Home Global F1/Motorsport Spotlight on: The Dakar Rally

Spotlight on: The Dakar Rally


Though press coverage has declined in recent years, Online Editor Jamie Klein believes the legendary Dakar Rally is an event that still warrants sports fans’ attention.

This year’s edition of the most gruelling event in motorsport, the Dakar Rally, is now underway. The event presents a challenge like no other to its 426 competitors, who will traverse some 9,000 kilometres of the toughest terrain imaginable over the course of two weeks in their bid to be crowned champion.

The desert landscape is a familiar one to the competitors of the Dakar. Photo: bestofrallylive (via Flickr)
The desert landscape is a familiar one to the competitors of the Dakar. Photo: bestofrallylive (via Flickr)

The Dakar Rally is not like a conventional rally of the kind seen in the World Rally Championship. Instead of there being dedicated roads for competitors to use, any route can be used to get from one checkpoint to the next – making good navigation as important as raw speed in the battle for victory. The stages are also far longer than in traditional rallies, often covering hundreds of kilometres and taking hours to complete, featuring such obstacles as rocks, camel grass, sand dunes and even salt lakes, making for truly spectacular viewing.

In between stages, the competitors stay overnight in the ‘bivouac’, a tented village set up each day where the drivers and riders and their mechanics can make repairs to their vehicles. With stages often lasting the entire day, those involved will be fortunate to get more than a few hours sleep each night, making the event a real test of will-power and stamina. This year’s event began in the Argentine city of Rosario on Sunday, and will draw to a close next Saturday (18 January) as the surviving bikes, quads, cars and trucks arrive in Valparaiso, Chile.

A brief history

170 entries turned out in Paris in December 1978 for the start of the inaugural Dakar Rally, the brainchild of founder Thierry Sabine, just 74 making it all the way to the finish line in the Senegalese capital of Dakar. The early races were more about the spirit of  adventure of the event rather than the battle to be top of the timesheets. The Dakar gained notoriety in Britain in 1982, when Margaret Thatcher’s son Mark went missing for six days in the Sahara desert whilst competing in the event.

Ari Vatanen at the wheel of a Citroen. Photo: jcspeedway.blogspot.com
Ari Vatanen at the wheel of a Citroen. Photo: jcspeedway.blogspot.com

By the time Sabine tragically died during the 1986 rally in a helicopter crash, the Dakar’s entry list had swelled to 486, featuring a growing number of professional teams backed by big-money sponsors and factories desperate for success. The arrival of Peugeot in 1987 moved the goalposts as the French manufacturer came to dominate with former WRC champion Ari Vatanen at the helm; the Finn would go on to rack up a mammoth 50 stage wins and four overall victories during his time in the Dakar.

Vatanen’s last win in 1991 co-incided with the first for the man who would go on to become known as ‘Mr. Dakar’, Stephane Peterhansel. Over the course of the 1990s, the Frenchman racked up a further five wins in the bike category, on each occasion riding a Yamaha, surpassing the record of compatriot Cyril Neveu. In 1999, Peterhansel took the decision to switch to the car category, and in 2004 he emulated Hubert Auriol’s feat of winning on both two wheels and four behind the wheel of a Mitsubishi.

By now, Mitsubishi had well and truly become the team to beat, Jutta Kleinschmidt in particular generating press attention by becoming the first (and, to date, only) woman to win the event with the Japanese manufacturer in 2001. In the bikes, Yamaha struggled after Peterhansel’s depature, with Austrian manufacturer KTM picking up the baton with their first win courtesy of Italian Fabrizio Meoni in 2001. Sadly, Meoni became the latest name in the list of those to have died competing in the Dakar in 2005, further highlighting the dangerous nature of the race.

Worse was to come however in 2008, when the Dakar’s organisers were forced to cancel the rally in light of terrorist threats aimed directly against it – ostensibly spelling the death knell for the event. Nevertheless, the decision was made to relocate the rally to South America, Argentina and Chile playing host to the 2009 event. Whilst KTM picked up where they left off in the bikes, Mitsubishi’s reign in the car category came to an abrupt end when Volkswagen took their first victory courtesy of South Africa’s Giniel de Villiers.

Stephane Peterhansel will be eyeing victory number 12 in 2014. Photo: bestofrallylive (via Flickr)
Mr. Dakar himself, Stephane Peterhansel, will be eyeing victory number 12 in 2014. Photo: bestofrallylive (via Flickr)

Volkswagen were however left unchallenged after Mitsubishi departed the scene, themselves quitting the Dakar after taking a further two wins. That left no official factory participation in the car category for the first time since the mid-80s in 2012, with the German X-Raid outfit stepping up to become the new dominant force with their armada of Minis. This allowed Peterhansel to return to the top step of the podium, taking wins number 10 and 11 over the course of the last two years.

Names to look out for

Stephane Peterhansel (France, Mini) – Gunning for a 12th victory overall, Peterhansel can never be discounted. His approach of prioritising his position in the overall classification over individual stage wins has paid dividends over the years, and the speed and reliability of his X-Raid Mini should give him all the tools he needs to do the business.

Nasser Al-Attiyah (Qatar, Mini) – The biggest challenge to Peterhansel is likely to come from within the Frenchman’s own team, Al-Attiyah the only other former Dakar winner in the X-Raid stable. Technical problems have hampered his challenge in the past two years since his sole victory in 2011, so a clean run this year should make the Qatari a threat.

Carlos Sainz (Spain, SMG Buggy) – Sainz is no stranger to winning, having won the World Rally Championship twice as well as the Dakar in 2010. The Red-Bull backed SMG Buggy he’ll be driving is unproven in relation to the Mini, but the prowess of the driver isn’t in question. One to watch if the car is able to go the distance.

Spanish hotshoe Juan Barreda, pictured in 2013, leads the way in the bikes after two stages. Photo: bestofrallylive (via Flickr)
Spanish hotshoe Joan Barreda leads the way in the bikes after two stages. Photo: bestofrallylive (via Flickr)

Cyril Despres (France, Yamaha) – Five-time Dakar bike champion Despres has taken a gamble this year, switching from KTM to Yamaha on the advice of countryman Peterhansel. Despres will be looking to equal the record for wins in the bike category this year, but it will be anything but straightforward as he familiarises himself with a new team.

Marc Coma (Spain, KTM) – The only man who has been capable of challenging Despres in recent years, Coma will be aiming to add to his tally of three wins now he no longer has to share a team with his arch-rival. He missed last year’s event through injury, however, so he will need to get back up to speed quickly to keep in contention.

Joan Barreda (Spain, Honda) – This may only be Barreda’s fourth Dakar, but the young Spaniard is already being talked about as the fastest rider in the world, a reputation he gained last year when he won four stages on board the unfancied Husqvarna bike. Now spearheading Honda’s challenge, Barreda will undoubtedly be eyeing the top step of the podium this year.

Catch daily highlights of the Dakar Rally on Eurosport between now and 18 January, or check out the official Dakar website for the latest information.

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