Leading the Indian fraternity will be CS Santosh, who will be contesting the Dakar Rally for the fifth time - and third with current employer Hero MotoSports Team Rally.
Santosh achieved a career best result of 35th last year and hopes to break inside the top 20 this time, provided everything aligns in his favour.
Crucially, he has decided to take an aggressive approach, having admitted that he’s been riding a “notch lower” than what he’s capable of in the past.
“I need to push my limits a little more”, Santosh told reporters including Motorsport.com India last month. “I would say I ride a notch lower than I could ride.
“This year I want to stick to my plan of doing the best I could on the stage and take a little bit more risk trying to achieve that.
“This Dakar I think for that I want to be able to have a better race, manage the race better and I think I will end up surprising myself.
“We can put together 10 days of consistent racing. It doesn’t have to be really really high or really really low. Consistent performance and I think I’ll be able to get a good result.”
#53 Sherco TVS Racing Sherco: Aravind KP
Photo by: Sherco Racing
Santosh will both have a friend and a rival to beat in form of Aravind KP, another rider who forged a successful international career after winning the Raid de Himalaya.
However, unlike Santosh, Aravind is yet to complete the Dakar Rally, his first two attempts in the South American ordeal ending in crashes.
But following an extensive training programme in Morocco Rally, his team Sherco TVS is confident that he will be able to cross the finishing line this time around.
“I am happy that Aravind KP is returning to Dakar with full energy and vigour,” TVS Racing team manager B Selvaraj told Motorsport.com India.
“We are very confident given his experience in the International racing arena and Dakar in particular, that he will perform well.
“The previous two Editions of Dakar provided immense learning opportunities for Aravind KP as the Rally tested his skills as a racer.
“He had undergone a strict rally riding and physical training regime in Europe and Morocco.
“Over the last 1 month, he has prioritised on spending as much time as possible on his Dakar motorcycle to get used to the power and handling on the dunes.
“He is also working very hard on his fitness through cycling, gym activities and swimming under the guidance of a French Trainer to help build his overall endurance.
“We are looking to approach Dakar with the same intensity and are determined to complete the Rally.“
CS Santosh, Hero MotoSports Team Rally, Joaquim Rodrigues, Hero MotoSports Team Rally and Oriol Mena, Hero MotoSports Team Rally
Photo by: Rachit Thukral
Both Santosh and Aravind will have something to learn from their foreign teammates, who have varying degree of experience in cross-country rallying and off-roading in general.
Santosh will be joined by his 2018 teammates Joaquim Rodrigues and Oriol Mena as Hero has elected to field an unchanged line-up.
Rodrigues has been part of Hero’s motorsport setup since the very inception, but suffered a huge crash in last year’s Dakar rally that left him bedridden for months.
He has since recovered from those injuries and made a comeback during the last few cross-country rallies of 2018.
Mena, meanwhile, caught attention of the entire cross-country rallying fraternity when he finished sixth as a rookie - and with the previous generation Hero RR450 bike - in Dakar last year.
He will be the one to watch out for again in 2019.
Over at Sherco TVS, the Indo-French team will sport Michael Metge, Adrien Metge and Lorenzo Santolino alongside Aravind.
Michael Metge joined Sherco TVS only last year and impressed by scoring an outright win in the Baja Aragon Rally, while his brother Adrien has also proved he is capable of top results at more than one occasion.
Lorenzo Santolino is completely new to Dakar but took part in an extensive rally programme last year that also saw him compete in Indian rallies, including the Desert Storm.
Sherco TVS has high hopes from its quartet of riders and has set its sights on a top 10 finish, something it managed to achieve in 2018 following late penalties for rivals.
Jesús Calleja, Eduardo Blanco, Overdrive Team
Photo by: Overdrive Racing
This year’s Dakar will be like anything seen in recent past as the route has been considerably changed from what it was last year.
For starters the entire rally will take place in Peru, marking 2019 the first time Dakar will be held in a single country.
This will have several implications. Firstly, it means that the 70% of the route will comprise sand, posing a unique challenge to the riders.
The vast and open stretches of sand - including dunes - will make navigation particularly tricky for riders, as Santosh explains.
“Navigation is difficult in the sand especially now Peru we are going to be back and forth so there will be lots of tracks that crisscross in the dunes,” he described.
“So really easy to get caught out and follow the wrong tracks. So I think all of us need to pay attention to the road book and be a little cautious.”
However, both Hero and Sherco TVS have already been preparing for such a change for months.
Sherco TVS, for instance, conducted much of its training in similar conditions in Morocco, while its bike has itself been modified to cope up with the unique demands of such terrain.
“Dakar 2019 will be held only in Peru and 70% of the track will be sand dunes, which is unique to any Dakar,” Selvaraj said.
“Sherco TVS Rally Factory Team has planned a major part of the training in Morocco, which has similar sandy terrain and weather conditions.
“The RTR 450 Dakar Motorcycle has also been specially modified as per the terrain. It is lighter and has a larger fuel capacity which will enable our racers to pack in most amount of time at one shot.
“We participated in the cross country Rally events at desert regions of Morocco, Argentina and Peru.”
#49 Hero MotoSports Team Rally: CS Santosh
Photo by: Hero MotoSports Team Rally
With the rally limited to one country, organiser ASO has also been forced to cut short the event to 10 days - down from 14 last year.
The total stage distance has also been reduced to 5000 km, although there will still be a rest day in between.
However, that doesn’t mean this year’s Dakar would be any less forgiving. In fact, the reduced distance could make the rally even more intense, reckons renowned female rallyist Laia Sanz.
“Better because it's shorter, but in the end I think the days are going to be more intense,” she told Motorsport.com.
“They are less days of suffering, and shorter, in the end the body will appreciate it for sure, but I do not think it will take away the hardness of the race, but on the contrary, there will be many stages of many kilometers in sand, very physical
“Other years We alternated a difficult day with two of a lot of track, very fast, but this year I think it will be all very fiscal. They are going to be 10 very intense days.”
Just like the last few years, it would be interesting to see who wins the shootout between Indian riders and teams.
While finishing Dakar in itself is a big achievement, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the head honchos at Hero and TVS will be very keen on beating each other in a level-playing field.