142 motorcycle riders have signed up for the 40th edition of the Dakar, which starts in Lima on 6 January. Defending champion Sam Sunderland scored a double whammy in 2017, when he completed the rally for the first time and won the race to boot.
Austria's KTM are once again the favourites, but the general classification is wide open, with their Honda and Yamaha rivals ready to pounce on any weakness.
Far behind the fight for the title, 28 riders will tackle the challenge. These extraordinary adventurers are there in greater numbers than at any previous point since the Dakar moved to South America.
"There are probably 10 guys with the capability of winning the Dakar." Sam Sunderland's diplomatic prediction obviously includes him as one of the contenders.
Based on the number 1 that will be displayed on his motorcycle and pinned to his race suit, some would even say he is the big favourite. At any rate, the Brit's analysis goes to show just how much things have changed since that time when the ever-consistent Cyril Despres and Marc Coma divided the spoils between themselves.
KTM's new leader is well aware that, in rally raid, dreams of glory can often crumble under the weight of unexpected events. He experienced it first-hand this year, when heavy rains in the Rally of Morocco caused him to drown his bike and wave goodbye to the world championship.
Toby Price, the other former champion racing this year, could also say a thing or two about how hard it is to defend one's title.
The Aussie spent most of the year convalescing after breaking his femur in the fourth stage of last year's race. However, the doubts around their leading duo do not in any way diminish KTM's firepower in their quest for a 17th consecutive victory. Last year's runner-up, Matthias Walkner, claimed the Rally of Morocco, while teammate Antoine Méo finished fourth and proved that he is also a force to be reckoned with.
KTM's rivals have had to settle for minor placings and stage wins so far, but their never-say-die attitude makes them once again a serious threat for the overall victory. Honda, for example, can never be written off.
Joan Barreda may not be the most consistent rider, but he is probably the fastest one, with 19 specials under his belt! However, HRC is pinning its hopes on 2015 runner-up Paulo Gonçalves, if he manages to fully recover from his recent fall during training, and Kevin Benavides, who had to sit out the 2017 edition but was hot on Walkner's heels a few weeks ago when he finished second in Morocco.
Yamaha, meanwhile, has finished on the podium with David Frétigné (2009), Hélder Rodrigues (2011 and 2012) and Olivier Pain (2014) since it returned to centre stage. Now, Adrien van Beveren (fourth in 2017), last year's best rookie Franco Caimi (eighth) and Xavier de Soultrait, who won the Merzouga Rally and finished fourth and fifth in the Argentinian and Chilean legs of the world championship, have brought in a breath of fresh air to the team.
Like in 2016, the most consistent rider of the season has been Pablo Quintanilla, who will be riding for Husqvarna again. As far as we are concerned, Sam, that makes it 11 guys with a shot at winning!
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