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TopGear.com at the Dakar: day one
It’s Monday morning and we’ve just bought petrol from a roadside shack about 100km south of San Luis. We had to as we’re about to roll into the desert and there’s no fuel station for the next 250km. I’m writing this from the back seat of a Mini Countryman that we’ve already done over 1000km in since yesterday morning. So far the Dakar has been eventful, so I thought I’d fill you in on what’s happened so far.
Saturday was proper entertainment. After scrutineering, something that happens behind closed doors, all of the 431 competitors were presented to the thick melee of people that packed into the area around Rosario’s Monumento de la Bandera. Each and every one rode or drove their machine up onto the podium and was interviewed. If they didn’t speak Spanish, their words had to be translated. This took a while. About seven hours, in fact. The crowds never thinned, and even at 10pm there were still people up lamp posts and trees.
Robbie Gordon is the crowd favourite, especially when he hits the ramp at speed in his bright orange buggy and jumps clean through the podium. Carlos Sainz has the coolest looking buggy, Race2Recovery the best support truck. One of the cars has what appears to be a pair of bike wheels strapped to its back deck.
Yesterday was amazing. You know Dakar must be the biggest thing to have happened to Rosario in the last couple of decades when there are still cheering crowds lining the motorway 45km outside of town. It felt more like a Papal visit than a motor race. The race proper didn’t start until a few hundred km of road section had been completed - all of it through hot, hazy, flat and agricultural land. Parallels with America’s mid-west are not misplaced.
The race stage was little more than a seeding process yesterday, all of the cars just getting a measure of each other. All the leading contenders came through unscathed, with six X-Raid Minis in the top ten, plus Sainz and Robbie Gordon. There were issues for a few - Stephane Peterhansel had a puncture in stage and there were several reports of cars suffering vapour lock (when the fuel evaporates before it reaches the injectors) due to the high temperatures. It was 38 degrees yesterday.
My day wasn’t exactly incident free either. The Mini dealer in Rosario had laid on three Countrymans to get me and some other international journalists around. One had colossal bulges in the tyre sidewalls, another a badly slipping clutch. That was the one that eventually let us down, expiring in a noxious cloud some 230km from the overnight bivouac at San Luis. We abandoned it and crammed ourselves into the remaining two after swapping some tyres around. Our very own taste of the Dakar.
The bivouac was amazing when we got there last night. A mobile encampment of some 1800 people, cars, trucks and bikes being pulled apart, the churn of generators - work that didn’t stop all night. And outside, Argentina was having a party, crowds of people, fireworks, food stalls. The Dakar is a massive circus.