The Paris-Dakar Rally started life after Thierry Sabine got lost, on his motorbike, in the Libyan desert whilst competing in the Abidjan-Nice Rally of 1977. Some 40 years later, it is still the ultimate name in endurance rallying, despite having moved across the Atlantic Ocean to the terrain South America. And as the 2019 race prepares to get underway on Monday 7 January, I thought I’d have a look at what makes the Dakar Rally as popular today as it was when it started.
“A challenge for those who go. A dream for those who stay behind”
In 1977, after making it out of the Libyan desert, Thierry Sabine returned to France having fallen in love with the Saharan landscape and a dream to share this love with as many people as possible.
He came up with a route that started in Paris, crossed the Mediterranean from France to Algiers and then tracked a route through Algeria, Niger, Burkina Farso, Ivory Coast and Guinea before finishing in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.
The inaugural race, known as the 1979 Paris-Dakar Rally, started on 26 December 1978 in Paris and ended 21 days later on 14 January 1979 in Dakar.
182 competitors took part: 80 cars, 90 motorbikes and 12 trucks!
The Dakar dominates off-road rally raiding, also called cross-country rallying, which effectively is long-distance off-roading that takes place over several days, potentially travelling over 500 miles each day.
The use of global positioning systems (GPS) is strictly prohibited in rally raiding and competitors must navigate using a paper roadbook and digital odometer. According to Wikipedia, a roadbook is: “…a diagrammatic book typically used by rally co-drivers and overland travellers to navigate across uncertain terrain. Usually, the roadbook consists of several pages of tulip-diagrams, GPS co-ordinates and written instructions to assist in navigation.”
Being off-road, the terrain that the competitors travel over is much tougher than that used in conventional rallying, and the vehicles used are true off-road vehicles rather than modified on-road vehicles.
Most vehicles are heavily modified or built specifically to compete in the Dakar, and many manufacturers who enter vehicles use the rally as a testing ground and also to show-off their vehicle’s durability.
There are four main competitive classes (according to Wikipedia as I couldn’t find much information on the official Dakar website!):
Since 2011, motorbikes entering the Dakar are limited to a 450cc engine, which can be either single or twin cylinder. Riders are then divided into two groups: Elite and Non-Elite. Non-Elite riders are then split into ‘Super Production’ and ‘Marathon’ classes. Only Elite and Super Production riders are able to change key components on their bikes, such as the engine (including the engine case, cylinders and cylinder heads), the frame, the forks or swinging arm.
Quads have only had their own category since 2009, before this they were lumped into the Motorbikes class.
In the current regulations, Quads are designated ‘Group 3’ and divided into two sub-classes: Group 3.1 and 3.2:
Group 3.1 – two-wheel drive quads with a maximum capacity 750cc single cylinder engine
Group 3.2 – four-wheel drive quads with a maximum capacity 900cc engine, either single or twin cylinder
Since 2017 an SSV category was added, defined as four-wheel side-by-side vehicles with 1000cc maximum capacity.
Cars must weigh less than 3,500Kg (7,716 lb) to enter. They are then subdivided into:
T1 – Improved Cross-Country Vehicles, further sub-divided according to engine type (petrol or diesel) and drive type (two-wheel or four-wheel)
T2 – Cross-Country Series Production Vehicles, sub-divided according to engine type (petrol or diesel)
T3 – Light Vehicles
There is also a further ‘Open’ category for vehicles conforming to SCORE regulations. SCORE (Southern California Off Road Enthusiasts) is an off-road sanctioning body in the sport of desert racing.
The Truck class (Group T4), first ran as a separate category in 1980 and is made up of vehicles weighing more than 3,500 kg (7,716 lb).
Trucks participating in the competition are subdivided into
T4.1 – Series Production Trucks
T4.2 – Modified Trucks
T4.3 – (formerly known as T5) trucks are rally support trucks – meaning they travel from bivouac to bivouac to support the competition vehicles. These were introduced to the rally in 1998.
Can I take part?
According to the Dakar website everyone over the age of 18 can enter the Dakar.
You do not need to be a rally-raid champion to take part as the goal of the Dakar is to have both professionals and amateurs participating in the same rally and on the same route.
Bike and Quad competitors are subject to a selection process. Like all competitors they must be over 18 years old. Additionally, they must hold an International Motorcycling Federation (FIM) International Off-Road Rally Licence and be able to justify a first successful experience in Rally Raid, i.e., they must have participated in an event belonging to the FIM World Championship and/or in any other event registered on the FIM calendar or on their national calendar. They must also have the physical ability to take part.
Mind you, entry doesn’t come cheap. For a rookie, entering their first Dakar, not only do you have the cost of your actual vehicle to find, but also the registration fee. Generally this covers the cost of getting your vehicle to and from Argentina, sporting rights, insurance, medical assistance, food and drink, eco contribution and tracking/distress beacons. The rookie registration fee for bikes is €14,000, cars €28,000 and trucks €41,400! You are then responsible for visas, transport costs, fuel, vehicle repatriation if you pull out, satellite phone rental and potential extra vehicle transport costs if your vehicle is over the standard height and/or length.
Is it safe?
We all know motorsport is dangerous and off-road rallying no less dangerous with the added dangers of the terrain and Mother Nature.
The 2008 Dakar Rally was cancelled due to another threat, that of terrorist attacks, and for that reason the Dakar moved across the Atlantic to South America for 2009, and has stayed there ever since.
To date 70 people have been killed in the Dakar Rally, 28 competitors and 42 spectators.
The Dakar is no walk in the park, apparently you don’t win, you survive, but that doesn’t make it any less safe than other forms of motorsport.
What makes it so special?
With drivers and riders being put through a brutal physical and mental test of strength, agility and ability, the sheer variety of vehicles, amazing and yet terrifying terrain to cover and with more plot twists than an episode of your favourite soap, the Dakar Rally has it all.
I’d say that’s what makes it so special
The 2019 Dakar Rally
This year the Dakar Rally is going 100% all Peru.
The race will start on Monday 7 January and finish 15 days later in Peru’s capital, Lima, having explored the Peruvian desert.
There are 10 stages and competitors will travel a total of 5,000Km, 70% of that will be sand and 3,000Km is deemed a ‘Selection Section’ where all vehicles enrolled in the race will be timed.
This year, 334 vehicles are starting off with 534 pilots and co-pilots from 61 countries.
Of these 97 vehicles are ‘Rookies’, which means they have pilots and/or co-pilots for whom this is their first Dakar. 2019 also sees the highest number of women (17) competing in the race since 2009, including 2 all-female teams
Thierry Sabine said: “I wanted to develop a car rally that would be a true adventure. I have always wanted to go beyond my limits and to take other people beyond theirs.”
41 years on from the very first Paris-Dakar Rally interest in the event, both competing and spectating shows no signs of abating. It’s no wonder the Dakar Rally is the world’s unrivalled motor racing spectacle.