A Challenge For Those Who Go – The Dakar Rally

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By Dale Vinten

Today marks the final day of the 2022 Dakar Rally – arguably the most merciless marathon in motorsport and up there with the likes of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and Indy 500 in the notoriety stakes. Kicking off this year on January 1st the race, formerly known as the Paris-Dakar Rally, is now run solely in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia to be precise. An endurance race to end all endurance races and as unforgiving as any other on both vehicle and driver, the now iconic Dakar Rally has been indelibly imprinted onto the collective motorsport consciousness since its inception.

So What Is It?

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Falling under the Rally Raid category of racing the Dakar Rally is an off-road endurance race spanning several days and thousands of kilometres. The race is broken down into stages, one per day, with each being hundreds of kilometres long. To put this into context the route this year spans 8,375 kilometres over 14 days. That would be a challenge enough on tarmac but when you consider that this is an off-road event, conducted over some of the harshest terrain in the world, you begin to realise the sheer scale of the competition. The level of driver skill, mechanical and mental toughness and unmitigated effort involved is, quite frankly, staggering.

Much like standard rallying, navigation is a large part of the proceedings and a roadbook is provided by the organisers for each stage. The difference here is that these maps are kept secret until the beginning of each stage meaning there is no time for route planning or pre-prepared pace notes. Competitors are well and truly kicked into the deep end with their arm bands unceremoniously removed. Historically open to predominantly motorbikes and cars the rally now features multiple categories of vehicle, expanding to include quads, trucks and lightweight/prototype racers.

Where It All Began

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Genesis of the idea arrived back in 1977 when French motorcycle racer and general badass Thierry Sabine got lost in the Ténéré Desert whilst taking part in the Abidjan-Nice Rally. Fascinated by the landscape he vowed to return with his own brand of endurance race and share his love of the terrain. Thoroughly committed to his vision, Sabine quickly brought his dream to fruition and coupled with the motto ‘A challenge for those who go. A dream for those who stay behind’, the inaugural Paris-Dakar Rally went ahead on December 26th, 1978 in Paris.

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Spanning 10,000kms across Europe and northern and central Africa, that initial race set the precedent for what would become one of the greatest motorsport spectacles in the world. Of the 182 vehicles that set off from the Place du Trocadéro that day only 74 managed to cross the finish line in the Senegalese capital 21 days later, which just goes to show how brutal it can be.

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Another wonderful aspect of this particular racing event is the sheer breadth of vehicles involved. Whilst the the overall winner was Cyril Neveu on a Yamaha 500XT, the best car driver was Alain Genestier in his Range Rover V8, finishing ahead of such diverse cars as a Renault 4 Sinpar, Fiat Campagnola, Toyota Land Cruiser and Lada Niva. It was an incredibly varied collection that remains a theme of the rally to this day.

Notoriety

The Paris-Dakar Rally had grabbed the headlines from the off and the public was hooked. Much of its charm lay in the sheer will and determination of the everyman participants going head to head with professional racers in vehicles fudged together in garages at home. Seeing modified versions of cars parked in their street tearing it up in the deserts of northern Africa was something to behold. The race quickly grew in popularity with the number of entrants doubling in only a few short years and factory teams were also officially allowed to enter in 1987, with Peugeot dominating the event in the late ’80s.

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It wasn’t all fun and games though and the race has claimed many a life over the years, including founder Thierry Sabine, although he was not participating at the time. He was sadly killed when the helicopter he was riding in crashed in Mali during a sandstorm. All told around 70 people have lost their lives during the Dakar’s tenure. There’s a reason why it’s known as the most dangerous race in the world.

Achievements and Amendments

Following on from Peugeot’s string of successes French rally driver Stéphane Peterhansel takes his first win in 1991 on a Yamaha YZE750T after three years of competing. He would go on to take a further 13 victories at the event making him the Dakar Rally record holder. Not content with dominating the motorcycle category he switched to cars in 1999 and was equally as successful. What an absolute legend.

Over the years the route has seen some changes from that original Paris to Dakar journey. 1992 saw competitors battle it out from Paris to the southern tip of Africa while in ’95 competitors set off from Grenada in Spain as opposed to the French capital. In 2000 the finish line was below the great pyramids at Giza and the first south American race was held nine years later. The format of the race has remained more or less the same though because as the old adage goes; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Regardless of geography, people were still enthralled by the concept.

Proving that the girls could certainly rub shoulders with the boys German racer Jutta Kleinschmidt became the first female to win the Paris-Dakar in 2001 in a Mitsubishi Pajero. Professional rally legends have also taken part throughout the years, pitting their wits against the desert, with notable wins for the likes of Juha Kankkunen, Ari Vatanen and Carlos Sainz.

Modern Day Dakar

Now known colloquially as just the Dakar Rally due to the French Capital no longer being the regular starting point, the race remains just as exciting nowadays as it was back when it all began in the late ’70s. Now into its third year in Saudi Arabia the Dakar still brings amateurs and professionals together, competing in a plethora of vehicles and much like other notable motorsport events it has endured the test of time as well as myriad social and economical shifts.

Jutta Kleinschmidt

But that’s not to say the whole thing is stuck in its ways. Quite the opposite. The Dakar Rally has evolved over time. Since 2009 the organisers of the Dakar have strived to offset the carbon emissions of the race and last year saw the introduction of the ‘Dakar Future’ programme which aims to transform the engines powering the vehicles to become more environmentally friendly as well as to increase the use of renewable energy in general. This year also marks the introduction of an electric/hybrid vehicle class with Audi entering its all-electric RS Q e-tron piloted by Carlos Sainz, Stéphane Peterhansel and Mattias Ekström, with Sainz winning the third stage in this category. Full details of this year’s race can be found on the official Dakar site.

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Technology may have changed but the spirit and ethos of the Dakar Rally prevail. It is a one of a kind event that brings together all vehicles and all comers. A true feat of human endeavour. It is, and always has been, the adventure of a lifetime. To win is truly heroic but just to compete is an incredible accomplishment A challenge to those who go? Without doubt. Sadly, however, it will remain a dream for most of us who don’t.

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