By Stefan Kristensen
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November 13, 2021
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The Dakar Rally

The Dakar Rally is a famous rally raid event, spanning thousands of kilometers and lasting 10-15 days. Five classes of vehicles participate in a challenging trek across vast deserts, relying on provided roadmaps to find their way. 

History of the Dakar Rally

It was 1977, and motorcycle racer Thierry Sabine was lost. Very lost. He was competing in a rally and ended up within the expanse of the Libyan desert. He was rescued under dire circumstances, but that did not ruin the experience for him. Instead, he was motivated to create something to share the incredible ambience of the desert with other drivers. 

The Dakar Rally is born from this accidental off-course excursion. With the exception of 2008, when terrorism and threats made directly at the event were ongoing, the Dakar Rally has been held every year since 1979. Although it is a competition between racers, it is also a journey through uncharted and often dangerous territory where each racer tests their own driving skill, physical endurance, and mental perseverance. 

Unlike other motorsports where competitors have time to review routes and even practice them before the race, participants in the Dakar Rally are given a map at the event itself; they have to navigate the huge desert landscapes without having practiced or reviewed their paths. This definitely levels the playing field amongst racers, but also increases the danger and thrill of the unknown. 

In the spirit of traversing the unknown, the rally has covered varying routes in multiple countries. From 1979 to 2007, Europe and Africa hosted the event. Then from 2009 to 2019, the event was held in South America. From 2020 to now, Saudi Arabia has been the home of the rally. Although some of the location changes are due to political strife and unsafe conditions in certain parts of the world, the new locations also reflect the original goal of the Dakar Rally: To provide racers with a unique and incredible experience in some of the world's most beautiful yet unforgiving landscapes. 

In fact, while the rally continues to draw plenty of spectators and racers alike, it has not been without tragedy. Thierry Sabine himself perished in a helicopter crash when an unexpected sandstorm occurred, along with four others, during the 1986 Dakar Rally. 

76 people total have died, 31 of whom were competitors. The competitors most often died due to crashes and the injuries sustained from them. Spectators have been accidentally killed, as well as non-spectators, such as residents of the local villages the rally often crosses through. 

Of course, while the drivers understand they are undertaking huge risks by competing in one of the, if not the, most dangerous events in motorsports (and spectators who watch the events and stand close to the action are subjecting themselves to the dangers of the sport, albeit perhaps event organizers ought to prevent their intrusion on the racing routes themselves), it is a separate issue for innocent residents to be struck by vehicles crossing through. This has been a source of controversy for the Dakar Rally, but it appears that the last time a non-spectator death occurred was 1996, indicating that overall local residents have been safe the last 25 years. 

So the Dakar Rally is a historic, legendary, literally dangerous, motorsport event. How exactly does it work?

Categories of Vehicles In The Dakar Rally

As previously stated, there are five categories of vehicles: Motorbikes, quad, lightweight vehicles, cars, and trucks. 

Motorbikes and quads. Motorbike engine sizes at capped at 450CC, and quad engine sizes at 750 and 900CC, for 2 or 4 wheel drive (often abbreviated 2WD and 4WD), respectively. 

Lightweight. This category consists of the T3 and T4 subcategories. Their range is only 250km (a little over 155 miles), so they stop at the same station for fuel as the motorbikes do. 

  • T3. These are prototype, not production vehicles, made specially for the rally. 
  • T4. These are production vehicles that are modified to be used on the rally's terrain.

Cars. The cars category usually contains the fastest and most powerful vehicles overall. There are also subcategories like with the lightweight class.

  • T1. These are prototype vehicles that can be 2 or 4WD and use gas or diesel engines. They must meet FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, a non-profit that governs over the motorsport world) safety standards. 
  • T2. These are production off-road vehicles that are modified for the rally. 
  • Open. This encompasses many other subcategories, and some of them meet standards other than that of the FIA, like the SCORE system (an American set of rules for alternatively-powered and/or electric vehicles)

Trucks. Once again there are multiple subcategories for this class.

  • T5.1. Production vehicles that meet FIA standards. These are rare because most production vehicles are unable to travel upon the dunes often encountered in the Dakar Rally. 
  • T5.2. These are prototype vehicles, but they are required to have particular parts, along with the cabin, based on production models. These are often recognized for the production model they are based on, albeit they are very different underneath. To enhance safety, their top speed is restricted to 140km/h (or around 87mph)
  • T5.3. These are called the rapid support vehicles. They carry spare parts and serve as a rolling shop for the other trucks. 

Marcelo Maragni / Red Bull Photofiles, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Race

The entire race spans thousands of kilometers long, with racers travelling a few hundred per day. For example, the very first Dakar Rally ran from December 26th, 1978 to January 14th, 1979 (hence why the rally is said to have started in 1979, despite the beginning technically happening during the final few days of 1978), spanned 6 countries, from France to Senegal, for a total of 10,000km (about 6,214 miles)!

The 2021 rally (from January 3rd to 15th) essentially made a loop throughout Saudi Arabia for a total of 7,646km (about 4,751 miles), and the upcoming 2022 rally in January will also feature Saudi Arabia, but with an entirely new route spanning 8,000km (around 4,971 miles)!

The routes do include both on and off-road sections, but the off-road portions are the most challenging and treacherous. Sometimes it is not the harsh terrain but simply finding the right way in the desert. Many racers have gotten lost during the Dakar Rally. Those in cars and trucks will have a co-driver to assist them, while the bikers are on their own to navigate, making the process all the more difficult. 

The Dakar Rally, while it is indeed a race, encompasses so much more than that, requiring drivers to be able to successfully navigate huge landscapes that often look the same no matter which way you are facing, and to do this for several days in a row successfully. Unsurprisingly, many do not finish the rally. 

How to Enter The Race

To participate, drivers must be at least 18 years old, hold an International FIA/FIM (Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme) Cross-Country Rally licence, and have competed in either a FIA/FIM World Championship event or some other FIA/FIM event. From there, they can apply for the event, but the organizers retain the right to refuse admission to anyone they deem unfit for the race (unlikely, for example, to be able to handle the physical demands of the event) or who does not demonstrate enough recent racing experience. 

These restrictions are intended to increase safety, but note that drivers do not need to be champions in order to compete, meaning anyone that meets the minimum requirements is able to apply, opening the sport up to both amateurs and professionals! 

How to Watch

If your interest is piqued but traveling to Saudi Arabia does not sound like your idea of a good time (plus, being in a helicopter to watch and follow along with the action is often recommended, which is something probably out of most people's budgets), streaming services often broadcast the event. The 2021 event was streamed via FloRacing, along with LiveStreamingTV. NBCSN also broadcast highlights every day of the event in 2021, and those without cable could subscribe via SlingTV. 

It is likely these same services will provide 2022 streaming as well. If interested, be sure to check the Dakar Rally's site and social media closer to the event date. 

You can also view past clips if interested on sites like Motorsport.Tv. 

Of course, if you do wish to see it in person, you can purchase tickets to the event as well! 

Written by Stefan Kristensen
Passionate about motorsports ever since I was a little boy. Back then, I cheered on the racing cars simply based on their colors. Later I fell in love with the many stories behind racing that make it so interesting.
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