1. How will Alonso fare on his debut?
Let’s face it – the main draw for most casual observers in this particular Dakar will be to observe how a certain Fernando Alonso fares on his debut. And the message from the Spaniard in the build-up to the event has been clear: Don’t expect too much of me.
Rally director David Castera might have tipped Alonso to win a stage, but the reality is simply reaching the end of the rally would represent a pretty major achievement for the two-time Formula 1 champion. That said, if he can avoid any costly incidents (a big if, mind), the somewhat slim roster of obvious top-liners would put a top-10 finish within reach.
While a 12-stage marathon can hardly be compared to a run-of-the-mill Saudi Desert Rally Championship round, Alonso can take encouragement from finishing third in November’s Ula-Neom Rally. That followed rather more eventful outings in the Lichtenburg 400, his first competitive rally-raid outing, and the traditional Dakar warm-up event, the Morocco Rally.
“That result is positive and it gives me confidence,” said Alonso. “I am doing the Dakar to see what it’s like, but even more so to finish it. I know it will be very difficult.
“The preparation I have done the past few months has enriched me as a driver, which is one of my priorities when I confront these kinds of challenges: to be better at the end of each of them. I have to approach it with a certain calmness. I don’t want to go the Dakar, then quit after the second or third day because of a stupid mistake.”
Alonso will also benefit from the vast experience of his co-driver, Dakar bikes legend Marc Coma, who makes his debut as a navigator after 12 starts on two wheels that yielded five victories and a three-year stint as the event's sporting director. His know-how could be key to Alonso's hopes of negotiating perhaps the biggest challenge of his career to date.
#310 Hallspeed Toyota: Fernando Alonso, Marc Coma
2. Toyota's Al-Attiyah favourite to make it two in a row
A year on from Nasser Al-Attiyah delivering its first-ever Dakar win, Toyota will fancy replicating its Le Mans 24 Hours form, where a maiden triumph in a legendary event was followed by a relatively straightforward second win in the following edition. The odds are in the Japanese marque’s favour here as well, given that the ranks for its main rival X-raid Mini are somewhat depleted and there’s no Sebastien Loeb in a privateer Peugeot to worry about.
It helps, of course, that in Al-Attiyah Toyota can call upon the most in-form cross-country driver of the past few years, who has the added benefit of “knowing exactly what to expect” from the Saudi terrain given he grew up racing on similar dunes in Qatar.
“The terrain suits me to a tee. So, yes, I believe that I am the favourite,” Al-Attiyah says, and assuming he keeps his Hilux in one piece, it’s hard to see the Qatari being denied.
#300 Toyota Gazoo Racing: Nasser Al-Attiyah
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But should Al-Attiyah falter, there are others in the Toyota camp who can pick up the slack. October’s Rally Morocco demonstrated as much – while Al-Attiyah retired from the lead with an electrical issue and lost out on the FIA Cross-Country Rally title, teammate Giniel de Villiers fought off the X-raid cars to win the event.
De Villiers – now paired with Nani Roma’s former co-driver Alex Haro - hasn’t quite had Al-Attiyah’s pace in the past few Dakars, but sees positives in the fact it’ll be the first event in new surroundings, much like in the first Dakar in South America back in 2009, which the South African won for Volkswagen.
“I remember it was very difficult, we didn’t know what to expect,” de Villiers recalls. “Especially, I will never forget the stage in Fiambala, which was very hard, which we won and it enabled us to win the rally. But it was really tough, and I expect this one to be close to the same type of experience, because we don’t know what to expect.”
#304 Toyota Gazoo Racing: Giniel De Villiers, Alex Haro Bravo
The remaining Toyota Gazoo driver Bernhard ten Brinke is no slouch either, and would have had a Dakar podium by now if luck had gone his way two years ago.
Meanwhile, the roster for the Overdrive outfit includes local hero Yazeed Al-Rajhi, who believes he is “among the favourites” and with good reason. Al-Rajhi had shown serious flashes of pace in the Dakar with Mini in the past, but will take more encouragement from beating the X-raid Minis of Stephane Peterhansel and Carlos Sainz Sr respectively in two recent Dakar preparation events in Saudi Arabia – the Riyadh Rally and the Sharqiyah Baja.
Al-Rajhi was due to team up with Giniel de Villiers’ former co-driver Dirk von Zitzewitz, but after the latter was injured in a huge Hungarian Baja crash he ceded the role to Konstantin Zhiltsov.
#314 X-Raid Team Mini: Yazeed Al-Rajhi, Timo Gottschalk
3. Will Mini's Buggy finally come good?
Though its effort is scaled down and only two of its buggiest will take the start in Saudi Arabia, X-raid did retain its two key employees in Stephane Peterhansel and Carlos Sainz Sr.
The buggy has been a work-in-progress since its 2018 debut, but in Peterhansel’s hands it was capable of threatening Al-Attiyah for most of the event last year, and even though the Mini hasn’t received any major rule breaks to tip the scales in its favour, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t close the gap further this time and be there to capitalise on any Toyota dramas.
Asked how he sees the balance of power between his outfit and Toyota, X-raid boss Sven Quandt said: “Nobody knows, in the last races the Toyota has been super-quick and it won the last two events in Saudi Arabia.
“But let’s see, we know 12 days is long - and it’s not only speed, it’s as well reliability which counts. It’s not all about pure performance, it’s about constant performance and reliability but more as well about the fact that the drivers play one of the most important roles.
“Toyota has got good drivers and with Nasser for sure one of the best but we have a good set of drivers as well and most of them with a very good history and lots of experience.”
#305 JCW X-Raid Team: Carlos Sainz, Lucas Cruz
Peterhansel won this year’s FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies with wife Andrea as his co-driver and planned to tackle the 2020 Dakar with her in tow, but she was replaced by Paulo Fiuza in the role due to failing a late medical check.
#311 JCW X-Raid Team: Orlando Terranova, Bernardo Graue
4. Roma's Borgward gamble
Outside of Toyota and X-raid Mini, the most interesting prospect in the Dakar’s cars division is former champion Nani Roma throwing in his lot with a totally unproven marque: Borgward.
The little-known German manufacturer took part in its first Dakar in 2018 with Nicholas Fuchs, and entered a sole car for Erik Wevers last year; neither made it to the finish. This year Borgward expands to a two-car effort, with Roma joined by Portuguese driver Ricardo Porem. Roma also a new co-driver for 2020 in the form of ex-bike racer Dani Oliveras.
Despite Borgward’s lack of pedigree, the results so far have been encouraging: after finishing a solid sixth in Morocco, Roma was second in the Baja Portalegre, beaten only by Orlando Terranova’s X-raid Mini 4x4. Even so, the 47-year-old knows a second title on four wheels is almost certainly beyond reach this year.
“It is going to be a very long race,” he said. “But we would fool everyone if I say that I will go out to win the Dakar. I started working in September with this car, we have evolved a lot, but we still don't have the car to win. It is very robust, but we still have to keep trying things.
“Our project, if the people of Borgward want, is to start fighting from next year. We have a first-division team, but we have lacked time and we do not have the financial resources, or the experience of Mini or Toyota. The important thing is not to get nervous.”
#309 Joan Roma: Joan
Rally of Morocco
5. KTM squad back to full fitness
Every year, we write that KTM faces a tougher challenge than ever to maintain its frankly miraculous run of Dakar successes dating all the way back to 2001 - and every year the Austrian marque pulls it off. But last year it outdid itself, locking out the podium and coming close to getting all five of its factory riders in the top 10.
"Repeating such a year will be almost impossible," admits KTM cross-country rallies boss Jordi Viladoms. "It will be a challenge and it is the warning we have, that we have to strain every sinew to improve on it. It is increasingly difficult to win races because all the teams are working very hard and we hope that this Dakar 2020 is a really intense fight.
"At the technical level we don't come with significant changes. We are always in continuous evolution of the set-up, the suspension and small details, but the chassis and engine base is exactly the same as it was in Peru [last year]."
#3 Red Bull KTM Factory Racing: Sam Sunderland
Having become the first repeat winner of the post-Coma/Despres era with his second triumph last year - despite carrying a wrist injury - Toby Price is aiming for a third Dakar crown this year. After undergoing surgery, he returned to action with two fourth places finishes on the Atacama and Morocco rallies to round off 2019.
Sam Sunderland, the 2017 Dakar champion, and 2018 winner Matthias Walkner meanwhile will both be hoping to draw level with Price. Sunderland arrives in Saudi Arabia fresh off winning the FIM Cross Country Rallies title, while Walkner likewise had to spend the second half of last year getting back up to speed after carrying a broken ankle for most of the Dakar.
Rounding out the four-strong factory line-up is Luciano Benavides, but there are also the Husqvarna riders to consider, using essentially identical bikes, especially as Andrew Short and Pablo Quintanilla have the momentum of a one-two finish in Morocco behind them. Meanwhile, Gas Gas rider Laia Sanz is aiming to make it 10 Dakar finishes in as many starts.
#14 GAS GAS Factory Team: Laia Sanz
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6. Honda, Yamaha stronger than ever
For several years now, the marque that's looked most likely to finally end the KTM stranglehold has been Honda. Last year, the Japanese manufacturer's challenge fell apart as Joan Barreda dropped out with an early crash, Ricky Brabec suffering an engine failure while leading with three stages to run and Kevin Benavides being hit with a huge three-hour penalty - which was later rescinded, promoting the Argentinian to fourth behind the KTM trio.
Barreda, Brabec and Benavides are all back again for another crack and have to be considered genuine threats for victory, supported by Jose Ignacio Cornejo and newcomer Aaron Mare. One more significant change is the arrival of ex-KTM man Ruben Faria as the new boss of the operation, replacing Raul Castells in the role.
"We have done several tests, in Japan we are working hard, all the staff has not stopped throughout the year and nor have the riders," said 2013 runner-up Faria. "They have not stopped preparing, they are in the best year in terms of physical preparation and absence of injuries. The motorcycle is also at the level demanded by the challenge of Saudi Arabia."
#11 Monster Energy Honda Team: Joan Barreda Bort
While the Honda has only undergone minor revisions since last year, Yamaha claims to have made much more meaningful changes that could make Adrian van Beveren (ruled out by engine issues last year) and Xavier de Soultrait (who finished fifth) stronger contenders. Franco Caimi and rookie Jamie McCanney round out the four-strong factory squad.
"We have a better chance than last year," team boss Jordi Arcarons told Motorsport.com. "We have greatly improved the motorcycle and also our experience. We are competitive and we can fight for victory. This bike has a six-speed gearbox and the engine has significantly more power. Now we are the same level as the other brands, the riders always complained about this."
Also worth mentioning is Indian marque Hero, which is seeking to build on its breakthrough top-10 finish last year with Oriol Mena. Although Mena himself is injured this year, long-time Honda rider Paulo Goncalves has come on board and will be eager to show he can still mix it with the best of them even at the age of 40.
#4 Monster Energy Yamaha Rally Team: Adrien Van Beveren
Monster Energy Yamaha Rally Team
7. Despres headlines packed SxS field
Francisco ‘Chaleco’ Lopez, Gerard Farres and Reinaldo Varela, who made up the podium in the burgeoning SxS category last year, are all back to duke it out for victory in 2020 in Can-Am Maverick machines.
The Can-Am contingent also features former Junior WRC regular Conrad Rautenbach, American frontrunner Casey Currie (coached by bike riders Brabec and Short), former quad champion Sergey Karyakin and his fellow quad convert Kees Koolen (who has former MotoGP rider Jurgen van der Goorbergh as co-driver).
But though Can-Am thoroughly dominated last year’s event, it should face a sterner challenge this time both from Polaris – which will be represented by the returning Jose Luis Pena – and the all-new Overdrive OT3s campaigned by the Red Bull Off-Road Junior Team.
Alongside youngsters Blade Hildebrand and Mitch Guthrie, the Red Bull roster includes a late-notice addition in programme coach Cyril Despres, who has spent the last few Dakars chasing a first car win to add to his five titles in the bike class.
Despres was left out of X-raid’s roster for this year, but could now have a prime opportunity to become a multi-class Dakar champion after all, assuming the OT3 proves competitive and professional explorer Mike Horn is a match for other, more experienced navigators.
#403 Red Bull Off-Road Team USA OT3: Cyril Despre, Mike Horn
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8. Casale hot favourite for quads honours
The all-Argentine quads podium from 2019, which was headed by the absurdly dominant Nicolas Cavigliasso, will be entirely absent this year. The reigning champion has cited the recent Saudi oil refinery attacks as the reason, and aims to be back in 2021.
But even had Cavigliasso run in 2020, he may not have been the favourite given two-time champion Ignacio Casale’s return to the category after his SxS dalliance in 2019.
In preparation, Casale – whose entry will be serviced by the French Drag’on team – won the Dakar rehearsal event Rally Morocco, beating FIM cross-country rally quad champion and former Dakar champion Rafal Sonik by half an hour.
Casale’s biggest challenge in the 2020 edition could thus come from Sonik, another Pole in Kamil Wisniewski, Argentine Manuel Andujar or one of the occasionally front-running Frenchmen (Alexandre Giroud, Axel Dutrie, Simon Vitse). On paper, however, the Chilean joining Marcos Patronelli in the ranks of three-time quad champions is the likeliest outcome.
#105 Ignacio Casale
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9. De Rooy shake-up clears way for Kamaz domination
The battle between Kamaz and De Rooy Iveco headlined the truck class for most of Dakar’s South American era – but while the former team has retained a familiar driver roster, De Rooy will head into Saudi Arabia with a completely different crew.
The team boss himself, Gerard de Rooy, will be on hand but will not drive as he is recovering from a back injury. Fellow top-tier truck competitor Federico Villagra will be absent entirely, with the fraught political situation in his native Argentina cited as the reason. Gone too are Ton van Genugten and Maurik van den Heuvel.
Instead, the de Rooy roster will be headlined by Janus van Kasteren, Vick Versteijnen and paraplegic former alpine skier Albert Llovera in the three Iveco Powerstars – with Michiel Becx in a support role in an Iveco Trakker.
Though the De Rooy crew is targeting to sneak onto the podium, the team's refresh leaves Kamaz an overwhelming favourite for 2020, with one of its four trucks – now all fitted with automatic gearboxes – likely to bring home a 17th win for the manufacturer.
Winner of the three past Dakars Eduard Nikolaev will presumably lead the roster, which also includes 2019’s narrow runner-up Dmitry Sotnikov, 2014 champion Andrey Karginov and Silk Way Rally winner Anton Shibalov, slotting in for Ayrat Mardeev.
The rest of the entry list features the likes of perennial challenger Ales Loprais in an all-new Tatra, Martin Macik in a privateer Iveco and two all-Belarussian MAZ crews. They will likely challenge for individual stage honours, but it would take something almost unprecedented for any of them to overhaul Kamaz’s all-star quartet.
#500 Kamaz Master: Eduard Nikolaev, Evgenii Iakovlev and Vladimir Rybakov
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10. Will the new roadbook philosophy work?
One of the big talking points of the Dakar's final trip to South America was the roadbook last year, particularly after both Sainz and Daniel Elena, Loeb's co-driver, hit out at the inaccuracies in the route instructions that they felt wrecked their chances. But new rally director David Castera is not taking chances this year.
In Morocco, an event run by Castera's own company, a new philosophy was tried out, whereby instead of a basic roadbook being given teams the day before each stage, which would then be supplemented with extra information by the teams themselves, a more detailed set of notes would be supplied on the morning of the stage.
Having previously indicated this method will be trialled on "at least four" of this year's 12 stages, it has been confirmed this will apply to six tests - namely stages 2, 3, 5, 6, 10 and 11. Cars will get their roadbooks 15 minutes before the stage starts, bikes 25 minutes prior.
As for the route itself, it's both considerably longer and faster than last year's all-Peruvian edition, featuring two extra days of competitive action and no fewer than 5,096 competitive kilometres (3,167 miles), up from 2951km (1,834mi) in 2019. The seventh stage, which features a gruelling 546km (339mi) timed section, will be the longest on the Dakar since 2015.
"It will be a faster Dakar than the last 10, because the route is more of a straight line and there are more open tracks," explained Castera. "We will return to the speeds of the time of Africa. If we were at an average of 90-100km/h last year, we will now be at 105km/h."
Additional reporting by Sergio Lillo and David Evans
#305 JCW X-Raid Team: Carlos Sainz, Lucas Cruz