' Terranova also stumbled at the first hurdle, getting bogged.
Stage 3 was more of the same, with Loeb winning the day and extending his lead in the overall standings to over five minutes.
Stage 4, the first of a two-day marathon section and the first "real" Dakar stage, was a 429km loop in Jujuy, followed by a 327km stint the day after that crossed the border to Uyuni in Bolivia. Here, the Peugeots really showed their pace and their improved adaptation to operating at altitude.
Also on this stage, the experienced Dakar campaigners showed that navigation is just as important as speed. In his first real test on a marathon stage, Loeb and navigator Daniel Elena stumbled a couple of times, which allowed Peterhansel to take the stage win ahead of Sainz, but Loeb was close behind in third. Unable to match the pace of the Peugeots, and also showing caution on a stage where service support vehicles weren't allowed, al-Attiyah finished fourth, ahead of Despres.
Loeb was the star again on Stage 5, winning comfortably, while familiar faces in the form of Sainz, Peterhansel and al-Attiyah filled the places behind. With a margin of almost eight minutes over Peterhansel, and Sainz a further five minutes back, Loeb was looking a possibility for a win on debut, but Dakar can bite even the most experienced competitors and bad luck is often just a sand dune, river or mud hole away.
Loeb Stumbles, Peterhansel Strides
Stage 6 was another loop, this 542km monster starting and finishing in Uyuni as the 2016 Dakar course pressed deep into the Bolivian Andes.
The bad luck that had plagued Sainz earlier struck Loeb on this stage, with two punctures, a stuck throttle, faulty electronics and lots and lots of "fesh-fesh" dust (a fine, powder-like sand known as "guadel" in South America) for the following cars. The day's victory, as well as the overall lead, went to Peterhansel, although the margin was a narrow 27 seconds. Loeb's mechanical problems had also affected Despres the previous day, causing concern in the Peugeot Sport camp that reliability may be the 2008 DKR's Achilles heel.
While the Peugeot drivers traded positions in both the daily and general classifications, al-Attiyah remained in the hunt, 15 minutes down in the general classification and still in with a chance of victory.
The final stage before the rest day at Salta, Stage 7 saw more dust and extreme temperatures of 45 degrees that led to a shortening of the 337km stage for the motorcycle and quad competitors.
Further mechanical troubles for Loeb, this time with the turbo management system, were compounded by a navigational error, but the Frenchman still managed to win the stage and retake the overall lead. Peterhansel also made a minor navigational error and admitted he drove overcautiously, allowing both Sainz and Loeb to finish the stage ahead of him.
Speaking ahead of the rest day (on 10 January), Loeb said the next three stages – with longer off-course sections and requiring more precise navigation - were tricky and packed with pitfalls. Those words would prove prophetic. . . .
The Dream Ends
After winning stages 2 to 7, Peugeot's run came to an end on Stage 8, and so did Loeb's.
Back in Argentina, the 393 kilometre stage favoured the four-wheel drive vehicles, as well as the experienced campaigners. Of those, al-Attiyah won the day. The 2011 and 2015 champion had a lead of almost six minutes over Peterhansel at one point, but as the Qatari had stated previously, the Peugeots are fast. By the end of the stage, al-Attiyah's win over Sainz was by a mere 12 seconds, with Peterhansel 31 seconds behind, despite engine overheating problems.
Loeb, faced with his first real test in the dunes and camel grass, got caught in the sand early, giving up the stage lead to his team mates. Then, running at pace to catch the leaders and only 10 kilometres from the stage conclusion, Loeb missed a small dip in a "rio" (dried riverbed) that sent the Peugeot into a series of spectacular barrel rolls. Unhurt, Loeb and Elena then lost further time replacing two wrecked wheels and a damaged transmission, hobbling to the end of the day's stage minus most of their bodywork, too.
That crash ended Loeb's chance of the overall win, with the frustration obvious in his post-stage interview. However, the Frenchman acknowledged that he'd led most of the first week and now had to focus on completing the rally and assisting his team mates where required.
Thanks to Loeb's misfortune, Peterhansel took the overall lead, with a margin of 2 minutes 9 seconds over Sainz, al-Attiyah almost 15 minutes back in third.
A second, 285km day in the dunes on Stage 9 was shortened due to extreme heat and concern over heat exhaustion. Before the early finish, the Minis were starting to make their move, with only Sainz able to repel the challenge of the four-wheel drives. The Spaniard won the shortened stage by 10 seconds from Erik van Loon, with Hirvonen third – his best stage result of the event to that point.
The Minis were strong from the start on this stage, but the early curtain on the day's competition prompted doubts about whether they could truly challenge for overall victory in the remaining stages.
Al-Attiyah remained hopeful, however, despite a poor result on this stage and no closing of the gap to the leaders.
Peterhansel, again claiming overheating problems, surrendered the overall lead to Sainz on Stage 9, while Loeb was caught out in the dunes again and finished more than an hour behind.
"Mr. Dakar" Comes to the Fore
On 13 January, Stage 10's 245km Belen to La Rioja special was marked by heavy crashes for van Loon and al-Attiyah soon after the start, while Loeb crashed later in the stage after a couple of punctures and getting stuck in the sand - again.
Sainz's hopes of a second Dakar win came unstuck when a puncture was followed by a navigation problem, then a transmission connection failed and the Spaniard's Dakar was done.
Peterhansel, fearing his race was also done after experiencing a puncture and the same navigation problems as Sainz, managed to compose himself and simply flew through the rest of the stage. Easily scoring the day's win over Despres, Peterhansel was the big winner out of the Stage 10 carnage, now with a lead of more than an hour over al-Attiyah. Sainz's retirement elevated de Villiers into third and Hirvonen into fourth, with the Finn a possibility to finish his first Dakar on the podium with three stages remaining.
Despite having no real chance of securing the overall victory, al-Attiyah fought on, winning a long (431km) and dusty Stage 11 ahead of Loeb in conditions that better favoured the WRC star. This was backed up by Hirvonen's third place on the stage. Al-Attiyah broke a driveshaft close to the stage's conclusion, so was running 2WD for a time, while Loeb was actually towed across the line by team mate Despres due to a broken transmission two kilometres from the end of the stage.
Peterhansel, able to concede ground, finished the stage in fourth and gave up only eight minutes of his hour lead in the overall classification. The Frenchman refused to embrace his likely victory, though, saying there was still time to lose the rally. The real interest lay behind him, with only five minutes separating third-placed de Villiers and Hirvonen.
Victory in Sight
The penultimate 2016 Dakar stage, a 481 kilometre special from San Juan to Villa Carlos Paz, saw the Toyotas and Minis duke it out, while Peterhansel played it safe.
The South African HiLuxes of de Villiers and Leeroy Poulter took the early stage lead, with al-Attiyah and Hirvonen in pursuit. By the stage's conclusion, Hirvonen had scored his first ever Dakar stage win, al-Attiyah second and Poulter third.
Peterhansel finished the stage in eighth, but had the threat of a time penalty or disqualification hanging over his head following an allegedly illegal refuelling manoeuvre on Stage 9.
Just outside the top ten on this stage was Robby Gordon. A crowd favourite – and stage winner - in his Hummer in the early days of the South American Dakars, Gordon was running his Chev V8-engined 'Gordini SC1' buggy again this year. While not a contender for the outright win, the 2WD Gordini (a variant on the Stadium Trophy Trucks developed by Gordon) showed that the American still likes to do things differently!
Peterhansel's Big Six
The final Dakar stage has traditionally been more processional than competitive, and so it proved this year, especially with Peterhansel holding such a strong lead. At the end of more than 9,000 kilometres, the Frenchman lived up to his title of "Mr. Dakar," rolling into the finish at Rosario to comfortably claim his twelfth victory and sixth in the car category.
"It's extraordinary," Peterhansel said of this year's success. "Crossing the line was a release after the extremely stressful last three days.
"I'm also delighted to write a new page in the history of Peugeot, because the guys in the team have been working their socks off for two years.
"Some of my wins count more than others, but this one's definitely in the top three."
Peterhansel's first three car wins came in a Mitsubishi Pajero (2004, 2005 and 2007), followed by two in the race Volkswagen Touareg (2012 and 2013). This year's win was extra special for the Frenchman, though, being his first in a French vehicle.
Peterhansel also hinted this year's Dakar might be his last. "Getting the same number of victories on a bike and in a car was the last big goal of my career. Now that's done, I don't think there are many things left to motivate me."
Final Twists, Future Turns
Peterhansel's joy at this year's win was tempered by an appeal from the X-Raid team, who claimed the Peugeot driver used an illegal fuel stop on Stage 9. The win remained provisional for a number of days after the conclusion of the rally, but the appeal was eventually dismissed and Peterhansel was confirmed as the 2016 Dakar champion.
Finally, with the impact of El Nino leading to a number of shortened and modified stages this year, not to mention the resulting confusion over placings and stage times, there is concern for the impact of the cyclical weather pattern on future Dakar rallies. Event director, Etienne Lavigne did moot the move of the rally to another continent, but has since rescinded that extreme reaction for a closer look at alternative South American locations to host the event in the future.