Trouble never strays far from the Paris-Dakar Rally. In 1982, the son of then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sparked a six-day rescue mission when his rally-prepared Peugeot 504 strayed nearly 50 kilometres off-course. Now in its 33rd year of competition, the pitfalls are no smaller.
Following the withdrawal of Mitsubishi and VW from this year’s line-up (with the latter preparing instead for its inaugural World Rally Championship campaign), the X-Raid team’s fleet of Mini Countrymen remain favourites for the winner’s laurels. Having locked out the podium on day one – with Russian rally raid specialist Leonid Novitskiy sealing his first stage victory ahead of Polish regular Krzysztof Holowczyc and team leader Stephane Peterhansel – a cheeky bet on Mini seemed like money in the bank, as did each driver’s turn at the top of the table.
But ‘The Dakar’, a notorious car breaker, is anything but a foregone conclusion. The rug was whipped from under Novitskiy’s Goodrichs after just one night, the lead yo-yoing between Peterhansel and Holowczyc over the next three stages. The battle lines drawn between these Mini team-mates– save six minutes lost for Peterhansel on day three repairing not one but two punctures, and a somewhat lethargic second outing for Holowczyc – allowed fellow- X-Raid pilot Nani Roma to grab the fourth stage victory and Team (Robby) Gordon’s fleet of Hummer H3 machinery to close the gap.
The NASCAR race winner is no new boy on the dunes, his podium strike rate on the stages thus far rubberstamping that. Despite a string of mishaps on stage four, a superb time on day seven – beaten only by team-mate Nasser Al-Attiyah – leaves the American third overall, splitting Holowczyc and Roma.