Hundreds of thousands of people have lined the roads out of Buenos Aires, farewelling the 372 vehicles competing in the Dakar Rally – considered to be the most dangerous race on the planet.

Among those being waved away by the excited crowds surrounding the famous Obelisk in downtown BA was Car 320, the Isuzu D-MAX ute of Australians, Bruce Garland and Harry Suzuki. They’ve been seeded in 20th place this year, after their impressive result last year. Their Swedish teammates Pelle Wallentheim and Olle Ohlsson, 15 cars behind them, carry the number 335.

For now, competitors are crawling along a packed highway, travelling 317km from BA to Colón. Today’s stage is merely a transport section – no competition involved. The action begins tomorrow, with a 684km stage to Córdoba.

Drivers then head to La Rioja and Fiambalá in Argentina before going to Copiapó, Chile, on January 5. From there to Antofagasta, Iquique, La Serena and Santiago. Then the race returns to Argentina, passing through San Juan, San Rafael, Santa Rosa and finally Buenos Aires. The only rest day in the 32nd edition of the Dakar Rally will be January 9, at Antofagasta.

“We’ve literally just left the podium at the official start, and now we’re driving down the freeway but we’re not going as fast as that might suggest,” said Garland.

“There are people everywhere. It’s not quite as chaotic as last year. There are definitely more people but they’ve spread them out more, so while it is slow, we are moving.

“Apparently they’ve got more than 20,000 police helping control the event, and it’s certainly helping at this point. It’s giving us a better run than we had last time, and it’s definitely safer for the spectators.”

Garland says he and the rest of the team are now eager to get some competition miles under their belts, having been in Buenos Aires since December 23 doing their final preparations.

The aim for this year’s event is to finish much higher up the order than in 2009, when Garland and Suzuki finished 11th outright and were first ‘amateur’ (non-factory team) home. They also claimed bragging rights as first diesel ute and first production chassis car.

Swedish teammates Pelle Wallentheim and Olle Ohlsson (Tubus Racing) who had some troubles on last year’s event, claimed 44th outright. They are starting as Car 35.

A total of 372 cars, bikes, quads and trucks are tackling this year’s event, 138 of them ‘cars’ such as the Isuzus. Over the next 16 days, they will cover 9030km, of which 4810km is high-speed competitive sections across the dunes, deserts, and mountains from Argentina and Chile. The route includes four stages in the Atacama Desert – the driest place in the world – and the 4726m high San Francisco Pass.

The Dakar Rally is the world’s premier off-road endurance competition. First staged in 1978, it was traditionally run in Europe and Arica, but moved to South America in 2009 because of safety concerns. The 2008 race – the last to be held in Africa – was cancelled on the eve of the start after the deaths of four French tourists. Their killers had links to the Al-Qaida terrorist network and threatened Dakar Rally organisers and competitors.

Garland and Suzuki are driving an Isuzu D-MAX 4x4 ute, built in Garland’s Sydney backyard. The standard 3.0-litre turbo-diesel production engine has been slightly tweaked for better performance, especially for the high altitude sections of the event. It has maximum torque of 600Nm – up 66 per cent on the standard roadgoing D-MAX ute – and peak power of 180kW, which is 50 per cent more than the standard vehicle. It competes in Class T1.2, which is modified 4WD diesel.

There will be regular updates on the team’s performance on the official Isuzu Ute Australia website (www.isuzuute.com.au) and also on the SBS website (www.sbs.com.au/dakar); SBS ONE will show daily highlights of Dakar 2010, every night at 6:00pm AEDT from January 3 to 17. 

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