Dakar 2011 | Mark Coma 3, South America 0

Since those first 170 lunatics pulled out of Paris and aimed at Dakar in 1978, it’s been somewhere between a race and a war, regardless of which continent the hostilities are held on. The 183 motorcycles and 287 other vehicles from 51 nations lining up in Buenos Aires on New Year’s Day would be racing with each other, but as it was in 2010, the real enemy was South America itself: 5903 of the most diabolically merciless miles in Argentina and Chile divided into 13 stages of racing.

The Paris-based Amaury Sport Organisation disallowed the spectacular big twins and 690cc singles in the premier class, restricting Elite riders to 450cc singles to try and make the mother of all off-road races more accessible and attract a proliferation of bikes to the starting line. It worked: Entries were noticeably up from last year’s 151. Yamaha surprised the world and themselves with two stage winsone for American Jonah Street and another for Portugal’s Hlder Rodrigues, who also managed third overall on a Yamaha France WR450F when 2010 Chilean sensation Francisco Chaleco Rodrigues broke the swingarm on his Aprilia. Paulo Gonalves and Frans Verhoeven earned a pair of stage wins for BMW. And American Baja 1000 ace Quinn Cody became this year’s fastest rookie with a hard-earned ninth overall on a JCR Racing Honda CRF450X.

Though 94 riders managed to keep mind, body and machine together long enough to cross the finish line, it was clear from the beginning that this 33rd edition would come down to two men and one brand of motorcycle: Marc Coma, Cyril Despres and KTM. Last year, it was all Despres. The Frenchman took his third-straight overall victory when a crippling 6-hour, 22-minute penalty dropped the Spaniard to eighth. This time, things would be different.

Officials docked Despres 10 minutes for an infraction in the starting zone. Then he made a bigger mistake 75 miles into Stage 10. Pushing hard to pressure Coma, Despres read a 17 in his road book as 117 and took a wrong turn on the road to Chilecito. When he crashed in the mud trying to make up time, that was it. Coma took the stage, taking another 9 minutes and 56 seconds out of his French nemesis. Holding an 18-minute advantage four days from the finish, Coma seemed unbeatable. And as it turns out, he was.

Chalking up five stage wins and riding essentially flawlessly, 34-year-old Marc Coma took his third Dakar Rally win by just over 15 minutes. “Staying focused was essential,” he said. “It was the only way to win.” Cyril Despres finished second, 1 hour and 40 minutes ahead of Hélder Rodrigues in third.