Car Hack's Notebook: The Dakar

Last month, St phane Peterhansel, Cyril Despres and Hans Stacey cemented their status as legends with victory in arguably the scariest, most hardcore event in the world, and yet their wins on an event simply known as The Dakar barely registered a blip on the news. When a ChampCar driver next complains about a bump in mid-corner, he might want to consider being shot at by Algerian rebels intent on theft and kidnap, lions waiting in the pit lane or even cresting a hill to find the shifting road surface has left a 40-foot drop on the other side. These men are heroes.

Yet the biggest headline grabs from a monumental tale of human achievement were good ol' boy Jeff Robby Gordon winning a stage in the Hummer and the Vatican wading in after the tragic death of South African biker Elmer Symonsand to call the event: "A Bloody Race of Irresponsibility."

These are strong words, normally reserved for pop stars grinding against religious icons in a bid to shift a few more plastic discs. Of course lots of people watch motorsport for the crashes in the first place, the Dakar has some monsters and the Vatican's comments may have doubled the audience. The organizers were probably privately thankful for the divine intervention, but the Dakar deserves a worldwide audience anyway.

There are shunts, but the length and nature of the event that was originally the Paris-Dakar means it's far more than a barrel-rolling, fireball of an accident waiting to happen: it's an emotional journey.

This year's event started in Portugal, making a nonsense of the name, and went through Spain, Morocco, Mauritania, Mali and Senegal. Travel writers could turn this into a year-long odyssey, but these guys did it in two weeks, against the clock, with just a compass and a map for guidance. The bikers are even more impressive; at least the cars come with a co-driver to share the load.

Sound boring? You're wrong, just imagine trying to negotiate your way through the desert, remote towns populated with heavy wildlife and forests at high speed. And imagine watching the leader of the bikes with the fate-tempting name of Marc Coma and sharing his desperation. He went 6 km off route in the final hour after leading most of the rally and, in his haste to get back, hit an immovable object and literally flipped out of the event.

It was classic, nailbiting sporting drama with a two-week event coming down to vital seconds and minutes before a competitor finally caved in to the pressure.

Despres' took his second victory aboard the near unbeatable KTM, which is spoken of in hushed tones among bikers due to its endurance record, yet the drawing of a track car it recently released have probably earned the Austrian manufacturer more kudos around the world.

Peterhansel, meanwhile, took Mitsubishi's seventh consecutive win by less than eight minutes after 46 hours of timed stages at a time when most fans of the marque are still using former glories in the World Rally Championship to demonstrate its dominance.

There were other stellar stories, too, like the works Fiat team taking on the desert in the near-ridiculous looking Panda 4x4, drivers forced to come up with impromptu fixes for problems that would have our cars trailered from the roadside and just 300 finishing from a starting lineup of almost 600.

And it all takes place against some the kind of cinematic backdrops that would make Ridley Scott cry tears of pure joy, with stunning helicopter shots of cars, trucks and bikes riding dunes like ocean waves, pelting along gravel roads and soaring through the air like they had wings.

It's magical TV and, if you can tune in, you really should. If only for the monster crashes...