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The amazing Peruvian dunes ahead of Carlos Sainz|Lucas Cruz and their Peugeot 3008 DKR Maxi on Stage 1 of the Dakar 2018 - Photo ASO/@World/A.Vialatte
After the shock of the cancellation of the 2008 edition of the Dakar, people had a strange feeling of emptiness. Not only those directly involved, but also the millions of fans for whom  following the Dakar Rally in the media was already mandatory feature of the beginning of the year. The motives pointed by ASO at that time looked right, after all, no one wanted to risk their life at the point of a gun or in an explosion of a bomb.  Still, many voices were critical, pointing many other reasons, from political to other not so clear reasons. Fact check: there were a lot of problems, and in some extent there still are, in Africa related to terrorism, just look at Boko Haram. Was the danger big enough to cancel the rally? We don't know, but better safe than sorry.

Some months after the dramatic announcement came the news about the decision about the next location: Dakar Rally will move to South America, an uncharted territory for the rally, full of unknown landscapes and with a lot of potential – deserts, mountains, forests, the pampa in Argentina, and a public made of motorsport fans made this destination the source of dreams of competitors who were left without their race in 2008.

The 2009 Dakar Rally quickly showed that in South America the race is different... a lot different. The challenge was there, it was not easy, but simply it was not the Dakar the riders and drivers were used to in Africa. Then, year after year the race received more and more criticism, some really unfair, and all the time there were comparisons: the race in Africa was better! The race in Africa was more challenging! The deserts in Africa are nicer! We are sure that if you are reading this you had also read and heard a lot of those comments.

In Africa, Africa Eco Race tried to revive the spirit of the original Dakar. And we must say that it has achieved that with some degree of success, attracting more and more teams, even some of the most important ones from the Dakar. And then, the inevitable comparisons started to be made between these two rallies.

During all these years, the Dakar Rally was under an increasing fire of criticism from various sources, going as far as the race had lost its myth and has become nothing more than a super-long WRC race. Organisers were now facing a difficult problem: how to shut up once and for ever the critics and still have a great rally that lives up to the legendary editions raced in Africa. In the months before the 2018 race we read and listened to news and comments coming from the organisation or from other sources close to the rally that were saying that ASO had something big up in their sleeve. 

Stephan Schott and Paulo Fiuza on their X-Raid Mini All4 Racing in one of the "not so Dakarian" stages of last year's edition of the rally. Photo X-Raid/MCH

When the final route was announced – Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina – for sure many did not believe that this was to be an epic Dakar.  The sands in Peru were known from the previous editions already, the Bolivian stages weren’t something new either, and Argentina, being the country that hosted the Dakar in all ten South American editions, is the one that everybody knows already. 

Before the start of the race, that had more racing days than usual to celebrate the 40th edition, Marc Coma from the organisation warned that this will be a hard race and the teams should be well prepared. Organisers also made a change in the rules related with the maps and scouting of the stages by the "map man", who studied the roadbook and gave precise instructions about the route to the co-drivers. Now their work was extremely limited, and apparently only Peugeot Team was unhappy with that.

31 km long Stage 1 of the 2018 Dakar Rally was like a sample of what was in store for the upcoming days. Some very unlucky participants ended their race already in this stage, but in general, most competitors completed it without problems. But then the next four dauting days spent in the Peruvian dunes spread carnage among the participants. From the most experienced to the amateur, from cars to bikes, from trucks to SxS, everybody suffered a lot in these stages. We believe that by the end of the Stage 5 no one was anymore making comments like: “Africa is more challenging”, “The race in Africa is harder” or “I miss the Sahara”... Like a brush, these four big stages swiped to far and beyond sight all those comments, replacing them with: “This is the hardest race I've raced”, “these stages are too hard,” and “these dunes are incredible”-type opinions.
At the end of Stage 5, the already severely battered caravan was surely quite happy to leave Peru behind, and even the prospect of the high altitude accompanied by cold and rain was more attracting than an eventual sixth dry and warm stage in the sand.

Bolivia finally marked a real change in the terrain, the climb to the Andes took the participants to an incredible altitude of 4,722 metres above sea level before the rest day in the capital La Paz, that would help them to acclimatise to the altitude. Not an easy stage, with mud and water, but really different from the first five, at least.
The next day was a well-deserved rest day, to heal the wounds of both man and machine. We could see in the faces of the participants and their mechanics that they were already extremely tired. The first part of the race was very complicated, caused a lot of troubles to all. Even the best prepared in cars, motorbikes and trucks were having big problems, affecting many of the favourites. The 40th Dakar was already an edition for the history books, something that will not be forgotten for the years to come.
 After the sand came the mud of wet and cold Bolivian "Altiplano". In the image the Argentinian Franco Caimi is being helped by 2 other riders to get is motorbike free from a mud pit.  Photo Eric Vargiolu / DPPI

The race resumed with the caravan of participants more or less refreshed, and with a completely new set of “benefits”: cold, rain, fog, water on the roads, deep river crossings, camel grass and some more “Bolivian specialities”. Bolivia was demanding again, just like in the past editions. The cherry on the cake was a marathon stage just to reopen the hostilities on Stage 7. The competitors tackled the longest special since the start of the rally. Rain had made the fast dirtroads and sand tracks of the 425 km special even trickier. By the end of the day, and since this was a marathon stage, the competitors had to carry out themselves the repairs and necessary assistance operations on their vehicles. 
Still damaged by the stages in the sands of the “Peruvian hell”, the teams were surely hoping from some easier days, but how wrong they were… After all, we are talking about Dakar Rally, labelled as the “hardest rally of the world”, and so, some more teams faced problems, including favourites that were put out of combat on stage 7 and 8.

The “Gods of the Andes” should had heard the most secret prayers of the poor participants and decided to send severe rain to the area, leading to the cancellation of stage 9. A very welcomed relief for all, despite the inconveniences caused. The goodbye to Bolivia was then marked by a gentle driving until the next bivouac already on Argentinian soil.

The third country, with more familiar roads and once again some new types of terrain offered to the drivers and co-drivers a very welcome: “return to hell”. Argentina had to offer sand, very hot temperatures, tricky navigation in an unforgiving terrain with a lot of river crossings, camel grass, dunes, in some parts more water. From Stage 10 to 14 the punishment continued, even if not so hard like in the beginning of the rally, but by then all damage was piling up, even small problems became huge.
On the ranks all the rally was a lottery in all classes. No one escaped without problems and we had to wait until stage 14 to finally place a bet on the name of who will be rising the number 1 trophy.
The final stage, in Cordoba's roads, was clearly one to “decompress” the teams and fulfil the 15th racing day, making this edition the longest ever raced in South America.
 Event the last stages were complicated. Here we see Orlando Terranova pushing with his own hands one of his team mates on Stage 13 - Photo ASO/@World/A.Lavadinho

Finishing the 2018 Dakar Rally is by all means an outstanding sporting achievement. The race finally delivered something up to the standard of the “hardest rally of the world”. There was no secret formula to overcome the challenges. The teams had to be relentless and persevering above all. There is hint that could help to find the most successful, and we can find it in the good navigation skills. The ones better finding their way were surely in advantage over the others. The changes made in the rules worked well, and now it’s the man racing who needs to find the correct way, and not a map wizard sitting at the bivouac. Endurance was also something very important, and for sure a little bit of luck.

We couldn't end this text without speaking about the public: there is real passion for motorsport in South America. It is so amazing to see the pictures and TV shots, even from the desert full of people cheering the participants. Maybe this is the greatest asset from this new version of Dakar Rally.

Returning to the question we posed in the title: the South American Dakar is not the same as the African one. It can't be and will never be. But this year's edition finally proved that the race there can be amazing, demanding and very interesting to follow, recovering the status it has lost for the past decade. We will not dare to predict the medium term future of the rally, from time to time new rumours or comments pop up about the race to change continent again. For now, our main worry is that there are still eleven months to go until the Dakar returns, and that is a long time. Luckily for us, there are plenty of events for Rally-Raid Network to follow and to keep us busy until the "Big Rally Season" returns.

We finish with another image from SS1, an amazing picture of Nasser Al-Attiyah\ Matthieu Baumel flying over the dunes with a huge crowd behind. Photo Florent Gooden / DPPI

Helder Custódio / Rita Kónya --  Rally-Raid Network
Credits of photos bellow each one.

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