Dakar Rally sees record interest
he 2005 Dakar Rally - the annual African adventure which attracts experts and the occasional B-list celebrity alike - starts on Friday with its popularity as high as the skies over its Sahara desert route.
A diverse and exotic mechanised caravan of 700 cars, motorbikes and trucks set out Saturday from Barcelona on a 9,000 kilometre safari through five countries before its January 16 climax in the Senegal capital of Dakar.
The size of the field - over 20 percent up on last year - augurs well for an event that saw interest drop away as fast as a mirage in the desert in the mid 1990s.
"The Dakar has never been so much in vogue," beamed race director Etienne Lavigne.
"It's the first time we've ever had to close the entry books so early."
Looking back on the race's chequered fortunes Lavigne added: "We had the pioneering years, then the show-biz years, the low point between 1993 and 1995, then Hubert Auriol worked really hard to modernise the race and his efforts can still be seen today."
Stephane Peterhansel, France's six-time motorbike champion who took the four-wheel title in 2003, is favourite to defend his title and secure constructors Mitsubishi a tenth crown.
The Dakar's international appeal is emphasised by the presence of competitors from 39 different nations - almost double the number from two years ago.
"Last year for the first time we had entries from the Chinese, but there are also the countries from the East who for years haven't had the means to take part," said Lavigne.
Also in the Dakar melting pot is Scotland's 1995 world rally champion Colin McRae who returns after his baptism of fire last year when he spent two nights in the open desert after his Nissan packed up.
McRae's experience evoked memories of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's son Mark who went missing near the Mali-Algerian border in 1982.
Thatcher's tale sparked consternation in Downing Street and fodder for the ever-hungry tabloid press in Britain.
It also made a mockery of his pre-race assumption that competing in the Paris-Dakar as it was then known was "no problem".
The race has come a long way since then in terms of prestige and organisation but the logistics of safely shipping the competitors from one stage to the next in some of the most hostile terrain on the planet is no easy undertaking.
One name sadly missing from the list of entrants is Richard Sainct, who was killed in September after an accident in the Rally of the Pharaohs in Egypt.
The 34-year-old Frenchman won the Paris-Dakar three times, riding for BMW in 1999 and 2000, and KTM in 2003, and was runner-up in the last edition.
His death will serve as a constant reminder as if any were needed that the Dakar is as dangerous as it is daring.
Security as ever is a key concern for organisers especially after the arrest in Mauritania this month of a man suspected of posing a threat during the rally.
That incident followed a warning issued by the United States embassy in Nuakchott on December 6 telling ts citizens to boost their security precautions during the rally.
This year's Dakar is a slimmed down version of its predecessors with nearly 2000 kilometres chopped off last year's route.