Happy new season everyone! I hope you’re suitably refreshed and ready for the 2015 motorsport year. I certainly am – on both counts.
Fortunately, we don’t have to wait until longer and warmer days kick in to get our fix, for there are some great events to make January and February more bearable. Autosport International, which celebrates its 25th running at Birmingham’s NEC later this week, is the traditional curtain-raiser and brings just about every facet of this diverse industry together under one roof.
The World Rally Championship’s blue-riband Monte Carlo Rally kicks off in about 10 days’ time, pitting the world’s best crews against temperamental and torturous conditions, while the Daytona 24 Hour sportscar race – another traditional early-season gem at the iconic Florida speedbowl – follows soon after.
“Dakar bikers are among my biggest motorsport heroes”
I can’t wait for these classics to kickstart the ‘feverometer’ after a month or more of inactivity – and fortunately I don’t have to, because there’s more winter wizardry going on as I type.
I’m referring, of course, to the world’s toughest competition involving any sort of wheeled vehicles anywhere in the world: the Dakar Rally. This two-week slog by hordes of intrepid adventurers using cars, bikes, quads and trucks across Argentina, Bolivia and Chile started from Buenos Aires yesterday (Sunday) and continues to fuel my childhood fetish for this crazy caper.
No longer a race across Africa to Dakar – the Senegal capital with which it shares its name – following major security threats in 2008, the Rally still offers inhospitable South American stages, many of them hundreds of miles in length, for its rare breed of competitors.
The thrill of conquering the terrain faster than the next bloke has attracted many great names from racing and rallying since it first ran in 1979. Formula 1 and Le Mans winner Jacky Ickx and world sportscar champion Jean-Louis Schlesser are both previous winners, while World Rally legends Ari Vatanen, Juha Kankkunen and Carlos Sainz have also tasted victory champagne. British WRC hero Colin McRae scratched the Dakar itch, too.
But for real madness, look no further than the two-wheeled brigade. Back in the mid-1980s, watching Frenchman Cyril Neveu on his Honda scrapping with his BMW-mounted Belgian rival Gaston Rahier was as much a part of my teenage apprenticeship as anything on the circuits or conventional rally stages and the reason why Dakar bikers are among my biggest motorsport heroes.
Take Stephane Peterhansel, for example. Not content with six victories for Yamaha in the ’90s, the Frenchman switched to the car class and took a further five victories for Mitsubishi and Mini. Fellow Frenchman Hubert Auriol and Spaniard Nani Roma, who defends his 2014 Mini success this year, are in that elite band of men to win on two and four wheels, with factory Peugeot driver Cyril Despres, a five-time bike winner, bidding to join them as he makes his roofed debut this year.
If you’ve never seen these desert daredevils in action, follow their exploits online or on telly over the next 10 days or so and you’ll see what I mean.