The Complete History Of The Dakar Rally

Jan 9, 2020

Category: Rides

First held on the day after Christmas of 1978, the Paris To Dakar Rally — better known today simply as “The Dakar” — is an endurance rally raid event that’s widely recognized as being one of, if not the most grueling off-road motorsport event in the world. The legendary competition is held over 13 days and sees competitors traversing as many as 9,000 miles of a variety of the planet’s least-forgiving terrains and conditions.

Put simply: the Dakar is essentially riding or driving through rough, extreme conditions for a distance roughly equal to (and often much greater than) trekking from Los Angeles to New York and back, all in full-gear in the blistering heat over 12 tortuous days (plus one reset day). Unsurprisingly, approximately half of adventure bikes, quads, and rally cars to line up never cross the finish line, or even come near it, with some years seeing the finish rate drop to around 20%. The most common competition-ending occurrences take the form of injuries and mechanical failures, though the Dakar is no stranger to fatalities, with the iconic rally raid responsible for claiming more than 70 lives (and counting) since the race’s inception.

Origins Of The Dakar

The inception of the Dakar Rally was something of a happy accident. In 1977, a seasoned French rider by the name of Thierry Sabine was competing in the Abidjan-Nice when he got lost in the Tenere Desert in the South Central Sahara. While attempting to regain his bearings, Sabine couldn’t help but notice that the desert he found himself in would make for a fantastic proving ground for a long-distance rally event. So, once he’d made his way back to civilization, he started kicking around the idea of organizing a new off-road endurance event, and by December 26th of 1978, 182 competitors were lining up for the first-ever Paris To Dakar Rally. Though only 74 riders would complete the roughly 6,200-mile journey, the Dakar was born.

In the years that followed, the Dakar grew both in size and reputation, attracting elite racers and deep-pocketed sponsors alike. Each event became more sophisticated and better organized. Sadly, in 1986 — which is often referred to as “The Black Year” — a helicopter accident would claim the life of Thierry Sabine, along with a journalist, French singer, radio technician, and a pilot. Sabine was gone, but his motorsport story and legacy would continue to live on through the annual event.

A History Of The Dakar Courses

For much of the race’s history, the events kept true to the Paris to Dakar moniker, with the course running from Europe to Africa. In an effort to combat waining competitor numbers, 1992 — which was the first year the event utilized car and motorcycle GPS devices — saw the rally move the finish line to Cape Town, South Africa. 1995 marked the first year the race didn’t start in France, instead beginning in Grenada, Spain. To celebrate the turn of the millennium, Dakar organizers opted for a route culminating at the base of the Giza Pyramids.

In 2007 the race started from Lisbon, though in 2008 the Dakar was canceled due to security concerns stemming from terroristic threats from a sect of Al-Qaida. As a result, every event since 2009 has been held in South America, taking place in Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina — although this year, that is scheduled to change.

Day To Day Operations & Scoring

Each of the days (or “stages”) sees all the competitors take their respective turns lining up at the starting line, before embarking on that stage’s (on average) 500-550 miles. The finish line for each stage is located at what is called a bivouac: a large basecamp used by competitors and their teams to wrench on/repair their machines and rest-up for the following day. Because the Dakar is held over such a humongous distance, it uses a somewhat unique scoring system. Like any other race, time obviously plays a crucial role in one’s standings, though just as important are the checkpoints that each competitor must hit. Failure to do so will result in a steep penalty.

Eligible Vehicle Types

On top of its insanely-demanding course, the Dakar is made all the more unique by the wide array of vehicle types permitted to compete. The five primary classes are UTV’s (utility vehicles and side-by-sides), quads, cars (which is broken into three classes and includes dune buggies and small SUV’s), motorcycles, and massive 4X4 trucks weighing more than 3,500kgs (7,716lbs) — though the latter category utilizes its own special course. Each class must adhere to engine configuration and displacement rules, along with weight limits and other standard race direction regulations.

What Makes The Dakar So Daunting & Extreme?

There are a number of key factors that, when combined, make the Dakar Rally arguably one of the toughest races in history. Not only are competitors covering expansive distances on a daily basis, but the ground they traverse is comprised of difficult-to-negotiate sand dunes, mud, streams, gravel, hard-pack dirt, rocks, boulders, and ravines, and just about any other taxing terrain you could imagine. And the racers aren’t just covering this ground, but they’re doing so as fast as possible in a bid to beat out the competition — an equation that often leads to injuries.

Crashing is just a routine part of competing at the Dakar, even for the factory-sponsored pros. Enduring the entirety of the Dakar requires pushing one’s machine to its absolute limits, putting the suspension, chassis, and powertrain to the ultimate endurance test. Hell, every seal, gasket, bearing, nut, and bolt is thoroughly put to the test at the Dakar. The rugged desert conditions often give way to mechanical failure, and for the majority of non-factory-backed riders, that means wrenching on your own vehicle after a (very) long day of riding. Regardless of motivations, a staggering number of entrants go home with DNF’s due to extreme exhaustion and fatigue — sometimes to life-threatening extents.

Preparing For The Ultimate Rally Raid

Preparing for any rally is a massive undertaking, though setting your sights on the Dakar takes things to an entirely different level. Competitors routinely spend years preparing for the ultra-grueling event, readying their bodies through extensive workouts and conditioning. One recent Dakar winner said he spent roughly five hours each day training on a road bike to ready himself for the multi-stage event. Mental preparation is another crucial aspect of running a successful Dakar, as learning to keep calm when lost, broken down, or off-course is an absolute must.

Just as difficult as physical training and preparing for the Dakar is making the necessary logistical arrangements to compete. Hailing from 50 countries from around the world, race entrants must negotiate the logistical nightmare that is the Dakar. Competing means finding a way to send a fully race-prepped vehicle across the globe, along with all the necessary tools, spares, gear, and other equipment vital to competing, and that’s before you factor in support teams and their 4×4 vehicles.

What Motivates A Dakar Racer?

Despite the major sponsors and the well-publicized, high-profile nature of the Dakar, the prize money for winners is limited to the mid-five-figure realm, and of the more-than-300 competitors that partake each year, more than three-quarters of pilots are amateurs who have very little chance of besting the factory-backed racers and their works machines. What motivates people to try their luck at the Dakar is the sheer magnitude of the challenge. It’s something of the ultimate test of both man and machine, and those who compete tend to do so simply for the glory and love of the sport.

Current And Past Records

Over the more than 40 events that have been held, Dakar has witnessed countless noteworthy records set. In 1991, a French competitor named Stephane Peterhansel piloted his Yamaha motorcycle to his first Dakar win. Peterhansel not only went on to replicate the feat in ’92, ’93, ’95, ’97, and ’98, but in 2004 (after a serious injury the year before) he would become the first competitor to win the Dakar on a motorcycle and in a car — which he did again half-a-dozen more times, giving him the most wins in both the car and moto classes.

Starting in 2001, KTM has been utterly dominating the two-wheeled class, with the Ready To Race brand’s purpose-built dual-sport bagging every single event between 2001 and 2019. In the heavyweight truck class, Vladimir Chagin currently holds the record for most wins at 7, achieving his first victory in 2000, before going on to win again in ’02, ’03, ’04, ’06, ’10, and ’11. In the quad class, Marcos Patronelli presently stands as the winningest competitor in his division with a trio of victories in 2010, 2013, and 2016. Yamaha meanwhile holds the quad manufacturers title having won all 11 events between 2009 and 2019.

Influence On Production Vehicles

For decades the mighty Dakar has served as an ideal testbed for manufacturers, leading to the development of some exceptional purpose-built machines. With these racers representing the pinnacle of off-road performance, it’s frankly unsurprising that the Dakar style has had a major influence on various production models, especially with motorcycles.

The full-size adventure bike sect — which has become a hugely important segment for brands like BMW and KTM — can easily be traced back to Dakar racers. BMW’s first G/S machine was actually created for the Dakar. The tall windscreen and navigation tower setup have increasingly become a popular aesthetic in the production segment as well — a fact that was thoroughly demonstrated at this year’s EICMA when Honda, Husqvarna, and Ducati all unveiled Rally Raid-style concepts.

The 2020 Dakar Rally

On Sunday, January, 5, the 2020 Dakar — which marks the 42nd running of the event — kicks off, and for the first time since the race moved to South America, this year will see the multi-day competition hosted by Saudi Arabia. The dozen stages that constitute the 2020 event begin in Jeddah before ending in Qiddiya some 4,660 grueling miles later.

The Complete History Of 24 Hours Of Le Mans

Still itching to read more about some of the world’s most intense motorsport endurance events? Our guide to the complete history of the 24 Hours Of Le Mans has got you covered, and then some.

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