The provincial police captain’s eyes narrowed in his round, pale face when I asked the name of the shallow river. He queried his men, then some bystanders, but no one knew. “They’re tourists, from Córdoba,” he said of the people awash on lawn chairs in the riverbed, wasted on Fernet-Branca and Coke. They hooted whenever a rally car recklessly raised a tall curtain of water and jeered when the next one prudently went as slowly as possible, as fast as necessary. Daring boys edged close to the elevated fording in the hope of being splashed. Robby Gordon’s neon orange Gordini sputtered through because of vapor lock. I could imagine the boobirds’ heyday had he stalled out.
We were in western Córdoba province in Argentina, near the end of the 112-mile race (or “special”) section in Stage 1 of the thirty-sixth Dakar Rally -- two weeks and 5838 miles over fertile lowlands called Pampas, dunes, scrubland, desiccated playa, and mountain passes, speeding through the Atacama Desert, up Andean hill and down Chilean dale to the finishers’ podium in the coastal city of Valparaíso, Chile.
Our group of reporters had hurried 250 miles in three Mini Coopers in order to intercept the rally where competitors emerged from the backcountry and crossed a paved highway before the splash fest. Prior to this point, we had encountered rivers named Segundo, Tercero, and Cuarto -- or Second, Third, and Fourth. Beyond here, the map showed a Río Quinto -- Fifth River. The prosaic names well fit the Pampas, which might have passed for Kansas if not for the many flocks of cormorants in the sky, the nearly complete absence of barns and farmhouses amid fields of soybeans and corn, the abundant old Renault 4s and Peugeot 504s on the roads, and the Ford Falcons built here in Argentina from 1962 to 1991. (A Falcon in death-squad green wasn’t the car you wanted to see if you opposed the government during the Dirty War of the 1970s.)
As we proceeded, I realized that the larger Minis get, the less character they have. Although it is capable of running 120 mph with four occupants and their gear, the Mini Countryman All4 just doesn’t thrill like the original Cooper S. Yet there was a lot of cargo space in back, where our lunches were stored out of reach. Because of the hurry, a sleeve of Oreos went around instead, but one taste of the filling, flavored with dulce de leche and banana, was enough.
Outside, we had seen steel windmills and signs for New Holland farm equipment, Pioneer seeds, and BASF chemicals. Now, mountains came into view. Alta Gracia, the town where Ernesto “Che” Guevara grew up and where the motorcycle of his youthful wanderings is in a museum, lay at the base of the Sierra de Córdoba. We climbed through a brushy canyon and emerged in a resort area. Roadside stands offered salami and goat cheese, the buildings took on alpine motifs, and accommodations bore the names Alpendorf, Hoffmeister, Steinhaus, and Landhaus. The Museo del Carruaje had old carriages and three vintage Fords, but we were hoping to get to the river crossing before our man Stéphane Peterhansel.
When at last we pulled off at a village where many other cars were parked, a huckster offered admission to a fenced field with an overlook of the rally course for 200 pesos ($30). Instead, we parked and walked down a gravel road, consuming our bag lunches and plucking cockleburs from our feet. “Only 500 meters more,” the people in their front yards kept telling us. Then, car number 300, carrying Peterhansel and co-driver Jean-Paul Cottret, overtook us. They negotiated the water obstacle ahead, made a quick left on the opposite bank, and disappeared from sight before we had the presence to say, “Mini All4 Racing” or “Monster Energy X-Raid Team.”
As for the police captain, thanks to the official route handbook and the road map I’ve studied, I now feel confident enough that I could say the river is called Río de los Sauces. That is, Willow River.
The Dakar rally had started that same morning, Sunday, January 5, in Rosario, a grimy city of 1.2 million on the Paraná, the wide, muddy river that carries ships loaded with grain and coal (and the place where piranhas attacked sixty people this past Christmas). At 4:20 a.m., after Saturday’s introduction ceremony in glorious sunshine, the first of 174 motorcycles departed from the national flag monument. They were followed by 40 ATVs; 147 entries in the automobiles class that included cars, SUVs, UTVs, buggies, and light trucks; and 70 heavy trucks, almost all of the last category carrying a crew of three. Competitors (713 in total) put on their helmets that morning, and by the end, if all went well, each would complete more competition miles than they would accumulate in an entire season of the World Rally Championship.
The Dakar Rally was known as the Paris–Dakar Rally from 1979 until 2007, running through Africa from a starting point in Paris, yes, but also from Marseille and Barcelona, and finishing in Dakar, Senegal, yes, but also Cape Town and Cairo. Scheduled to go from Lisbon in 2008, the rally was canceled because of terrorist threats. In one of the great marketing decisions of motorsports history, the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) moved the rally to Argentina and Chile in 2009, extending to Peru in 2012, and this year adding motorcycle stages in Bolivia. It opened the way for local teams like Marcelo Sanchez’s. Based at a motorcycle dealership in Argentina’s second-largest city, Córdoba, they ran a Kawasaki out of a 2006 Dodge Ram with a plywood cargo box. Moving from Africa also gave a marquee event to a continent with a growing middle class. There was a vast audience, both on TV and in person: throngs of Rosarianos stayed up all night Saturday to watch the rally proceed from their city.
Our hero Peterhansel had previously explained the difference between Africa and South America, telling me, “They tried to keep the spirit, but at the end, in Africa, it was more like an adventure. It was possible to be in the desert for three days and see no villages. Now, it’s still a long race, for sure, in South America, but it’s easier than before. There is always some kind of civilization. You stop on the dune, and five minutes afterwards, you see a big Ford or Dodge pickup arrive with a lot of fans.”
I had first met Peterhansel, 48, in December in Austria, where he drove with me in the 2013 rally car. What struck me most about him were his gleaming brown eyes and energetic manner; otherwise, especially with his stubbly chin, he looked like someone who’d show up at your house for pest control or cable service. There was no indication of the preternatural ability that had already given him eleven Dakar championships, six on motorcycles and five more since switching to cars. I was meeting George Halas’s Monsters of the Midway, Babe Ruth’s Bronx Bombers, and Magic Johnson’s Showtime Lakers, all in the person of one racing driver.
By this time, he and Monster Energy X-Raid teammate Nani Roma, a Spaniard, had already completed 5600 miles of testing. One key modification for the 2014 Dakar rally race was to cage the 155 pounds of spare tires under the floorpan, bringing down the center of gravity. The result was a Goliath of a carbon-bodied, aero-roofed Mini Countryman All4, far taller than the driver, who stands about five foot nine.
Climbing inside with Peterhansel for a ride on a snowy demonstration course, I was disappointed to find that we weren’t hooked up by intercom, but without his commentary I watched and listened more carefully. The Mini Countryman All4 Racing gets its power from a BMW twin-turbo 3.0-liter diesel six-cylinder that supplies 307 hp, 516 lb-ft of torque, and a furious buzzing sound that seemed more apt for a nefarious industrial process practiced in a Central Asian republic. When the car took off on the rough course, the wheels, suspended by control arms and twin dampers at each corner, crunched through ruts, causing my collarbone and ribs to clash together. Despite the insane noise, the jostling, and enough indicators and digital displays to satisfy a Heathkit devotee, Peterhansel moved slowly when stroking the sequential six-speed manual transmission’s lever or pulling the tall handbrake to make the car pivot at apexes; his precision in placing the nose within a whisker of the course markers was astonishing.
Afterward, I sipped hot chocolate with him in a hut and tried to get at what makes him so uncannily good. Riding Yamahas, he won six of eight Dakars between 1991 and 1998, yet he never trained any differently from others, just focusing on cardio with long-distance mountain biking, hiking, and running. He’d started to have enough of the loneliness on motos, though, and had also witnessed a friend crash and die. (The fifty-year-old Belgian rider Eric Palante perished this year on Stage 5.) Stomach cramps would afflict Peterhansel thirty minutes before a stage, but the fear would dissipate once he got onto the course. “Everything is perfect, my body is OK,” he told himself after the record sixth win. “It’s time to change.”
After doing some ice driving with Nissan, he entered his first automotive Dakar rally in 1999 and excelled with a so-so car. Not insignificantly, he noticed that he would find himself laughing and joking two minutes before starting a stage. With Cottret, a fellow Frenchman, by his side all these years since, he’s had someone to talk to, sharing the emotional highs and lows. “It’s really nice to be with a co-driver, and you feel safer inside,” he said.
He won three Dakars for Mitsubishi, moved to Sven Quandt’s X-Raid Team, and added to his glory by helming victorious Minis in 2012 and 2013. Whereas he reckons the formula for success on a bike is weighted 80/20 in favor of the rider, there’s much more to setting up a car, so the driver is a lesser factor: he rates it 60/40. Nevertheless, he said, “It’s a big advantage to be a rider before. It’s really easy for you to read the line. You have a good feeling with the mechanicals, the gearbox, and everything. You have a good analysis with the angle of the jump. You have no problem with the high speed.”
If there were another eleven-time winner, would he or she sound the same? I still couldn’t quantify his extra margin of greatness. But two days into Dakar, I met a reporter from Sud Ouest, the regional daily from Bordeaux, who had long followed the guy. His assessment: “Stéphane knows where on the stage to go for it, and he puts five to ten minutes on the competition -- and it’s over.”
“You must keep your tent closed, because we have found there are snakes on the ground,” a Frenchman with a clipboard, presumably from the ASO, said that evening in camp. I’d supposed death might come in the way an unaccredited Argentine journalist and his fellow adventurer would ultimately be claimed in Stage 5, crashing their Ford Ranger while chasing Dakar action. A snakebite in camp would be lousy.
All the teams had gathered for the night at a racetrack ringing a lake outside the city of San Luis. Those of us following the Minis were given tents with X-Raid, the juggernaut that Quandt, of the BMW Quandts, had built up since 2002. To go for a walk around the pits was to observe vehicles in various states of disassembly and refurbishment. As Quandt had explained, of his twelve teams, most were pay-to-play for about $1.2 million, and each had a support truck filled with tools, sixteen sets of tires, and $250,000 worth of parts. A kitchen-and-laundry truck and a mobile office provided support. But elsewhere in the pits, one rider of a KTM motorcycle was also serving as his own mechanic; the weathered tradesman’s van that carried parts from one camp to the next was driven by a friend.
After a cold shower and despite the noise of tune-ups still in progress, I crawled hands-first into my dark tent. Not a snake but a cocklebur rose up to bite through the sewn-in floor. It was like camping in my home state of Nebraska; despite the hazards, I was just happy to be on the ground rather than precariously perched in a pop-up tent atop a support truck, where the luckiest mechanics—those whose work was done—zipped themselves in like cuckoos for a few hours of shut-eye.
Even if I’d heard them, I wouldn’t have recognized the calls of Argentine songbirds. Instead, I woke at 3:30 a.m. to what sounded like a V-6 engine just restored to health. “Vuh-run, vuh-ruuun-uh, vuh-roooon!” it sang. It sounded ready to mate, if only it could find a cute little four. I tossed and turned for another forty-five minutes, and then the bikes started out of the pits for their stage, and that was that.
After Stage 2, some 496 miles long and featuring a treacherous special section of 269 miles, Peterhansel was sitting pretty. “The fastest special stage of the rally . . . will also be the one where drivers will have to face the first dunes . . . the grey dunes of Nihuil,” the route handbook said. A Portuguese driver had led after Stage 1, but Peterhansel and Cottret emerged from Nihuil in first place among the automobiles. “Peterhansel Shows Up,” the next day’s newspaper headline would say.
“It was an interesting stage,” he told me in the pits on the way to drop off his driver’s suit for washing. He described how, after an opening sprint, his Mini Countryman All4 Racing negotiated a dry riverbed, through which, he said merrily, “I drove like a puppy.” In fact, he thought delicacy and suppleness might have been key. “At the end, we found the nice dunes, soft sand -- but navigation was easy because a lot of [spectators] were on the top.”
Stage 2 claimed a slew of competitors in all classes who withdrew for various reasons, and it already looked as though Peterhansel was on his way to another title. The next morning, as they undertook Stage 3, we packed into our Minis and dashed 150 miles through vineyards at the foot of Mount Aconcagua. (The 22,841-foot mountain had claimed the lives of five climbers since the season opened on November 15.) We would be flying home from El Plumerillo airport, in Mendoza. One of the prematurely defeated, a KTM rider with an injured right shoulder, stood morosely with us in the security line. “A lot of stones and rocks,” he said of the previous day.
While we were aloft, Peterhansel floundered on terra firma. He led the way through brush, but mistakes and flat tires caused him to drop forty minutes behind Roma. Over the next six stages of rallying, he hounded Roma, drawing within a whisker for the penultimate Stage 12. Quandt wanted Minis to finish one-two-three -- and no head-to-head racing -- but now Roma was the one who got lost, stuck, and deflated. “Peterhansel Disregards Team Orders and is New Leader,” the headline said.
What happened on the final stage into Valparaíso had to taste like snake meat for all involved. Peterhansel, who later said he was “frustrated,” obeyed Quandt’s dictate and pulled over on the course to let Roma re-pass for the win. Back in the Austrian Alps in December, Dakar’s greatest competitor mentioned that he had tested a big truck, thinking he might try to win in a third category, but the rig was unsatisfyingly heavy. Maybe he now wishes he had gone truckin’ instead.