1. Peugeot exit makes Al-Attiyah favourite
Second in 2016 with Mini and in 2018 with Toyota, Nasser Al-Attiyah and Matthieu Baumel have easily been the crew that ran the all-conquering Peugeots closest in the now-concluded era of the French manufacturer's Dakar dominance.
Their Toyota Hilux has sometimes outpaced the 3008DKR, and on those stages where the Peugeots were too fast – usually at altitude in Argentina or Bolivia – Al-Attiyah was usually best of the rest.
Now the factory Peugeot team is gone, and the altitudes are lower, the Altiplano having made way for the desert where Al-Attiyah is expected to thrive. Logic dictates, then, that the 2019 event is the Qatari's to lose.
For the first time in four years, Al-Attiyah is not the reigning FIA cross-country champion heading into the Dakar, as he contested just two rounds of the championship last year, winning both.
His second triumph came against formidable opposition including the new Mini buggies in the traditional Dakar rehearsal in October's Rally Morocco. He was also the pace-setter in the Silk Way Rally before an ill-timed rear differential failure at the marathon stage derailed his victory charge.
While Al-Attiyah is likely to spearhead Toyota's challenge, its hopes of a long-awaited first Dakar win don't rest solely with him. Indeed, teammates Giniel de Villiers and Bernhard ten Brinke ran him close enough last year to be seen as major contenders in their own right.
#101 Toyota Hilux: Nasser Al-Attiyah, Mathieu Baumel
Photo by: Silk Way Rally
2. Will Mini's buggy be up to the task?
Despite Peugeot's withdrawal the cast of characters out front in the car category is due to remain largely unchanged, with all four of its drivers returning in 2019 – three of them behind the wheel of Mini's new buggy.
With Carlos Sainz, Stephane Peterhansel and Cyril Despres, the X-raid team would no doubt love to pick up right where Peugeot left off, but it almost certainly won't be as simple as that given that the new car remains unproven.
X-raid had debuted three buggies in the event last year, but they made virtually no impact, as Bryce Menzies and Yazeed Al-Rajhi had major accidents on the second stage and Mikko Hirvonen was ruled out in the third.
And while reigning champion Sainz insists “the car's evolution has been huge” since he first sampled it, he concedes reliability is a major worry “because of a lack of experience for the car itself in competition”.
Sainz's competitive debut in the buggy in Rally Morocco was thwarted by recurring gearbox issues, but teammate Despres did showcase the car's potential by placing on the podium.
#309 X-Raid Mini John Cooper Works Buggy Team: Cyril Despres, Jean-Paul Colet
Photo by: Rally Du Maroc
3. Mini hedges its bets
Also on the podium in Morocco, behind winner Al-Attiyah but ahead of Despres, was Kuba Przygonski on the Mini John Cooper Works Rally car, which will prop up X-raid's Dakar challenge.
X-raid's 4x4 challenger has largely been left behind by rivals Peugeot and Toyota in the recent editions, and the dunes are unlikely to suit it much compared to the buggy – but it is crucially a known quantity.
It has had success over the past year, as Przygonski won this year's world cross-country championship, while Yazeed Al-Rajhi – who moves back to the 4x4 after his short-lived challenge with the buggy last year – claimed Silk Way Rally Honours.
Przygonski, a credible fifth in last year's Dakar, could be seen as the frontrunner among the 4x4s, although the roster also features a two-time Dakar winner in Nani Roma, who returned to the Mini camp ahead of last year's event but exited early due to injury.
Al-Rajhi and five-time stage winner Orlando Terranova could also be in the mix if the 4x4 proves competitive enough, while Boris Garafulic, who makes up the five-car John Cooper Works Rally roster, is targeting a first top-10 finish.
#303 X-Raid Team Mini: Jakub Przygonski, Tom Colsoul
Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool
4. Loeb the underdog
WRC legend Loeb's stint as a works Peugeot rally-raid driver yielded many a stage win on all kinds of terrain and transformed him and co-driver Daniel Elena into a properly top cross-country crew – yet it was impossible not to feel a tinge of disappointment when it concluded.
While the French marque dominated for three straight years, Loeb didn't manage to capitalise for an overall trophy of his own. That was to be it for now, and everyone – including Loeb himself – was left wondering whether he'd get another shot at Dakar glory.
The answer came sooner than expected, with a late deal with long-serving Peugeot customer PH Sport to run a 2017-spec 3008DKR in this year's edition.
Al-Attiyah has named Loeb as the favourite, and there's some logic to that, as the buggy in question made easy work of the 2017 race by locking out the podium and should fit this year's route.
But Loeb and Elena, while impressively quick learners, have made their fair share of errors on the more challenging stages and do not have the dune experience of their main rivals. And of course the factory budget and personnel is sure to be sorely missed.
This is why Loeb, who is partnered by fellow PH Sport entrants Harry Hunt and Pierre Lachaume, is probably more of a dark horse contender. Then again, the man does have a reputation for doing the impossible.
Sébastien Loeb, Peugeot 3008DKR
Photo by: Sébastien Loeb Racing
5. KTM stars set for intra-team warfare
KTM has continued its domination of the Dakar's bikes class in recent years, but interestingly three different riders have taken the spoils in the last three years, after five-time champion Marc Coma decided to hang up his helmet.
Aussie rider Toby Price came out on top in a wide-open 2016 contest, before Sam Sunderland added his name to the winners' list in 2017 and Matthias Walkner triumphed last year. All three will be eyeing a second title, as they bid to become the number one rider of the post-Coma/Despres era.
As reigning FIM Cross-Country Rallies champion and the winner of Rally Morocco, it should be Price that begins as favourite - but the Aussie's quest for a second crown suffered a setback when he hurt his wrist last month in training and had to be operated on. How much that will impact Price's speed remains to be seen.
Austria's Walkner meanwhile insists he feels more "motivation than pressure" with his hard-earned number one plate, while Dubai-domiciled Briton Sunderland - removed from the reckoning by back pain in 2018 - reckons this year's dune-heavy route could play into his hands.
Completing KTM's Red Bull-backed factory line-up this year is Luciano Benavides - brother of Honda rider Kevin - who is tackling only his second Dakar after making his debut last year and is aiming for a place in the top 10.
Laia Sanz meanwhile is tackling her ninth Dakar with KTM's backing, but has not set herself any concrete targets as she is still recovering from illness that caused to miss several events in the latter half of last season, including Morocco.
#3 Red Bull KTM Factory Racing KTM: Toby Price
Photo by: KTM Images
6. Barreda's victory mission continues
With 21 stage victories to his name, Honda's Joan Barreda has by far the most stage wins of any active participant in the Dakar's bikes division. And yet, his quest to actually lift the title has so far proven fruitless.
It's clear the 35-year-old Spaniard regards himself as the moral winner in 2017, when a contentious one-hour penalty applied to all the Honda riders relegated him to fifth. Last year, his victory bid was derailed by a small crash on stage seven, in which he injured his knee.
Barreda rebounded from that setback to win the Morocco-based Merzouga Rally, but suffered fresh trauma when he crashed in the Chilean Atacama Rally in August, necessitating surgery on his wrist.
Despite that, Barreda says he feels at full fitness for this year's Dakar, although he'll face stern competition from not only the star-studded KTM stable but also within his own Honda team if he's to finally lift that elusive winners' trophy.
After having to sit out last year's event, Paulo Goncalves is back for another stab at glory, while 2018 runner-up Kevin Benavides will likewise be hoping to go one better this time around. American rider Ricky Brabec, third in last year's Moroccan Rally, and last-minute 2018 stand-in 'Nacho' Cornejo complete a strong five-man line-up.
Outside of the Honda camp, Yamaha will be looking to rebound from a disastrous 2018 race as it eyes its first win since 1998, with Adrien van Beveren - who led until a heavy crash on Stage 10 last year - once again spearheading its attack, supported by Xavier de Soultrait, Franco Caimi and water-carrier Rodney Faggotter.
KTM's sister brand Husqvarna meanwhile will be relying on factory pair Pablo Quintanilla and Andrew Short, while ex-Honda pilot Michael Metge joins younger brother Adrien at Sherco TVS this year.
Joan Barreda, Monster Energy Honda Team
Photo by: Monster Energy
7. De Rooy returns to take on Kamaz trucks
If it's anything like the previous Dakar, in which ludicrous attrition meant the class winner finished almost four hours ahead of his nearest rival, the 2019 edition will spring a surprise or two in the truck category.
On paper, this should be another bout between the dominant Kamaz team and the IVECO De Rooy, which holds the distinction of being the only outfit to deny the Russians in the past decade – and managed to do it twice.
The team is back to full strength as Dakar 2012 and 2016 champ Gerard de Rooy himself returns after skipping the 2018 event in favour of the Africa Eco Race, which he won.
He and Argentine driver Federico Villagra, who more than held his own against the Kamaz trucks last time out, will make up a formidable lead pairing, backed up by stage winner Ton van Genugten and newcomer Maurik van den Heuvel.
But the KAMAZ roster is traditionally strong, featuring three past winners and equipped with all-new KAMAZ-43509 trucks. Two of those will feature an automatic transmission and will be handed to Eduard Nikolaev, who has won the two past Dakars, and 2015 champion Ayrat Mardeev.
The manual-transmission trucks will be operated by the ever-promising Dmitry Sotnikov and 2014 champ Andrey Karginov, who sat out last year's edition – instead winning the Africa Eco Race - but has now been recalled over Anton Shibalov after giving the new truck a Silk Way Rally win.
The winner will likely come from one of the two main factory teams, but if chaos reigns again it could open the door to a third party – like Alex Loprais' Tatra or Martin Macik's LIAZ.
#503 Iveco: Gerard De Rooy, Darek Rodewald, Moises Torrallardona; #505 Iveco: Federico Villagra, Adrian Artura Yacopini, Ricardo Adrian Torlaschi; #509 Iveco: Ton Van Genugten, Bernard Der Kinderen, Peter Willemsen; #513 Iveco: Maurik Van Den Heuvel, Martijn Van Rooij, Peter Kuijpers
Photo by: A. Vincent / DPPI
8. A new class for SxS
The standalone SxS utility vehicle class will be in much ruder health in the 2019 race than when in debuted with a single-digit entry two years ago, its entry list boosted both in terms of numbers and name recognition.
The two most recent quad champions, Chile's Ignacio Casale and Russia's Sergey Karyakin, will re-locate their rivalry, as both have moved to SxS to save themselves from further injury. Karyakin, who will line up alongside coach Aleksandr Dorossinskij, has already topped the class in both the Silk Way Rally and Rally Morocco.
Casale will be partnered by compatriot 'Chaleco' Lopez, who finished third in the 2010 Dakar in the bike class. Gerard Farres, a former water-carrier for Lopez and himself a Dakar podium finisher in 2017, is another convert to SxS.
Robby Gordon will bring a UTV of his own to the competition, but will contest overall car class honours under different regulations. Fellow off-road ace Casey Currie will represent the USA in the SxS class instead.
Farres and Currie, who won the Dakar prep event Desafio Inca in Peru, will represent the Monster Energy-backed factory Can-Am team, which will also field the reigning class champion Reinaldo Varela.
#356 Can-Am SxS: Reinaldo Varela, Gustavo Gugelmin
Photo by: A.S.O.
9. A new quads winner guaranteed
Aside from Karyakin and Casale, the quad class has also lost occasional frontrunner Alexis Hernandez to SxS, while the world quad cross-country champion Aleksandr Maksimov is missing out due to budget.
This means the 2019 quad roster is depleted, but also blows the victory race wide open and guarantees a first-time winner.
Argentine riders Nicolas Cavigliasso and Jeremias Gonzalez made up the podium behind Casale last year and are likely favourites, and the former's fellow Drag'on Rally team entries - team owner Axel Dutrie and Nelson Sanabria - should also be in the mix.
All four are on Yamaha quads, which have won the class each year since it was established as standalone in 2009.
The odds of that streak continuing are strong, especially as the participation of Juan Carlos 'Chavo' Salvatierra – a bike class regular switching to a Barren quad this year – is in doubt amid a late dispute with organising body ASO.
#249 Yamaha: Nicolas Cavigliasso
Photo by: A.S.O.
10. Will this year's route prove 'monotonous'?
This year's Dakar will be the first-ever to take place solely within one country, with the withdrawal of Bolivia and Argentina leaving Peru as the last host nation standing in 2019.
The route comprises just 10 stages, covering 2,951 competitive kilometres (1,834 miles) for bikes and 3,096 (1,923 miles) for cars, starting and ending in the Peruvian capital of Lima - with sand dunes making up the bulk of the running.
Defending bikes champion Walkner commented: "The altitude of Bolivia, the rain and the WRC-like tracks in Argentina are missing [from the 2019 route].
"The coolest Dakar was my first in 2015, because it was so multi-faceted. Within 10 days I experienced all four seasons from sea to snow. That's what makes it special. This year, with 70 percent dunes and sand, it could get pretty monotonous.
"For me, it has always been a fact that you see so much in 14 days that you wouldn't see in five years of motocross. I am curious and hope that I will be wrong. If not, maybe I can say that I won the last real Dakar!"
But Sainz, the title-holder on four wheels, says the sand-heavy route will not detract from the challenge of the Dakar.
"I expect an intense, complicated Dakar," said the Spaniard. "Even if it's shorter, the percentage of dunes is very close to 100 percent, so a 300km stage will take us around five hours, with a trap every minute and huge stress in every stage.
"The stress this year is going to be higher and the amount of accidents [will be] too. Every day, every kilometre things are going to happen. Until the final kilometre and until you are at the finish, you won't be able to relax."
The 2019 Dakar Rally begins on January 7 and concludes on January 17.
#300 X-Raid Mini JCW Team: Carlos Sainz, Lucas Cruz
Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool