Ollie Marriage03 January 2014

Get ready for the 2014 Dakar rally

The world’s ultimate off-road race is about to kick off in South America. Ollie Marriage is your guide

Rosario, Argentina isn't the easiest place to get to if you're from Europe, or indeed anywhere outside of Argentina. But that's sort of the point. Rosario the starting point for this year's Dakar rally, a race that has always prided itself on going further, being more remote.

In this year's Dakar, the competitors will cover almost 10,000km, taking them northwards through the Andes, crossing into Bolivia, and then coming down through Chile, finishing on the Pacific coast at Valparaiso in more than two weeks' time.

Both the stages in Bolivia run at an average altitude of 3500m above sea level. The race crosses the world's largest salt flat and the world's driest desert.

The stage that finishes at Iquique in Chile finishes by dropping 1000m of altitude in three kilometres: an average descent of 30 per cent, about equivalent to the average black ski run. Oh, and the first stage is 800km long.

The Dakar runs like any other rally, just further and on far more extreme terrain. The stages include some road sections, but the emphasis is firmly on escaping the tarmac and punishing the cars, motorbikes, quads and trucks that are taking part.

But speed is nothing without accuracy. Perhaps more than in any other form of motorsport, a Dakar driver is utterly reliant on his co-pilot. An error of a couple of degrees will mean, in a trackless desert, they could miss the next GPS beacon by whole kilometres.

True, since the move from Africa to South America in 2009 (a result of terrorist attacks), the Dakar has lost a little of its spirit of adventure. The jeopardy is lower here than in the Sahara, while tarmac roads are never too far away, allowing support crews to keep pace with the racers. It's become more of a sprint event and the technology has developed with that in mind.

I'm currently embedded with the X-Raid Mini team. They've won it for the past two years thanks to the skilled partnership of Stephane Peterhansel and Jean-Paul Cottret, but are more concerned than ever this year because of the disparity in the regulations that penalises 4WD cars compared to the mighty 2wd buggies with larger fuel tanks, more power, longer travel suspension, lighter kerbweights and self-inflating/deflating tyres.

But hey, an "All4 Countryman" (I use the inverted commas advisedly, as there's nothing recognisably road car about these monsters) has won it for the past couple of years, so it's only natural that the organisers should want to even things up. And close racing is what we all love to see, right?

Tomorrow is scrutineering and the race starts on Sunday. I'll attempt to keep you posted over the next few days, but this is the Dakar and, well, it's all happening a long way from anywhere. Over and out for now.

Click here to read about when Ollie got his hands on the Mini All4 Dakar X-Raid before it headed off to the Dakar

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