Peterhansel seeks breathing space in Dakar high life

Asuncion (AFP) –


Stephane Peterhansel targets a 13th Dakar title next month, describing the gruelling 2017 rally as the most intense he has faced and fearing the physical effects of racing at South America's punishing high altitudes.

The 51-year-old Frenchman clinched his sixth win on four wheels in this year's event to add to six motorcycle triumphs since his debut back in 1988 when the famed race was still held in Africa.

But when the 39th running of the Dakar starts in Paraguay on Monday, many in the field will be happy just to negotiate the six days spent at 3,000 metres or more above sea level.

"We all fear a little the time spent at altitude. I fear for the teams, the staff, mechanics," said Peterhansel, who won the 2016 event in a Peugeot after wins in 2004, 2005 and 2007 with Mitsubishi and 2012 and 2013 victories behind the wheel of a Mini.

"Last year there were cases when mechanics didn't feel well. This is going to be the most intense Dakar we have done in South America."

The 9,000km race will start in Paraguay, cross into Argentina, negotiate the Andes in Bolivia before returning to Argentina and a finish at Buenos Aires on January 14.

The only scheduled rest day on January 8 will be spent in the Bolivian capital of La Paz at a lung-busting 3,500m above sea level.

While on the Bolivian Altiplano, five stages will be raced with a maximum altitude of 4,500m reached.

"The route of the 2017 Dakar preserves the rally-raid traditions, with a physical challenge that will push the competitors into the world of extreme endurance," said Dakar race sporting director Marc Coma, himself a five-time winner of the motorcycle title.

There will be six stages of more than 400km, dune crossing and driving in sand, especially on the sections of the route still unknown to rally-raid regulars or during the all-important "Super Belen" stage, three days from the finish line in Buenos Aires.

Peterhansel's Peugeot team is completed by two-time world rally champion Carlos Sainz, a Dakar winner in 2010, but who has failed to finish in the last two years.

Nine-time world rally champion Sebastien Loeb returns for a second year with the French manufacturer after marking his debut with a ninth-place finish in 2016.

Fellow Frenchman Cyril Despres, a five-time motorcycle champion, is also back with Peugeot after a 34th and seventh-place spot in 2015 and 2016.

More than 90 car teams will take part with Toyota likely to be Peugeot's main challenger.

The Japanese squad boasts three former winners -- South Africa's Giniel de Villiers, who won the maiden Dakar of the South American era with Volkswagen in 2009, Nani Roma, the 2004 winner, and Qatar's Nasser Al Attiyah, the 2011 and 2015 champion.

Mini, the 2012-2015 champions, pin their hopes on Mikko Hirvonen who marked his Dakar debut in 2016 with an impressive fourth-place spot.

In the motorcycle championship, 149 vehicles will start with Australia's Toby Price defending his title with KTM.

The 2017 race will be the ninth time the Dakar has been held in South America.

The race was cancelled in 2008 over security threats in Mauritania, organisers taking the decision to move the rally to another continent in 2009.