Monday marks the start of the 2017 Dakar Rally, which boasts one of its most competitive line-ups in recent years. Valentin Khorounzhiy and Jamie Klein pick out 10 storylines to keep an eye on during the gruelling South American event.

1. Peugeot brings all-new car for title defence

The 2016-spec version of the Peugeot 2008 DKR was quite evidently the best package in the car category last year, and yet the French marque's victory was anything but comfortable.

What was a 1-2-3 heading into the mid-rally rest day quickly dissipated ahead of the final stretch – and while Peterhansel did bring it home for victory, the X-Raid squad's protest over refuelling rule confusion meant the win would only be confirmed a few months after the rally.

In the 2016 edition, Peugeot was furthest ahead in the so-called “WRC-style stages”, but held its own through the more traditional rally-raid runs, too. Now dubbed the 3008DKR, the car has been upgraded, whereas the four crews provide full continuity, meaning Peugeot ought to remain the benchmark this year.

Peterhansel - whose 12 wins in the rally have given him the moniker of “Mr. Dakar” - should be a major force as usual, and will likely look to make gains in the tougher stages through his experience. But 2010 champion Carlos Sainz is arguably as strong a contender, as he was desperately unlucky to have his burgeoning 2016 victory bid ruined by a gearbox issue.

Making up the star-studded line-up once more, WRC legend Sebastien Loeb and five-time bikes winner Cyril Despres are obviously at an experience deficit. But Loeb looked super-fast on his debut last year, and Despres is making clear gains, having given Peugeot a win in the prestigious Silk Way Rally back in July.

#300 Team Peugeot Sport, Peugeot 3008 DKR: Stéphane Peterhansel, Jean-Paul Cottret
 

2. Former WRC stars gaining experience

Given the amount of attention he's likely to command, Loeb deserves a standalone mention. His Dakar debut in 2016 was always going to be a big deal, with the nine consecutive WRC crowns providing the name power and his successes in other racing categories proving his obvious adaptability – but even with that in mind, it was a fine run.

Loeb and his WRC co-driver Daniel Elena looked right at home in the Argentine WRC-style stages before an unsighted dip triggered a roll that ended the pair's victory chances. Off-road running, Loeb admitted then, was the weakness, but he and Elena have been working hard to address this.

Mikko Hirvonen, Loeb's long-time WRC rival and another Dakar debutant in 2016, didn't post as many headline stage times as the Frenchman, but drew praise for his handling of off-piste sections on his way to a very impressive fourth place.

Partnered with co-driver Michel Perin, Hirvonen took his first cross-country win in the Hungarian Baja earlier this year and will have a strong claim to being X-Raid Mini's team leader in his second Dakar.

#303 X-Raid Team Mini: Mikko Hirvonen, Michel Périn
 

3. Al-Attiyah's bid for marque hat-trick

Dakar superstar Nasser Al-Attiyah came closer than anyone to denying Peugeot the 2016 win and capped off a strong three-year run with X-Raid Mini – three podiums from three tries, among them a victory in 2015.

But his contract was up for this year, and it's Toyota Gazoo that picked up the slack, giving the Qatari a shot at taking the car's first Dakar win and his third with a third different manufacturer – his first triumph having come with Volkswagen back in 2011.

It's too early to guess whether this move will pay off in terms of Dakar silverware, but there's no arguing Al-Attiyah, co-driver Mathieu Baumel and the Toyota Hilux have already proven a seriously potent combination.

The Qatari has laid waste to this year's FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies, winning six events – among them Rally Morocco, where he emerged victorious in a duel against Carlos Sainz, who was debuting the new Peugeot.

And it's Al-Attiyah's arrival that probably accounts for why Sainz himself not only recognises Toyota as Peugeot's biggest rival, but reckons the Japanese marque might actually have a slight edge.

Nasser Al-Attiyah, Toyota Gazoo Racing
 

4. A big number of possible winners

That's not to say that Toyota's line-up is all about Al-Attiyah, as he's not even the only former Dakar winner the marque has lured away from Mini.

The other is Nani Roma, who won for Mini in 2011 and was also a champion on two wheels in 2004. He was a relatively muted sixth last year, going through the motions with new co-driver Alex Haro – but the pair should be a fair bit closer to the front this time around.

Crucially, Toyota has also retained Dakar's 2009 champion - South African Giniel de Villiers - who headed the Japanese manufacturer's contingent last year and has been at the finish in all 13 of his Dakar starts.

Going in the opposite direction of Al-Attiyah and Roma, Yazeed Al-Rajhi has joined Mini, and the Saudi can be regarded as a reasonably major coup for X-Raid. A former WRC2 frontrunner, Al-Rajhi ran a credible third in his debut Dakar in 2015 before retiring with a mechanical issue. He didn't have as strong a run in 2016 but has long confirmed his rally-raid prowess in the FIA championship – and has a major asset in Dakar-winning co-driver Timo Gottschalk.

American off-road ace Bryce Menzies was to make up the X-Raid line-up for his Dakar debut, but he got injured – and Orly Terranova has been called up instead. The Argentine hasn't finished Dakar in higher than fifth, but he's won enough stages and shown enough speed to figure as an outside contender.

306 X-Raid Team Mini: Yazeed Al Raji, Timo Gottschalk
 

5. KTM's intra-team warfare

When it comes to Dakar's bikes contest, one marque has dominated like no other: KTM. The last time the Austrian manufacturer lost out on the two-wheeled crown was in 2000, and since then the category has been virtually an exclusive competition between Marc Coma and Cyril Despres.

That all changed last year, of course, following Coma's retirement (Despres had since moved across to the car category), but it was still KTM that came out on top as Toby Price took up the baton. As the only former winner in the field, the Aussie, who added the Morocco Rally to his CV in October, has to start as favourite, but the competition will be fierce - not least from within his own Red Bull-backed team.

First, there's Mathias Walkner, who made an immediate impression on his debut in 2015 - winning his third stage - before he was sidelined by illness. Last year, the Austrian was running inside the top three, just a couple of minutes behind Price, when he crashed out of the event with a broken femur. He would surely have pushed his teammate all the way had he stayed out of trouble.

The other KTM rider to watch is Dubai-based Briton Sam Sunderland, who sat out last year's Dakar but has shown plenty of speed on his three previous appearances, picking up stage wins in 2014 and 2015, the latter being his first appearance for KTM. More recently he won last year's Qatar Sealine rally, ending up second in the FIM Cross Country standings behind Pablo Quintanilla.

More about the 2017 Dakar:

 

#3 KTM: Toby Price
 

6. Honda, Yamaha lying in wait

If KTM has been unstoppable in Dakar's bikes division for the past 16 years, it's certainly not been for want of trying on the part of its competitors. Honda and Yamaha in particular have ramped up their efforts to oust the dominant Austrian marque in recent years, with works teams that have been close to matching KTM's in terms of resources and depth.

Yamaha's last win came back in 1998 - courtesy of one S. Peterhansel, before he swapped two wheels for four - and the man most likely to end the wait is Helder Rodrigues, who has eight stage wins to his name and finished fifth last year. Ably supporting the Portuguese veteran will be Adrian van Beveren, one of the most impressive members of 2016's rookie class, and Alessandro Botturi.

For Honda, the wait for Dakar glory goes all the way back to 1989, and spearheading the charge for the Japanese brand is once again Joan Barreda, one of Dakar's fastest riders in recent years but also one of the unluckiest. A 14-time stage winner (more than any other rider in the current field), he's yet to finish higher than seventh, having had strong victory bids in both 2015 and 2016 wrecked by unreliability.

This time around, Barreda will have Michael Metge as his water-carrier, while another experienced Portuguese rider, Paulo Goncalves, and American Ricky Brabec make up Honda's four-strong works line-up. Kevin Benavides, who finished an impressive fourth as a rookie in 2016, was Honda's fifth man but was forced to pull out days before the start with a broken wrist.

Joan Barreda, Monster Energy Honda Team
 

7. Kamaz's bid to reclaim Trucks crown

The Dakar trucks competition has been synonymous with Kamaz for a good while now, as the Russian manufacturer has triumphed 12 times in 16 races since 2000. But last year was among the exceptions to the rule, IVECO's Gerard de Rooy delivering a confident win.

Aiming to restore its place at the top, Kamaz enters this upcoming Dakar with a slightly tweaked line-up. Past winners Ayrat Mardeev and Eduard Nikolaev are back, as is Dmitry Sotnikov. Andrey Karginov, meanwhile, will instead run the Dakar alternative Africa Eco Race and is replaced by Anton Shibalov, who has three wins in the aforementioned event.

But De Rooy's Petronas-backed IVECO team will likely remain a powerhouse. The man himself is as guaranteed a victory contender as there can be in this rally, and the team's other Powerstar truck, piloted by Federico Villagra, should also feature right at the sharp end. The Argentine rally star drove to an excellent third on his truck category debut last time out.

There are several other drivers that could be capable of spoiling the Kamaz v. IVECO party, however, among them perennial frontrunner Ales Loprais (Tatra), 2007 champ Hans Stacey (MAN) and Martin van den Brink (Renault), who won the 2016 Libya Rally and very nearly disrupted Kamaz's 1-2 in the Silk Way Rally.

#502 Kamaz: Eduard Nikolaev, Evgeny Yakovlev, Vladimir Rybakov
 

8. A wide open quad contest

The 2016 edition of the Dakar quad race featured a strong line-up, but ultimately produced a rather anticlimactic battle for victory. As frontrunners faltered one after another – chief among them Chilean Ignacio Casale, who lost a decent lead to an engine issue and then broke his collarbone in a fall – brothers Marcos and Alejandro Patronelli usurped the top two spots and cruised to the finish.

Neither Patronellis will run in 2017 (Marcos having stated they weren't keen on the route) and there are several other quad frontrunners whose absences will be felt, chief among them podium finisher Brian Baragwanath of South Africa and the injury-stricken Alexis Hernandez of Peru.

All that, however, doesn't mean the roster is set to be devoid of excitement. Much of the focus is likely to be on returning winners – the ever-quick Casale, who had gone through a long recovery from his injury; Poland's Rafal Sonik, who turned 50 earlier this year; and Czech rider Josef Machacek, going back to quads aged almost 60 after having run two Dakars in cars.

Yet there's a pretty solid chance of a first-time winner, given the quad category's high attrition rates. Russia's Sergey Karyakin, having finished fourth last year, is a definite contender, as is Marcelo Medeiros, who ran up front on his debut last time out before crashing.

Ignacio Casale
 

9. Other familiar names in the field

The Dakar entry list often tends to have a few names nestled within it that will be familiar to fans of other branches of motorsport, and the 2016 edition is no exception.

Chief among these is WEC champion Romain Dumas, who swaps his Porsche for a privately-entered Peugeot 3008DKR for his third attempt at the South American enduro. Having finished 20th last year, the Frenchman has set himself the goal of finishing inside the top 15 this time around, and there's little doubt he has the machinery to achieve this if luck goes his way.

Also behind the wheel of a non-factory Peugeot is Khalid Al Qassimi, a regular on the WRC scene for the past few seasons with Citroen. The Emirati driver is making his Dakar debut, but contested three rally-raids last year in Abu Dhabi, Aragon and Morocco. Making the finish would be a good result.

Fans of the WRC will also note the presence of Martin Prokop, who came 14th in his maiden Dakar last year and switches from Toyota to Ford machinery for his second stab. Xavier Pons is also in a Ford for his sophomore Dakar, having shown promise in 2016 with a third-place finish on the prologue stage.

Elsewhere, former Citroen junior Conrad Rautenbach joins the Toyota Gazoo Racing squad for his maiden Dakar, coming in at the last minute to replace an unwell Leeroy Poulter.

Finally, WTCC racer Tom Coronel and his twin brother Tim are back in their Suzuki-powered one-man buggies for another crack at conquering the South American terrain. Only Tim made it to the finish last year, coming home 35th; no doubt Tom will be aiming to win family bragging rights this time around.

#347 Suzuki: Tim Coronel
 

10. A much tougher navigational challenge

The most recent edition of the Dakar Rally was an exciting affair with a fair few twists and turns along the way, but it did have its detractors in regards to its route and level of challenge.

A few participants lamented, especially in the first week, the prevalence of lengthy “WRC-style” road sections, which stood in contrast to the more traditional, navigation-heavy off-road stages from Dakar's African days.

Whether or not the complaints were justified, it's fair to say the organisers have adopted a renewed focus on rally-raid challenges as their mission statement. Dakar sporting director Marc Coma conceded navigation “has lost of a bit of importance” in the recent iterations of the event – and several rule tweaks have been made to counter that. The organisers also produced a 2017 route that could end up tougher than all of Dakar's previous South American iterations.

Indeed, that is the expectation of Peugeot's 2016 champion Peterhansel: “On paper, this seems, all things equal, a tougher race than in the past. The stages are longer and more complicated, and there are fewer WRC-like road sections.”

The 2017 edition will open in Paraguay's capital Asuncion but move quickly to Argentina, where the bulk of the stages will be held. But it's the five-day detour in Bolivia that has demanded much of the attention, the route there promising unfamiliar terrain combined with the challenge of a very high altitude.

Featuring within the Bolivia leg is the much anticipated marathon stage – the run between La Paz and Uyuni on January 9, where competitors, by regulation, will have to get by without their assistance crews. But the Argentine leg is no pushover either, with January 11's “Super Belen” - an almost 1000km trip from Salta to Chilecito – poised to play a key role in deciding the winners.

#302 Peugeot: Stéphane Peterhansel, Jean-Paul Cottret
 

Rally schedule

Date Start Finish Timed stage (km) Altitude range
Bikes Cars Trucks
Jan 2 Asuncion Resistencia 39 39 39 100-200m
Jan 3 Resistencia Tucuman 275 275 284 200-300m
Jan 4 Tucuman Jujuy 364 364 199 1700-5000m
Jan 5 Jujuy Tupiza 416 416 416 3000-3500m
Jan 6 Tupiza Oruro 447 447 438 3700-4400m
Jan 7 Oruro La Paz 527 527 513 3800-4400m
Jan 8 La Paz rest day
Jan 9 La Paz Uyuni 322 322 322 3700-3900m
Jan 10 Uyuni Salta 492 492 492 3000-4400m
Jan 11 Salta Chilecito 406 406 406 2200-3000m
Jan 12 Chilecito San Juan 449 449 449 800-3000m
Jan 13 San Juan Rio Cuarto 288 292 288 400-2200m
Jan 14 Rio Cuarto Buenos Aires 64 64 64 200-600m

Co-author: Jamie Klein, News Editor

Source: Motorsport.com

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