The Dakar Rally (or simply “The Dakar“; formerly known as the “Paris–Dakar Rally“) is an annual rally raid organised by the Amaury Sport Organisation. Most events since the inception in 1978 were staged from Paris, France, to Dakar, Senegal, but due to security threats in Mauritania, which led to the cancellation of the 2008 rally, events from 2009 to 2019 were held in South America. From 2020 to 2023, the rally has been held in Saudi Arabia. The rally is open to amateur and professional entries, amateurs typically making up about eighty percent of the participants.
The rally is an off-road endurance event. The terrain that the competitors traverse is much tougher than that used in conventional rallying, and the vehicles used are typically true off-road vehicles and motorcycles, rather than modified on-road vehicles. Most of the competitive special sections are off-road, crossing dunes, mud, camel grass, rocks, and erg among others. The distances of each stage covered vary from short distances up to 800–900 kilometres (500–560 mi) per day.
The Mediterranean Rally (also known as Algiers – Cape Town Rally) was a trans-Africa rally ran in 5 editions between 1951 and 1961.
Crossing the Sahara
The race originated in December 1977, a year after Thierry Sabine got lost in the Ténéré desert whilst competing in the 1975 “Cote-Cote” Abidjan-Nice rally and decided that the desert would be a good location for a regular rally, on the lines of the 1974 London–Sahara–Munich World Cup Rally, the first automobile race to cross the Sahara Desert.
In 1971, ex-Cream drummer Ginger Baker used the unproven Range Rover to drive from Algeria to Lagos, Nigeria to set up a recording studio and jam with Fela Kuti. Predating the Paris-Dakar Rally the subsequent documentary is replete with such terrain, and documents the vehicle’s endurance.
182 vehicles took the start of the inaugural rally in Paris, with 74 surviving the 10,000-kilometre (6,200 mi) trip to the Senegalese capital of Dakar. Cyril Neveu holds the distinction of being the event’s first winner, riding a Yamaha motorcycle. The event rapidly grew in popularity, with 216 vehicles taking the start in 1980 and 291 in 1981. The privateer spirit of early racers defying the desert with limited resources encouraged such entrants as Thierry de Montcorgé in a Rolls-Royce and Formula 1 driver Jacky Ickx with actor Claude Brasseur in a Citroën CX, in the 1981 race won by two-time winner Hubert Auriol.
In 1982, there were 382 racers, more than double the amount that took the start in 1979. Neveu won the event for a third time in 1982, this time riding a Honda motorcycle, while victory in the car class went to the Marreau brothers, driving a privately entered Renault 20, whose buccaneering exploits seemed to perfectly capture the spirit of the early years of the rally. Auriol captured his second bikes class victory in 1983, the first year that Japanese manufacturer Mitsubishi competed in the rally, beginning an association that would last all the way until 2009.
At the behest of 1983 car class winner Jacky Ickx, Porsche entered the Dakar in 1984, with the total number of entries now at 427. The German marque won the event at their first attempt courtesy of René Metge, who had previously won in the car category in 1981, whilst Ickx finished sixth. Gaston Rahier meanwhile continued BMW’s success in the motorcycle category with back-to-back wins in 1984 and 1985, the year of Mitsubishi’s first victory of 12 in the car category, Patrick Zaniroli taking the spoils. The 1986 event, won by Metge and Neveu, was marred by the death of event founder Sabine in a helicopter crash, his father Gilbert taking over organisation of the rally.
Peugeot and Citroën domination
The 1987 rally marked the start of an era of increased official factory participation in the car category, as French manufacturer Peugeot arrived and won the event with former World Rally champion Ari Vatanen. The 1987 event was also notable for a ferocious head-to-head duel between Neveu and Auriol in the motorcycle category, the former taking his fifth victory after Auriol was forced to drop out of the rally after breaking both ankles in a fall. The 1988 event reached its zenith in terms of entry numbers, with 603 starters. Vatanen’s title defence was derailed when his Peugeot was stolen from the service area at Bamako. Though it was later found, Vatanen was subsequently disqualified from the event, victory instead going to compatriot and teammate Juha Kankkunen.
Peugeot and Vatanen returned to winning ways in 1989 and 1990, the latter marking Peugeot’s final year of rally competition before switching to the World Sportscar Championship. Sister brand Citroën took Peugeot’s place, Vatanen taking a third consecutive victory in 1991. The 1991 event also saw Stéphane Peterhansel take his first title in the motorcycle category with Yamaha, marking the beginning of an era of domination by the Frenchman.
For the 1992 event, the finish line moved to Cape Town, South Africa in a bid to combat a declining number of competitors, where GPS technology was used for the first time Auriol became the first person to win in multiple classes after taking Mitsubishi’s second victory in the car class, while Peterhansel successfully defended his motorcycle category title. The 1993 rally entry list slumped to 153 competitors, around half of the preceding year’s figure and around a quarter of that of 1988. The event was the last to be organised by Gilbert Sabine and the Amaury Sport Organisation took over the following year. With the finish line now back in its traditional location of Dakar, Bruno Saby won a third title for Mitsubishi and Peterhansel took a third straight success in the motorcycle category.
The 1994 event returned to Paris after reaching Dakar, resulting in a particularly grueling event. Pierre Lartigue took Citroën’s second win in acrimonious circumstances, as Mitsubishi’s leading drivers were forced to withdraw from exhaustion after traversing some particularly demanding sand dunes in the Mauritanian desert that the Citroën crews had opted to skip. Peterhansel’s did not compete due to a disagreement between Yamaha and the race organizers over the regulations. Edi Orioli claimed a third title in the bikes category. The 1995 and 1996 events begin in the Spanish city of Granada, with Lartigue racking up wins for Citroën in both years. Peterhansel returned to take a fourth bikes category win in 1995, but lost to Orioli in 1996 because of refuelling problems.
Mitsubishi in the ascendancy
The 1997 rally ran exclusively in Africa for the first time, with the route running from Dakar to Agadez, Niger and back to Dakar. Citroën’s withdrawal due to a rule change paved the way for Mitsubishi to take a fourth victory. Japan’s Kenjiro Shinozuka became the first non-European to win the event. Peterhansel equalled Neveu’s record of five motorcycle category wins in 1997, before going one better in 1998, when the event returned to its traditional Paris-Dakar route. 1998, Dakar veteran Jean-Pierre Fontenay posted another win for Mitsubishi in the car class.
1999 started in Granada and a maiden success for erstwhile Formula One and sports car driver Jean-Louis Schlesser, who had been constructing his own buggies since 1992. With the help of Renault backing, Schlesser overcame the works Mitsubishi and Nissan crews to win, whilst Peterhansel’s decision to switch to the car category allowed Richard Sainct to take BMW’s first title in the bikes category since 1985. Schlesser and Sainct both successfully defended their titles in 2000, traversing the route from Dakar to the Egyptian capital of Cairo.
2001 was the final time that the rally used the familiar Paris-Dakar route, and was notable for Mitsubishi’s Jutta Kleinschmidt, as she was the first woman to win the rally – albeit only after Schlesser was penalised one hour for unsportsmanlike conduct. Fabrizio Meoni took the first Dakar win for Austrian manufacturer KTM, beginning a winning streak that lasted through 2019. The 2002 began in the French town of Arras and long-time Dakar participant Hiroshi Masuoka won the event for Mitsubishi (Masouka had led for much of the previous year’s rally.) The 2003 rally featured an unorthodox route from Marseille to Sharm El Sheikh. Masuoka defend his title after teammate and long-time leader Peterhansel was plagued by mechanical problems in the penultimate stage. Sainct meanwhile took honours in the motorcycle category, the third title for both him and KTM.
By 2004, the entry list had increased to 595, up from 358 in 2001, with a record 688 competitors starting in 2005. Alongside Mitsubishi and Nissan, Volkswagen now boasted a full factory effort, while Schlesser’s Ford-powered buggies and BMWs of the German X-raid team proved thorns in the side of the big budget works teams. The 2004 route was from Clermont-Ferrand to Dakar, and was the year Peterhansel emulated Hubert Auriol’s feat of winning the rally on both two wheels and four. The Frenchman defended his title in 2005, when the rally began for the first time in Barcelona. In the bikes category, KTM continued their success with Nani Roma in 2004, who switched to the car category the following year, and Cyril Despres in 2005.
The 2006 event moved to Lisbon. Nissan pulled out having failed to provide effective opposition to Mitsubishi, who took a sixth consecutive victory, this time with former skiing champion Luc Alphand after Peterhansel committed a series of errors late in the rally. Peterhansel made amends in 2007, however, taking his third title in the car category for Mitsubishi after a close contest with Alphand after the increasingly competitive Volkswagens retired with mechanical problems. In what would be the final African event of the Dakar, Despres took his second title in the bikes category, having conceded victory in 2006 to Marc Coma after suffering an injury.
2008 Dakar Rally cancelled
The 2008 event, due to start in Lisbon, was cancelled on 4 January 2008 amid fears of terrorist attacks in Mauritania following the 2007 killing of four French tourists. Chile and Argentina offered to host subsequent events, which were later accepted by the ASO for the 2009 event.
The ASO also decided to establish the Dakar Series competition, whose first event was the 2008 Central Europe Rally, located in Hungary and Romania, which acted as a replacement for the cancelled 2008 edition of the Dakar.
The 2009 event, the first held in South America with a respectable 501 competitors, saw Volkswagen take its first win in the Dakar as a works entrant courtesy of Giniel de Villiers. Initially, Teammate and former WRC champion Carlos Sainz led the race comfortably until crashing out, but went on to win the event in 2010. After a poor showing in 2009, Mitsubishi withdrew from the competition and left Volkswagen as the sole works entrant. The German marque won the race for a third time in 2011, this time with Nasser Al-Attiyah, before they withdrew to focus on their upcoming WRC entry and leaving the Dakar with no factory participants in the car class. In the bikes, Despres and Coma stretched KTM’s incredible unbroken run of success. Both tied on three victories apiece after Coma’s third win in 2011.
In the 2012 rally, the X-raid team came to the fore, now using Minis in lieu of BMWs. Peterhansel had joined the team in 2010 after Mitsubishi’s departure, but had been unable to challenge the Volkswagen drivers. Following Volkswagen’s withdrawal, Peterhansel was able to secure his fourth win in the car category and his tenth in total, his main opposition coming from within his own team. Peterhansel successfully defended his title in 2013 as the Damen Jefferies buggies of Sainz and Al-Attiyah failed to last the distance. Despres also racked up a further two wins for KTM in the bikes class in 2012 and 2013, bringing his tally to five, aided by Coma’s absence due to injury in the latter year. Coma struck back on his return to the Dakar in 2014, taking a comfortable fourth title and a 13th in succession for KTM, whilst Nani Roma emulated Auriol and Peterhansel by taking his maiden title in the cars class a decade on from his victory on two wheels – albeit only after team orders by X-raid slowed down Peterhansel.
Peugeot returned for the 2015 event with an all-new, diesel-powered, two-wheel drive contender, but failed to make an impact as X-raid’s Minis once more dominated. Al-Attiyah won the event in his second year for the team, while Coma racked up a fifth title in the bikes after the defection of long-time rival Despres to the car class and Peugeot. Peugeot did however see success in 2016 with Peterhansel behind the wheel, racking up his 6th win in the car category, and again in 2017 and 2018 until Peugeot decide to officially leave the competition. In 2019 Toyota won for the first time with Nasser Al-Attiyah (in his third victory with three different manufacturers). The bike category saw the KTM works team rider, Australian Toby Price, take his first Dakar victory, winning his second title in 2019. Sam Sunderland and Matthias Walkner won the 2017 and 2018 edition also for the team from Mattighofen (18 overall victories as in 2019).
The rally is held in Saudi Arabia since 2020. Since 2022, the rally is the season-opening round of the World Rally-Raid Championship jointly sanctioned by the FIA and FIM.
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