Name the greatest motorsports event that most Americans know nothing about? I guess if you’re American you probably don’t know about it so the question is kind of stupid, but the answer is the Dakar Rally.
Aside from being just another motorsport that Americans aren’t interested in, the Dakar Rally is one of the last true tests of man and machine in our over sanitized modern world. Hit the jump for your Infinite Garage Dakar Rally Primer.
Thanks to modern conveniences like the internet and cable TV, the Dakar Rally has become quite a bit more accessible in the land of apple pie and baseball.
The Briefest Overview of Dakar History in the History of Dakar:
The story of the Dakar Rally started in 1978 when a French gadabout and motorcycle racer named Thierry Sabine decided that the North African desert would be a great place for maddest race on Earth. From the outset Dakar was designed as more of an adventure than a race and Sabine’s inspirational motto: “A challenge for those who go. A dream for those who stay behind.”remains the cornerstone of the Dakar experience to this day.
Starting in Paris and finishing in Dakar, the early races challenged hundreds of amateurs and professionals alike to battle the sands and their own machines. Not surprisingly, in an era lacking GPS and big dollar factory teams the attrition rate among the competitors was high. It wasn’t uncommon for only half the starting field to finish the races which were even longer than the current event (up to 12,000km or 7200mi).
As the rally grew in popularity, the major manufacturers started to take notice. By the mid eighties Dakar had attracted the attention of factory backed teams by Mitsubishi, Peugeot, Citroen, and even Porsche. Auto manufacturers weren’t the only ones spending money. Motorcycles have always been a big part of Dakar with every major manufacturer participating. Even the support trucks are actively raced with legendary rivalries between DAF and Mercedes-Benz, and later Kamaz and Tatra, pushing the limits of what can be done with a four ton off road truck .
Due to logistics, safety and political pressures the Dakar’s route has changed every year but for the majority of it’s life the rally started in Paris, France and finished in Dakar, Senegal. The 2008 Dakar Rally was canceled amid threats of terrorist attack and many people questioned whether the rally could continue in the political climate of the new millennium. Refusing to let the Thierry Sabine’s legacy die, the A.S.O. (the Amaury Sport Organisation, which also organizes the Tour De-France) established the Dakar Series of rally-raid events with the jewel in the crown being the revived Dakar Rally, now taking place along an 8000km(4800mi) route in South America.
If that wasn’t enough history (and lets be honest it probably wasn’t) here’s a great video chronicling Ari Vatannen’s 1987 Paris Dakar Rally.
The Dakar Rally is one of the few events where amateurs and professionals mix it up on the same course. As a result, the variety of machinery you see in the mountains and deserts of the rally is vast but it can be classified in three broad categories.
Cars, The Big Dollar Rides of Dakar:
The car category includes everything weighing less than 3500kg(7716lb). Trucks, custom made buggies, SUVs and even modified street cars make up this category. Subdivisions within the class allow for everything from nearly stock vehicles to purpose built race trucks like the dominant VW Touaregs and Mitsubishi Pajeros of the last decade.
While the first Dakar was unsurprisingly won by a Range Rover, the vast majority of wins in the car class have been won by actual cars in various forms. Porsche even took their winning heritage off piste, winning Dakar in 1984 with a 911 and then coming back in 1986 to take first and second with the all conquering 959.
Current TV coverage of Dakar focuses mainly on the prototypes of which there are two main categories: the 4×4 cars like Stephan Peterhansel’s MINI and the two wheel drive buggies like Robby Gordon’s Hummer.
Motorcycles, the Superheroes of Dakar:
So you want to race the Dakar, but you don’t have a huge budget or the idea of sitting in a comfortable car with a co-driver helping out sounds a little too soft? The motorcycle class is your answer. Unlike the Baja 1000 where the motorcycle class is typically ridden as a relay the Dakar requires you to go it alone and navigate the course at race pace while trying not to be overtaken by the charging field of cars and trucks that are starting behind you.
If anything, the early days of the motorcyle class were even more wide open that the cars. The eighties and nineties were decades of fierce competition between motorcycle manufacturers with prototype bikes growing in displacement to 1000cc and making close to 100hp. It’s no wonder that of the 25 Dakar competitors that have died over the years, 14 of them were motorcyclists.
Today’s motorcycle class mainly consists of production based bikes limited to 450cc and as a result the 2013 Dakar Rally is turning out to be the most varied motorcycle competition in years. KTM, Yamaha, Honda, and even Husqvarna are currently battling for the top spot on the podium.
Trucks, the Behemoths:
The cars and motorcycles aren’t completely alone on course, the truck class consists of vehicles over 3500kg(7716lb). Many teams have support vehicles that carry spares and help out along the route. Initially, the trucks were mainly driven in a supporting role, but by the second running of the Dakar trucks were runing in their own competitive class.
The excess of the eighties wasn’t limited to the car and motorcycle classes. The modified truck categories produced some of the most insane race machinery of the era. Nothing typied the era more than Jan De Rooy’s DAF Turbo Twin super truck. With two monstrous diesel motors making more than 1200hp and a top speed of 220kph(130mph) the Turbo Twin is perhaps the coolest thing ever raced on the planet Earth.
Here it is eating Ari Vatannen’s works Peugeot 405 T16 and the rest of the field for breakfast during 1988 race.
The current truck class is a little more reserved but it is still mind boggling to watch a giant four ton truck blast through the dunes.
Hopefully, that brief overview covers the most basic things that might interest the novice Dakar enthusiast, but if that isn’t enough, check out he official Dakar site which includes live timing a mobile app and a dedicated YouTube channel.