Defending Dakar champ Roma, Al-Attiyah lead march of the Minis

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Mini’s sweep of the Dakar Rally last season wasn’t a smooth one.

Late team orders issued to freeze drivers Nani Roma (pictured, right), Stephane Peterhansel, and Nasser Al-Attiyah (pictured, left) in their 1-2-3 position sparked controversy.

Roma himself called the decision “disrespectful” to 11-time Dakar champ Peterhansel, and Dakar race director Etienne Lavigne appeared to flat-out condemn it – declaring that “fighting without risk is triumph without glory.”

But the orders ultimately won out in the end, and Roma, Peterhansel, and Al-Attiyah finished the rally in that 1-2-3 order. For the 2015 Dakar, one-third of that podium is gone for Mini as Peterhansel has joined up with Peugeot in its return to the event after a 25-year absence.

However, Roma, a two-time champion of the Dakar, and Al-Attiyah, the 2011 victor, still remain. And they’re still threats to go to the top once again.

“The field for this edition has evolved a lot,” said Roma, who will drive the No. 300 Mini All4 Racing. “It is no doubt very competitive. I think that the Toyotas have improved and Giniel [De Villiers] will be very dangerous. It is very good that a brand with the notoriety of Peugeot has returned. It will be a very good battle. But I think that the real rival on the Dakar, above else, is oneself. You have to be calm when making choices, one after the other.”

As for Al-Attiyah, who’s also proven himself out of the car as a 2012 Olympic bronze medalist in skeet shooting, he’s hoping to go two spots better this time around.

“The 2014 Dakar remains, of course, a disappointment, but what can you do after receiving a one-hour penalty [in Stage 5],” he said. “Today, I am in a better position and the objective is to win. I am also thrilled to be with Mathieu Baumel, my new co-driver. We get on fabulously and he is top notch. Now, we have to win.”

Also being counted on to do well for Mini is Argentina’s Orlando Terranova, who should have a sizable local following behind him. He’ll be one of Roma’s teammates on the Monster Energy Rally Raid team (the other being Krzysztof Holowczyc of Poland), and he’s coming off back-to-back fifth-place efforts in the Dakar.

Terranova is aiming for the podium following Mini’s work on making its cars lighter and more reliable. He’ll also have a new co-driver on board with him as well in Ronnie Graue.

“The engineers and staff at Mini have worked a lot on the weight, the suspension and aerodynamics, by favoring the overall reliability of the car,” Terranova said. “There are not any major technical evolutions but certain details have been improved.

“I changed co-drivers because I was looking for someone who speaks Spanish. The tests with Ronnie were very conclusive. The objective will be to do better than last year. To finish on the podium will be a fantastic result.”

Graham Rahal’s ‘Weighty Issue’

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MONTEREY, California – Graham Rahal admits that he can’t wait until the day he doesn’t have to worry about his weight. Being a 6-foot-2, big-boned individual can have its advantages, but not when it comes to fitting into an IndyCar.

That is why the son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time CART IndyCar champion Bobby Rahal has begun a body shaping therapy known as “Sculpting” that uses lasers to trim away body fat.

“Honestly, it is no secret, I’m not shy about this, that I’ve struggled with my weight,” the 201-pound Rahal told a group of reporters during INDYCAR’s Open Test at Laguna Seca on Thursday. “I can guarantee you that from a strength perspective and a stamina perspective, there’s very few guys out here that can keep up with me. I’m just not a super skinny build. It’s never been my thing.

“I’ve tried. We’ve kind of looked around. There was some mutual interest from them to look into trying this, see if it works. I’ll be honest. I was always very skeptical of the stuff. Where I’m at, I’ve done one treatment. I can’t even tell you today if it’s something that really works or not.”

That led Rahal to try out the sculpting process that was invented by a doctor who found it with swelling in kid’s cheeks. The “Sculpture” process uses a laser that kills the fatty cells.

“It takes a long time, I think,” Rahal said. “It’s going to take multiple I think to get there.”

Watch Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on NBC at 3 p.m.

A race driver needs to be thin, yet very strong to have the physical strength and stamina to compete at a high level in the race car. When it comes to the NTT IndyCar Series, it’s even more important because of the size of the cars and tight cockpit.

Additionally, the extra weight can impact the performance of the race car. The lighter the driver, the less weight inside of the car. In INDYCAR, drivers are weighed and for the lighter drivers, lead weight is added to the car to meet a requirement.

But in Rahal’s case, the lead weight ballast has to be reduced and that sometimes throws off the center of gravity in the car.

“The facts are it’s not going to work if you don’t work out, too, and eat well,” Rahal said. “It doesn’t do anything. But earlier this year, man, I had given up drinking completely for three, four months. I was working out every day, twice a day on most occasions. I went to a nutritionist, doing everything. I literally was not losing an ounce. It was the most frustrating period of time for me.

“I am the biggest guy here. Is it ever going to be equal for me? No matter what these guys talk about with driver ballast, it’s a whole different thing, where my center of gravity is.”

That is what led the 30-year-old driver from Ohio to study the “Sculpting” procedure. He realizes he is never going to have the metabolism of some of the thinner drivers, but he needs to maintain a weight that minimizes his disadvantage.

“It is a challenge,” he admitted. “Ricky Taylor and Helio Castroneves (on Penske Team Acura in IMSA) weigh 60 pounds less than me or something. There is no ballast there. That’s a big swing, a lot of weight to be carrying around.

“We have to try anything we can. If you’re going to be serious, try to find the performance advantage and the edge, you’ve got to look outside of the box.

“It is something new for me. But the fight I guess against being an ultra-skinny guy.

“I fly home with most of these guys after races, I see most of these guys a lot of times, they’re sitting there eating In-N-Out Burger, whatever else. Literally I cannot do it. If I do it, it immediately reflects for me. These guys you see them the next weekend, they’re like this big.

“It’s like, (crap), it’s not my build.”

Because of Rahal’s height and size, he chose to step away from the endurance races for Team Penske in IMSA at the end of last season. He was replaced at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring by fellow IndyCar driver Alexander Rossi.

Rahal complained that the steering wheel actually hit his legs inside of the Acura, making it difficult for him to drive on the challenging road courses. Since that time, Acura Team Penske has moved the steering column up by a few inches, and it no longer impacts a driver the size of Rahal.

For the IMSA season-ending Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on Oct. 12, Rahal will be back in the Team Penske Acura.

“Back in the (Team Penske) shop three weeks ago, I could actually turn the steering wheel, which I was shocked about,” Rahal said. “My head touched the roof, whatever, I’m used to that. Physically being able to steer, which I now should be able to do better.

“So I’m excited about it. It’s another great opportunity obviously with Penske. But more importantly for me is Acura, Honda. It’s a great thing to be back in.

“But that wasn’t a weight thing. It’s purely size. They just don’t build cars for guys my size. I used to talk to J.W. (Justin Wilson) about that. It’s the facts of life. Even the GT cars. You would think a GT car would be big. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a GT car, I was comfortable in either. They’re built for small guys. That’s the way it goes.”

Rahal is taller than his father, Bobby, who is also his IndyCar team owner along with David Letterman and Michael Lanigan.

“I blame my dad,” Rahal said. “I do. You can tell him I said that. I told him, ‘It’s a genetic thing. I got good genes in some ways.’

“I told my wife this the other day, I’m very excited for someday when my career ends just to have a ‘Dad Bod,’ be able to let go for a minute, see how things turn out, because this is getting a little bit exhausting.

“We’re going to stay committed through the winter. I try my hardest every year, but I never tried harder this year to be thin. I weigh about the same as last year, but it took so much effort to get there, I just have to think outside the box.”