You are now in the final stages of your preparation for the Dakar 2009. How was your final training in France and how important for your preparation was your victory in the UAE Desert Challenge?
The tests in France went very well. We know the new 690 rally bike pretty well now, so really it was just some fine tuning, plus running the engines in. The UAE victory was important on a number of levels. First off, it is always good to win a race – especially when all your major rivals are present! It was also an excellent warm up for the Dakar. Although the terrain in South America will be different, it was a chance for the team to work together and sort out any last minute problems. The UAE win confirmed that everything was functioning as it should.
How have you been personally preparing for the first ever Dakar in South America? You seem to have a special relationship with Africa through your support for kids and schools. Will you miss not having the race on that continent?
Of course I will miss racing in Africa, though I am sure I will be out there shortly after the race to visit the kids and see how the schools are going. As far as the Dakar in South America is concerned, I am really looking forward to it. The scenery will be amazing and the race as tough as any Dakar before it. As for my preparation, it is going really well. I am training as hard as ever, while at the same time trying to gather as much information as possible about the terrain we will be tackling.
For sure there will be many different challenges riding through a major part of Argentina and Chile. What are your own expectations about the race, the conditions and how you might finish?
The organizers have been very clear that it will be a tough race, and I have no reason to doubt them. I think we will have most of what we would normally encounter in Africa, with plenty of dunes. The main difference will be the variety of terrain, plus I think there will less stony ground, of the sort we normally encounter in Morocco. As far as finishing is concerned, my firm intention is to be at the very top of the podium.
As it is probably unlikely that organizers will be able to hold the race in Africa in the near future because of the security problems, do you see this as a new era for the race? Are you optimistic for the future of the Dakar as a major sporting event?
Of course everybody involved in the Dakar has nostalgia for Africa, but my feeling is that once the competitors and the people back home have seen what South America has to offer they will be keen to return. The founder of the event, Thierry Sabine, always said that the race should visit other continents and other deserts, so in a way we are simply fulfilling his wishes. Personally I feel that the change of continent will breathe new life into the event and that it will become more famous than ever.
This is unchartered territory but are you still expecting Marc (Coma) to be your biggest rival? Will it be a continuation of the rivalry of Despres and Coma in the 2009 Dakar?
Even though a lot of things will change it is reasonable to expect that Marc will continue to be my principle rival. Wherever we race in the world it is usually between me and him, and I can’t see that being any different. That’s fine by me. We always fight clean and have tremendous respect for each other.
Have you had any experience riding in Argentina and Chile and what do you think will be the biggest contrasts when compared to riding in Africa?
I have raced the Los Pampas Rally in Chile one time, so neither country is a completely unknown quantity to me. Apart from the difference in scenery, the high temperature and the high altitudes I suspect the biggest change will be our contact with the local population. The South Americans are big motor sport fans and I think we will have a lot more spectators out on the specials than we get in the Sahara!
Looking beyond the Dakar 2009, what are your plans and goals for the 2009 racing season?
Although nothing has been finalized yet it looks like we will be doing quite a lot of racing in the desert next year and that suits me fine. The 690 needs a little room to get the best out of it, so any race with wide open spaces is perfect. And as always I will be looking to do as well as possible in every race I enter. But Dakar first …