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Volkswagen threatens Mitsubishi's dominance

Text by Emmanuel VERSACE , Thibault LIEURADE

Latest update : 2009-01-03

Since the introduction of its racing model Touareg in 2004, Volkswagen has advanced by leaps and bounds in the Dakar rally. In 2009, drivers Carlos Sainz, Mark Miller and Giniel de Villiers are bent to steal the title from Mitsubishi.

Read our special report: "Dakar rally lands in South America"

Carlos Sainz admits that Mitsubishi are the “favourites”, but, he says, “we will do everything in our power to go after them. We are formidable challengers.”

Merely challengers, Mr. Sainz? Perhaps it is the many laurels won by the Mitsubishi team, including the last seven Dakar rallies, that makes you so modest.

In 2008, after the African version of the Dakar rally was cancelled, the organization invited competitors to test their mettle on tracks in Hungary and Romania. The car that came ahead in this rough battle was the Volkswagen driven by Carlos Sainz, nicknamed “El Matador”. The German team wasn’t far from a grand slam, victorious in six out of the seven rounds.

The previous year, drivers Mark Miller (USA) and Carlos Sainz (Spain) were ranked fourth and ninth, respectively. It was a frustrating result, owing to the mechanical failures that struck the Volkswagen vehicles.

Diesel rears its head at BMW and Mitsubishi

After two years working on the race cars' viability, the German manufacturer was ready for South America, with the firm intention of seizing the title that had escaped them.

But the unfamiliarity of these South American tracks will also be key to the final victory.  “He who makes the fewest errors will win the race,” Miller said. And he remains convinced that “if I do as well as I have been, I will win.”

The change of continent is not the only revolution of the 2009 rally. This year, a diesel car is likely to take the highest rank on the podium.

This is a first for top-notch outfits like BMW and especially Mitsubishi. Volkswagen, meanwhile, has been using diesel motor cars for the last five years.

The lag in converting to diesel does not bother Stéphane Peterhansel, winner of the 2007 rally.

“We have had a year to take stock and prepare,” he said. “We are ready. Our direct competition has more experience [with diesel], but we’re not worried.”

An electric atmosphere

Volkswagen respects its adversaries. As Sainz says, “Mitsubishi is more than just a car.”

The French newspaper L’Equipe reported in its January 2 edition that there was tension between the two teams a few months ago in Morocco, when the diesel Racing Lancer competed for the very first time. The Japanese team accused Volkswagen of having sent “spies” to check out the new models.

Peterhansel says that this time, there were “a few indiscreet glances but not more than that.” He adds, “Only the race will really tell which is best.”

We’ll see who can bring Dakar to the next level over the grueling two week combat.

Date created : 2009-01-03