This is the 40th running of the Dakar Rally, the tenth to have been held nowhere near the city of Dakar in Senegal, north Africa. Organisers were forced to move the rally to South America amid security concerns back in 2009. The event may now have a new home on an entirely different continent, but the gruelling, attritional nature of the rally is very much still in tact.
The event started in Lima, Peru, on Saturday last week and won't finish until it reaches Cordoba in Argentina on Saturday next week. There are 14 stages. The total length of the route is 9,000km, more than half of which is timed special stage. The longest stage is a monstrous 498km. That's London to Newcastle across dusty plains, rocky tracks and sand dunes, 3,500 metres above sea level, with the clock ticking.
As it turned out, though, the route wasn't just too much for the rally's amateurs, but for several of the professionals, too. Mini's Mikko Hirvonen, for instance - who really should have won at least one WRC title during his seven years with Ford - admitted to having been caught out on the fifth stage by one particular dune that masked a sharp drop. His Mini John Cooper Works Buggy landed so heavily that he hurt his neck, forcing him to tip-toe his way to the end of the stage.
Loeb has led the Dakar on both previous attempts, but he's never won it. His team, Peugeot, is pulling out of the event after this year's running, which prompted the Frenchman to describe winning the Dakar as 'now or never'. Brake issues on the opening stage dropped him down the order, but he recovered over the next two days, won the fourth stage and found himself second overall.
It's like warfare. Scores of brave, intrepid men and women heading out into unforgiving terrain, their equipment being ripped to pieces, some battling on, some getting injured and going no further. You get the impression, in fact, that it's not much more than a lottery. The conditions are so punishing that only by sheer good fortune does anybody manage to get to the end of each stage.
And, after all, it isn't really a lottery at all. There is still an awfully long way to go, sure, but the leader of the rally is living proof that you make your own luck on the Dakar. His name is Stephane Peterhansel and he's 52 years old. He's driving for Peugeot, as he has done for the last three years, and as it stands he's on his way to winning the Dakar for the 14th time. His first six wins came on two wheels. This, if he stays out in front for the remaining nine stages, would be his eighth win on four.
Britain's Sam Sunderland, incidentally, started the rally hoping to repeat his famous 2017 victory in the motorbike category. He was leading the class until, on the fourth stage, he landed heavily and injured his back, forcing an early withdrawal.
After the cars ripped across the stage and the massive trucks lumbered along lazily, the bikes came through. I can still see that one bike appear around the unsighted right-hander, drop into a rut and high-side, its rider being flung violently into the brush. He lay still for a moment, then picked himself up, hobbled on one hurt leg over to his bike, strained to right the thing onto its wheels, swung that hurt leg over and carried on. Not so that he could limp half a lap back to the pits, I thought to myself at the time, but to push on towards the end of the stage, this unimaginable point in space many hundreds of kilometres away. It was a moving display of resilience and fortitude. That was when I realised just how brutal the Dakar Rally is.
Photos: Red Bull]