Like many people, I first heard about the Dakar Rally when Mark Thatcher, the son of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, got lost in the desert during the Paris-Dakar Rally. It was perfect fodder for the press as his sole job was navigating a safe route across the Sahara. Light-hearted press humour soon turned to concern though as Mark Thatcher and team remained missing for 6 days. Fortunately, all ended up well.
At the time of Thatcher’s disappearance, the Dakar Rally was still in it’s infancy having only begun in 1978 after the founder, Thierry Sabine, got lost on a motorbike in a desert in Libya during Abidjan-Nice Rally. For some crazy reason this was the moment he decided that this would be a good setting for a brand new rally.
Although still actually called the Dakar Rally, the race generally does not finish in Dakar anymore; in fact, it hasn’t since 2007 due to various political complications and security concerns. The 2008 Dakar Rally was cancelled amid such concerns following the murder of 4 French citizens as well as 3 Mauritanian soldiers. The rally was reluctantly cancelled on the eve of its start. Not wanting to risk such disappointment happening again, the following year and every year since, the race has resided in the more stable setting of South America.
The Dakar Rally is actually a rally raid – which is a cross country rally with the emphasis on endurance and huge distances. They normally take place over several days. The Dakar is probably the most famous rally raid of them all, possibly with some thanks due to Mark Thatcher, but there are other notable rally raids across the globe – the Spanish Baja and Central Europe Rally deserve a mention here.
You can compete in the Dakar by car, quad, truck or motorcycle. The rule for motorcycles allows for a 450cc engine, this has effectively reduced the cylinder size for many competitors. 2013 also saw the enforcement of new rules relating to cars, with competitors only allowed to use engines from available production models. This is a strictly controlled and monitored rally raid.
Each stage of this impressive endurance race can cover up to around 550 miles with the terrain being almost impossible to cross without the right knowledge and the right vehicle. It’s for this reason that the vehicles that you see competing are pure endurance rally bred machines. These vehicles have to contend with the sort of eye-popping conditions that will make that smooth pull-away in 2nd gear on an icy road back in January seem pretty inconsequential.
Dakar has a kind of romantic feel to it, with the competitors expected to not only be proficient racers, but also pretty good navigators. In fact, the orienteering aspect of the Dakar Rally is crucial. Often, competitors will find that they have nothing to lock onto visually as they traverse a desert landscape that can look the same for hundreds of miles, yet the infamous shifting sands can, rather confusingly, actually be changing the landscape constantly. Many competitors, whose navigation has not been 100%, have found themselves (over time and many miles) dangerously off course.
But overall, the Dakar Rally gives you a real sense of a giant, wild landscape. I recall an interview with a competitor whose day job was working as part of the in-flight crew of a passenger airplane, she described the feeling of flying regularly over the Sahara and being able to see just how vast the desert was from the air, it must have given her an insight into just what it was going to be like to drive across this huge expanse of mostly uninhabitable terrain.
Sabine’s original motto was “..a challenge for those who go. A dream for those who stay behind..” and while some may argue that the Dakar Rally has lost much of its romance and mystery since leaving the deserts of Africa and setting up residence in South America, it inarguably remains one of the toughest endurance events on the planet, and long may it continue.
This year’s Dakar Rally ran from January 5th -19th and was the 34th event. It covered a total of 5,281 miles starting in Lima, Peru and ending in Santiago in Chile.
Dakar Rally logo from creativeroots.org