The Spirit of Dakar
"A sadist creating events for masochists" – Jackie Ickx, 6-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner and 25-time F1 podium finisher, on Dakar Rally founder Thierry Sabine.
Written by Breanna Wilson
There are few motorsport events in the world as legendary as Dakar. It might be labeled a rally, but first and foremost, it's an incomparable human adventure. And, what an adventure it is for the more than3,000 people competing as a rider, driver, or as part of a team each year.
Imagine being in the middle of nowhere in Saudi Arabia with 5,000 miles ahead of you. You have to navigate yourself across an endless landscape of sand dunes, through fields of rocky flats, and charge full-speed ahead across some of the world's least discovered terrain. Oh, and you have 13 days to do it.
That's Dakar. It's a test of physical and mental ability attracting some of the toughest men and women worldwide to get behind the handlebars and wheel each year. Tasked with using a paper roadbook as their guide, competitors on bikes, quads, and in cars, side-by-side vehicles, and trucks, are all tasked with the same mission: to find waypoints throughout each competition stage faster than any other competitor in their category. Not only is it a battle against the clock and terrain, but it also eventually becomes a battle against themselves.
That's the point. The rally pushes competitors out of their comfort zone and to their breaking point. And once they reach that, to power on just a little bit farther. Because that was who Thierry Sabine, the Dakar's founder, was. A man with no limits, who never worried about tomorrow, and who eventually died doing something he absolutely loved: overseeing the rally he created, Dakar.
Sabine wasn't alone. His friends loved these all-in adventures as much as he did, which proved to be the perfect storm for creating an event like Dakar, as well as some pretty insane stories from those early years when the race was more about finishing than winning.
Back then, it wouldn't be uncommon for the Delefortrie brothers to bring a bourriche of oysters with them for a mid-desert snack. Or for a Rolls-Royce Corniche to enter the competition as a challenge between friends. There was even the time in 1982 when Mark Thatcher, son of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, got lost in the desert for four days. The following year wouldn't be any less dramatic; a sandstorm caused 40 drivers to lose their bearings, again pushing one of the competitors off course, and the race's radar, for four days.
In those days, competitors would show up to the rally ready to race anything, including Vespa PX200E and P200E scooters, making it a slow-going race for a two-stroke single-cylinder 200cc engine with a four-speed transmission and top speed of just 65 mph. As a result, only two of them made it to Dakar, Senegal. These are the types of legends that would become the essence of the race and the incomparable human adventure it still is today.
THE REAL HEROES OF DAKAR, THE BIKES | Dakar was an immediate hit because it didn't take much to be a part of it. But while anyone could enter, not everyone did. Dakar drew a particular crowd, which was the point.
Amateur riders with Yamahas and Hondas "cobbled together at the back of the garage" danced alongside Citroen CXs with F1 driver Jacky Ickx at the wheel. It was a strange mix, but it worked. And it worked because those who did dare to enter had that same wild lookin their eye as Sabine.
From the very beginning, the heroes of every Dakar have been the bikes and the guys behind the handlebars. In the beginning, bulkier, heavier motorcycles were necessary for a race of that distance and terrain. Flat engine BMW R80G/Ss, Honda single-cylinder XR550s (the early predecessor of the Africa Twin), and twin-valve single-cylinder Yamahas XT500s were the real heroes.
The Yamaha XT500, with its torquey engine and slim, lightweight chassis, would be the bike of choice for Cyril Neveu, who not only won the first Dakar, but would repeat his victory in 1980,1982, 1986, and 1987.
Jean-Claude Olivier, who rode in the first and second Dakar rallies on the same Yamaha, went on to help Yamaha develop the iconic XT600 Ténéré to compete with the BMWs that eventually began leaving Yamaha in their dust. The XT600 Ténéré boasted a 600cc engine with a Yamaha Dual Intake System (YDIS), a 30-liter fuel tank, the first front disc brake ever on a Yamaha off-road model, bell-crank Monocrosssus pension, and an aluminum swingarm, making it one of the most reliable bikes available at the time.
During those early years, Yamaha put out an offer many racers couldn't refuse: buy one of their bikes, and they'd do the event service for free. It was a good deal–keeping your ride running is one of the hardest parts of any rally race, especially one as grueling as Dakar. If you were lucky and didn't run the bike into the ground before the finish, you'd have a fully repaired bike to take home. Dozens took Yamaha up on the offer and quite a few finished.
Yamaha also gets credit for introducing the world to 22-year-old French enduro champion Stéphane Peterhansel in 1988. No one has won the Dakar Rally more times, earning him the nickname "Mr. Dakar."
In 2011, Dakar organizers restricted the engine size of the bikes entering the race to 450cc, leaving the KTM 450 Rally to dominate in recent years. The first generation of the 450 Rally was essentially a 690 Rally with a 450 engine, while the 2019 version brought changes to the weight distribution comprising a new swingarm, linkage, shock absorber, revised exhaust, new airbox, fuel tanks, and seat.
Sam Sunderland, the first British winner of the Dakar in 2017, broke KTM's spell when he cruised to his second victory in the motorcycle category at Dakar, this time from behind the handlebars of a GASGAS RC 450F Rally.
These lighter and nimbler bikes are propelling riders to speeds of110 mph, all while orienteering via their roadbook. It's an impressive feat, but one that doesn't leave much time for shucking oysters atop a giant sand dune.
THE CARS | A Range Rover Classic was the first car to cross the Dakar finish line the first year, 4th behind three bikes, and still running on standard factory-issued Rostyle alloy wheels. The Classic ran a regular 3.5-liter Rover V8 and had three seats for the three team members. While fitted with an extra fuel tank and a winch, neither was used. The only thing reinforced on the vehicle was the steering damper.
The Renault 4 also found success in those early years, and as manufacturers got more involved in the 1980s, it would be the Porsche 959 that began turning heads. Today, the vehicles in the car class are all custom-built, barely resembling anything you would find on the road and certainly not resembling anything you would find on a showroom floor.
"Mr. Dakar," an older Peterhansel, would be one of the most talked-about names during the 2022 Dakar. With 14 wins under his belt, Audi tapped him to be one of three drivers putting their new RS Q e-tron, a hybrid-electric car with an electric drive train and high-voltage 52-kilowatt-hour battery charged on the go by a gas-powered 2.0-liter I4 turbocharged engine, through its paces.
After placing 59th in the car category, the race will see more low-emission electric vehicles enter the race in coming years, thanks to this stunt-gone-right by Audi. Additionally, the race has made avow to allow entry to only low-emission vehicles by 2030, further challenging competitors to push their limits and test what they—and their vehicles—are made of.
DAKAR THEN MEET DAKAR NOW | After years of following the race and living for the stories told by Sabine and friends, I would find myself wondering if Dakar 2022, held this past January, would at all resemble the debauchery and chaos that so many people lived for in those early years. Unfortunately, as a race like Dakar grows, so does the rule book.
With factory teams now dominating the event's overall presence and a starting price tag in the $250k range just to even think about competing, it's safe to say the rally of year's past is gone, but thankfully not forgotten.
My chance to join and have full access to the behind-the-scenes making of the rally came from Can-Am, the all-terrain utility vehicle company. Between the wristbands, the color-coded lanyards, and the never-ending security protocols, Dakar has gone from open to everyone to the most exclusive event in motorsports, meaning that an invite like this doesn't come along every day. It would be with this team, and their corner of the bivouac, where I would learn the ins and outs, the good and bad, and the highs and lows of Dakar.
I learned that sleep is a thing to be cherished, as a quiet night is impossible as the mechanics spend their entire evening replacing and repairing vehicles back to new. I would also learn that Saudi Arabia, where this year's race took place, can be cold. I mean freezing temperatures cold, making sleeping in a tent, as most people at the race do, less than desirable and certainly anything but comfortable.
I learned that the number of ladies participating in this year's rally reached an all-time high—28 in total— including three one-hundred-percent female crews. In addition, I met the first two Saudi Arabian-born females to race in Dakar: Dania Akeel and Mashael Al-Obaidan. Akeel placed 8th, while Al-Obaidan came in 17th out of 37 finishers in the T3 SSV category. Both raced Can-Am Maverick X3's outfitted by the South Racing Middle East team.
Molly Taylor, a driver from Australia who recently won the Extreme E rally, and Austin Jones, an American with a background in racing trophy trucks in Baja, also grabbed my attention. Both were racing in the T4 category as part of the Can-Am Factory South Racing team. Given unlimited access to the drivers, the mechanics, and the rest of the team, I learned strategies behind racing a rally like Dakar in 2022. It turns out, it's not just about going fast.
Things like your starting position for the day, as well as your teammates, are crucial. Driving smart, not just hard, and avoiding costly mechanical repairs are what sets competitors apart. So, while Austin Jones may not have won a stage, he still took home first place in the SSV category, making him the third – and youngest –American to take an overall title at Dakar.
Exploring the rest of the bivouac meant mingling with the journalists and media folks who devote two weeks of their life to covering such an intense race. Getting up before 4:00 am to see the first of the bikes take the starting line and submitting photos and text to their editors until the late hours of the night. If they have the time to crawl into their tent and catch some shut-eye, with freezing nightly temperatures, they'll sleep out of sheer exhaustion rather than comfort. Through these unconventional circumstances, I found friendship with two inspiring female journalists—one Canadian, one Italian—simply bonding over our love of the rally and the people it brings together.
I chatted with Johnny Campbell, Team Coordinator for Monster Energy Honda, a racing legend himself, and not just at Dakar. With 17-Baja 1000 wins in a row under his belt and his own history as the co-driver to NASCAR icon Robby Gordon at Dakar years earlier, it would be Campbell's Monster Energy Honda racing team and the rider's he mentors that would dominate this year's top ten in the bike category, taking second, fifth, sixth, and seventh place.
Over two weeks, I followed the successes and trials that wreaked havoc on some of the most experienced drivers in the car category, like Carlos Sainz, Mattias Ekstron, and Peterhansel. It would be their Audi's that experienced issues ranging from hitting a rock and effectively shearing the left rear suspension off entirely to having a wheel fly from the car. They would eventually turn things around, but thoughts of winning the race were out of their heads by that point.
Moving between bivouacs, watching as the scenery around me changed daily, meeting people from all backgrounds of life, and getting to know this iconic race on a more intimate level, my thoughts couldn't help but return to Sabine. Would he scoff at the vehicles competing today and the serious faces of the racers behind the wheel? Or, would he find it incredibly entertaining to watch people come together, scrambling through the desert at insane speeds with nothing but their vehicle and a roadbook 44 years later. Either way, the spirit of Sabine and the rally still holds true. Dakar remains an incomparable human adventure.