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2018 Dakar Rally kicks off today, 40th year overall and 10th year in South America

Dakar Rally logo 2018

Editor’s note: NBCSN will have daily coverage from the Rally starting on Sunday and running through the end of the Rally, while MotorSportsTalk will also have daily recaps to keep you up to date on the Rally’s progress each day.

Imagine driving from New York to Los Angeles – and then back, roughly about 5,600 miles roundtrip.

And you have 14 days to do it in, meaning you have to average about 400 miles per day.

Sure, you get a break at the end of each day to rest up for the following day’s adventure, but forget about staying in five-star hotels or eating at world-class restaurants.

In fact, you’re likely to pitch a tent next to your ride so you can get up bright and early the next morning and just hop into your vehicle and get back on the road as quick as you can.

Now, further imagine that instead of interstate or multi-lane highways, you’re driving almost solely off-road, to the point where some roads seemingly aren’t roads at all.

Plus, you go through a multitude of conditions and altitudes, from oceans and beaches to deserts to mountains, dodging not only other cars, trucks and motorcycles along the way, but also huge boulders, big dips, rivers, heavy brush, powdery fine sand and even some serious potential drop-offs that you likely wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy.

And let’s not forget atmospheric conditions in addition to the driving conditions. Competitors can be in weather in the 70s and 80s one day and be closing in on 30s and 40s a day or two later.

Say hello the 40th annual Dakar Rally, which begins today and continues through Saturday, Jan. 20. The longest and most challenging endurance race in the world is celebrating its 10th anniversary in South America.

And while it is likely said every year, this year’s race could indeed be the most challenging event the Dakar has ever seen.

The race begins today in Lima, Peru, meanders through a good chunk of the rest of Peru for the first six stages, saunters into Bolivia for nearly a week, and eventually into Argentina, where it ends in Cordoba.

There’s no passport checks, TSA checking your luggage, no borders to stop at. But there’s plenty of speeding (and no traffic cops to issue tickets), jumping, climbing and dipping under every possible condition man and machine can handle.

This year’s field consists of 335 vehicles – 139 Bikes, 49 Quads, 103 Cars and SxS and 44 Trucks – and 523 drivers and co-drivers, known as “adventurers.”

As we said, this is arguably the ultimate test of man and machine – and sometimes it becomes a battle of man VS. machine.

The key to winning, regardless of whether you’re on four wheels or two, and whether you’re in a car, quad-runner, motorcycle, SxS or truck, is obviously speed.

But that’s far too often easier said than done.

There’s also staying out of the way of fellow competitors, staying out of harm’s way from track obstacles like large rocks or bottoming out too hard after grabbing air in a long jump.

And there’s also the need to have quick assistance at the ready at almost all times if you are involved in a crash or suffer some type of mechanical malfunction.

Here’s three of the top storylines for fans to follow over the next two weeks:

1) Weather

One four-letter word was cursed thousands of times during last year’s Rally: R-A-I-N.

The wet stuff slowed down several days of racing at times, and ultimately caused one full day of racing to be cancelled because the downpours were incessant and so heavy that it made it impossible for drivers to compete. Rain also forced the significant shortening of the Rally’s longest scheduled day by more than half.

With the return of the Rally to Peru and its sands, beaches and deserts, organizers are hoping rain will be more of an inconvenience rather than an insurmountable obstacle as was the case last year.

The middle section of the Rally, in Bolivia, could be the biggest test of all, weather-wise. The two days of racing last year that were cancelled were in Bolivia.

As a result, Rally organizers have relocated much of the Bolivian segment this year to the southern part of the country, where it’s not so rainy.

Of course, that doesn’t mean rain still won’t happen, but Rally officials appear to have done everything humanly possible to try and mitigate and minimize the impact of weather on the course.

2. One last go-round for Peugeot

Peugeot has had a long and successful run over the years in the Rally.

But that run ends after this year’s Rally, as the French manufacturer has decided to call it quits.

At least part of the reason for Peugeot’s departure from Dakar is the pending retirement of its two key drivers, who are also making their final appearances in the Rally.

Stephane Peterhansel and Carlos Sainz are hoping to go out as winners of the bedeviling event.

Peterhansel, 52, is the most successful driver in Rally history, hands down, having won the event 13 times, including last year. He’s not called “Mr. Dakar” for nothing. And don’t be surprised if he goes out a winner two weeks from now.

And then there’s Sainz, otherwise known as “El Matador” for his aggressive driving and, parenthetically taking the bull by the horns when he’s behind the wheel. The 55-year-old driver is reportedly mulling retirement after this year’s race, given Peugeot’s pull-out.

Peterhansel has hinted at retirement, but he may want to try and hook up with another team for next year’s Rally. And what manufacturer wouldn’t want the winningest Driver in Dakar history behind the wheel for them?

3. Is defending champ Sunderland being overlooked?

English bike rider (although he now lives in Dubai) Sam Sunderland, who won the class in last year’s Rally, has been uncharacteristically downplayed by many media and fans heading into this year’s race.

That’s quizzical, as he is one of the most dominant competitors on two wheels. When he won last year’s Rally, Sunderland was looked upon as the next Marc Coma or Cyril Despres, who are Rally legends.

And heading into this year’s Rally, Sunderland, who rides for KTM, has surrounded himself with a strong cast of teammates including 2016 Rally Bike winner Toby Price, 2017 runner-up Matthias Walkner and well-known endure rider Antoine Meo.

But as we kick off the race today, Sunderland is being overlooked in favor of Joan Barreda, who has won 18 stages in the Rally since it moved to South America.

Still, Barreda has never earned a win, let alone an appearance on the podium since first entering the Rally in 2012.

The 34-year-old Spanish rider suffered two serious injuries after last year’s Rally: he broke his collarbone in March 2017 and four months later, broke his wrist badly enough that he required surgery.

So as the green flag drops today for the next 14 days, it’s looking more and more likely that it will be Barreda vs. Sunderland for the master of two wheels.

Keep an eye on this class and particularly this battle between the two riders. It could be one of the most exciting parts of the entire Rally.