Dakar on radar of Kiwi fans
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Once this weekend's Supercars finale in Sydney is wrapped up, the international motorsport calendar largely falls quiet until WRC Rallye Monte Carlo and the 24 Hours of Daytona in late January.
Except for the annual Dakar odyssey. Based in South America since 2009, the Dakar Rally traces its title and marathon pedigree to the original 1979 race from Paris through the West Sahara to Dakar.
The 2017 motorsport adventure is a multi-discipline event that will visit Paraguay for the first time and race through the Andes at altitudes up to 5000m.
The rally hits the road on January 2 from the new Asuncion start, making a six-day run west and then north to La Paz in Bolivia for a rest day. All competition in Bolivia takes place at altitudes of least 3000m.
Then the rally runs south through the Andes to Chilecito and San Juan and turns east via some WRC Rally Argentina terrain close to Cordoba to finish in Buenos Aires on January 14.
Dakar has gained a higher profile in New Zealand with the daily SkySport highlights while the addition of former WRC stars to the entry list and recent Aussie success on two wheels has also put the event onto the radar of Downunder fans.
2017's entry list includes former WRC champions Sebastien Loeb (France) and Carlos Sainz (Spain) along with Mikko Hirvonen (Finland), Martin Prokop (Czech Republic), Xavier Pons (Spain) and Nasser Al-Attiyah (Qatar).
The factory team battle for outright honours in the Auto category sees Peugeot looking to defend its Dakar crown against Mini and Toyota.
The full 316 vehicles entered include 146 motorcycles, 83 cars (including a new UTV class), 37 ATV quads and 50 trucks.
The route varies slightly depending on category but the rally covers almost 9000km of which about 4000km is competitively timed. The longest single special stage is 527km leading to the La Paz rest day.
Peugeot is the defending champion in the Auto category and its effort features four-wheel-drive, V6 diesel buggies clothed in bodywork inspired by the new 3008 crossover. Peugeot's unchanged driving squad blends talent from WRC and motorcycle backgrounds. Loeb and Sainz are joined by 2016 winner Stephane Peterhansel (France) and five-time motorcycle winner Cyril Despres (France).
The Frankfurt-based X-Raid team carries the hopes of Mini with a car based on the latest generation Countryman. It continues with the 4x4 layout and 3.0-litre BMW diesel engine that won from 2012 through 2015.
Former WRC star Mikko Hirvonen (Finland) was fourth on his debut in 2016 while Saudi WRC driver Yazeed Al-Rajhi and Argentina's Orlando Terranova head the Mini hopes along with highest profile rookie of 2017 -- US off-road racing star Bryce Menzies who is a three-time Baja 500 winner.
Toyota has never won the Dakar and its hopes are carried by two teams -- South Africa's Toyota Gazoo Racing SA and Belgian Toyota Overdrive Racing squad.
Overdrive's entries are for 2014 winner Nani Roma (Spain) and Erik van Loon (Netherlands). The Hilux racers are powered by the 5.0-litre V8 from Lexus F performance cars.