While Stephane Peterhansel may have grabbed the 2017 Dakar Rally headlines with his 13th victory in the event, there was another momentous result that slipped in unnoticed – probably because it was 55th place.
That was two places ahead of last, but it's just like a Dakar win if you're driving a tiny Fiat Panda – or PanDakar, to use its full title. Such is the lure of the Dakar for Fiat's baby that this was actually its fourth participation, but 2017 is the only time it's ever seen the finish.
Watch the PanDakar in action in the video below.
We're not entirely sure, but we suspect that Fiat thought of the name first and then created a car to match it. The first year, 2007, was when it came closest to a factory effort, as Fiat recruited two-time World Rally Champion Miki Biasion to drive it. Fiat also asked Biasion's former Lancia team-mate, Markku Alen, to drive the other car, but Alen took one look and refused. Prophetically as it turned out, because the tiny Panda ended up being swallowed by a sand dune in Morocco before the rally had barely started.
Undeterred, the Panda returned in private hands the following year, but still failed to finish. Another attempt, in 2014, ended with broken suspension after 11 days.
A long gap followed, before intrepid Italian Giulio Verzeletti finally brought an updated version of the smallest car home last weekend.
"We're a private team without the resources of the factory squads, although we do get a hand from Fiat," explained Verzeletti, a veteran of 16 participations in trucks, bikes and cars. "We have to put a huge amount of effort in ourselves: I'd say around 2,000 hours of work have gone into this tiny car. The biggest limit is just its size. The suspension travel is so small that it takes a real pounding all day. You certainly feel it by the evening!"
Powering the 4x4 PanDakar this time was a production two-litre turbodiesel engine (the biggest one that could be fitted under the tiny bonnet) that produced 180bhp. That was a considerable improvement over the puny 1.3 engine originally fitted to the Panda, whose mere 100 horsepower left it gasping like an asthmatic on the ultra-marathon stages at altitudes higher than 3,500m that characterise the Dakar.
Despite almost disappearing into a rut on the final day – the tracks left by the trucks are almost as big as the PanDakar itself – the diminutive shopping car made Dakar history. It's the first ever Italian car to see the Dakar finish, and also the very first non-prototype city car to reach the end.
However, it's far from the first Italian automotive icon to get there.
In 1980, four deranged Frenchmen decided to enter the Dakar on their Vespas. Even more unbelievably, two of them actually got to Senegal. They're probably still looking for the two who didn't.
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