Can this man win the Dakar Rally for a 12th time?No one in the history of the great race has had close to the success of 49-year-old Frenchman Stéphane Peterhansel, with 11 wins from 26 starts. So what keeps him motivated—and why is he so good?
THE RED BULLETIN: You’ve been at the starting line for every Dakar since 1988. What drives you to compete?
STÉPHANE PETERHANSEL: Discovering new places is my great passion. As the route changes every year, there’s always been something new to look out for.
But the Dakar route is quite fixed [mainly France and north and central Africa from 1978 to 2007; through South America since 2009]. Do you satisfy your wanderlust in other ways?
In September I cycled across Lesotho, for example. I’d never been there. It is surrounded by South Africa, and as the Dakar is in South America now, it’s unlikely to take me there anytime soon.
Why did you do it by bike?
You’ve got to prepare for the Dakar physically somehow.
What about the mental side of things?
Motorsport happens to be my second great passion, so Dakar is the perfect combination for me. I took part in Africa 18 times. The sky was different every single time, not to mention the sand and the smells.
Where was the most memorable place?
I really loved the landscape in southern Algeria. When it comes to the event as a whole, the route from Paris to Cape Town was the most diverse. In South America, everything around the Cordilleras (mountain ranges) is really spectacular. There’s wet, dry, extreme altitude. You’re really spoiled for choice as a traveler.
Why do you think age isn’t an issue for winning the Dakar Rally?
When I was 35, I thought my fellow countryman Jean-Louis Schlesser was an old man (at 52). Today I’m still not as old as he was when he last won. So 49 is no age at all. Mentally I’m still young, and physically I feel as fit as a fiddle, too.
How long will you continue driving?
I signed a three-year contract with Peugeot Sport in June. I’d still like to win a sixth time behind the wheel of a car. I’ve won six times on my motorbike, so that would round things off nicely.
Why did you swap motorbikes for cars?
It was partly about survival instinct. I’d ridden the rally 10 times on my motorbike and I never had a serious accident. I saw riders die in front of me and others are now in wheelchairs. Personally, I always had the feeling that everything was under control, but maybe that was deceptive. Another reason for the change was the boredom. With that helmet on, you’re always alone, in good times and bad. But in the car you can tell your co-pilot how you’re feeling.
What’s your favorite car?
I’ve always had very quick cars, just four-wheel drives. In 2015, I’ll be starting out in a rear-wheel buggy for the first time, the Peugeot 2008 DKR. Even though I don’t have the feeling that the car can win, it’s the one I’ve had the most fun in.
August 6, 1965, Échenoz-la-Méline, Haute-Saône
1988, on a Yamaha motorcycle.
1991, ’92, ’93, ’95, ’97 and ’98 for Yamaha. Peterhansel switched from bikes to cars in 1999. He won in 2004, ’05 and ’07 at the wheel of a Mitsubishi; ’12 and ’13 in a Mini. He has also come in second twice, in 2000 and ’14, and in ’03 placed third. In 26 starts, he has failed to finish only twice.
What makes it fun?
The regulations allow buggies more suspension travel than four-wheel drives, which suits my calm and gentle driving style. The worse the course, the better the Peugeot.
Who will be quicker this year, your teammate Carlos Sainz or you?
Him still, for now. He’s got more buggy experience than me.
Would you race the Dakar in a truck?
I tried last year. It’s nothing like a car. I won’t be doing that again.
You first excelled on a skateboard. What do you remember of that?
The last time I skated was 10 years ago when I came across my old board when I was cleaning out my garage.
It still worked well, but the sport has definitely changed a lot since my heyday, almost 40 years ago. We had slalom races back then. Young people now don’t even know that such a thing ever existed.
Is that an admission that you’re starting to grow old for your profession?
More that you’ve constantly got to be on. the ball if you don’t want to fall behind.