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Dakar 2015: World’s toughest off-road race begins

Early on 4 January, as the morning sun lazily crept its way up over the horizon of Buenos Aires, Argentina, the first of 665 valiant competitors crossed the start line of the 37th Dakar Rally.

They’ve signed themselves up for two weeks of treacherous, torturous trudging across 5,661 miles of South America. It’s a loop that incorporates the most inhospitable parts of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, where man and motorised machine will be doing battle with nature in the most extreme Cub Scout Orienteering Badge on the planet.

So if you’re unfamiliar with the Dakar Rally – to give it its full name – relax and take notes as we quickly breeze through its history.

It began in 1977 when a French bloke called Thierry Sabine got lost on his motorbike in the Libyan desert during the Abidjan-Nice rally. Stumped for a way home, he waited to be rescued. Something that turned out to be an enlightening event, as he then dreamt of coming back again – this time getting less lost – and venturing through on a 5,500-mile trek across Africa in a quest for human discovery. Sounds a bit late ‘70s hippie fantasy, doesn’t it? But the next year, he and a few mates did indeed compete in the first event, and from then on it has been an annual celebration that has grown in scale, ambition and worldwide viewership.

In 2015, confusingly, the Dakar Rally doesn’t actually take place anywhere near Dakar. Racing cars off-road around that part of the world got a little bit sketchy post-millennia. So, six years ago, the Dakar packed its bags and migrated to South America in order to continue.

This year, the epic two-week cross-country endurance race started in Buenos Aires. Over the next 14 days, competitors will complete 13 stages that will take them west across Argentina – and the mighty Andes – into Chile, then north into Bolivia. They’ll then cross the Andes again from west to east and head back to Buenos Aires on a different route that includes pretty much every kind of inhospitable terrain you can imagine. A mighty Argentinean and Chilean road trip is always a good thing for us at Top Gear…

From the Atacama Desert (the world’s driest desert and the closest thing to Mars on Earth), to snow-capped tracks at a head-lightening 13,650 feet, to long road sections and wheel-swallowing sand dunes with gradients that Chemmy Alcott would claim to be too steep, it’s basically a WRC route book dreamed up by a virulent sadist.

It’s also incredibly hard to navigate, as sat navs are banned. Being old school, a route book is the only means of guidance, and even that’s only handed out the night before a stage. If a driver mishears a mumbled note from his co-driver in the barren desert, they can miss a checkpoint by miles – losing monstrous amounts of time and leaving a lot of awkward silences in camp that night.

This year there are 665 competitors aged between 18-73 having a crack at the epic adventure. They’re split among 138 cars, 164 bikes, 48 quads and 64 trucks. The scale of the operation is truly massive, and TG.com has come along to join the ride.

We’re riding on the nomex coattails of the Peugeot Sport team for the first couple of days. No bones about it, this is officially a Big Deal for them. Why? Because it’s the French firm’s first rally raid car since the legendary 205 T16 GR and the equally iconic 405 T16 GR, two cars that handed Peugeot outright Dakar wins four years on the bounce from 1987 to 1990. And considering it’s a French event, they’re effectively playing for the home team. No pressure then, chaps.

We’ll try our best to keep you updated with what’s going on over the first few stages, but bear with us, as the desert isn’t known for its 4G signal strength and things are known to get a bit crazy out here.

But to whet your appetite, check out the video below and hit these blue words to see a gallery from scrutineering.

A version of this story originally appeared on TopGear.com.

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