An Iveco truck logs some flight time during the 2018 Dakar Rally. Photo: ASO/@World/A.Vialatte.
It’s the stuff desert racing dreams are made of, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure where a privateer can still compete against factory-backed entries and stars from a variety of global motorsport series. Founded in 1979 as the Paris-Dakar Rally (and evolving into the Dakar Rally following a 2009 move to South America) the legendary rally raid is relocating again in 2020, when it will begin and end in Saudi Arabia.
It started with a wrong turn in the Libyan desert. Motorcyclist Thierry Sabin, competing in the Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire) – Nice (France) Rally, found himself lost in the desolate landscape, yet captivated by the beauty and challenge of the shifting sands. Following his rescue and return to France, Sabin began plotting a rally raid that would incorporate the Libyan desert, and on December 26, 1978, competitors in the first Paris-Dakar Rally set off from Paris’ Place du Trocadéro, bound for Rose Lake in Dakar, Senegal.
Dakar Historic cars during Dakar 2018 press conference in Paris on November 22, 2017. Photo: Jean Michel Le Meur / DPPI.
Sabin described the event as, “A challenge for those who go – a dream for those who stay behind,” and it didn’t take long for word of the event to spread. A total of 182 vehicles started the first Paris-Dakar, with 74 finishing on Africa’s west coast 20 days later. Within three years, the number of contestants had risen to 382 vehicles, and in the event’s most-crowded year, 1988, a total of 603 vehicles entered, while 151 – just over a quarter – finished.
The rally has long been open to a wide array of vehicles, including cars and small SUVs, motorcycles, ATVs (split from motorcycles in 2009), UTVs (or “side-by-sides,” added to the list in 2017) and trucks. Since the beginning of the event, automaker Mitsubishi holds the highest number of wins in the car class with 10, trailed by Peugeot (seven wins), and Citroen, Volkswagen and MINI (with four wins each). Austrian motorcycle manufacturer KTM holds 17 victories, followed by Yamaha (9), BMW (6) Honda (5) and Cagiva (2). In the truck class, Russian brand Kamaz holds 16 wins, followed by Tatra (6), Mercedes (5) and Italian manufacturer Perlini (4).
Mitsubishi’s Pajero holds the record for overall wins in the Car class. Photo: Frederic Le Floc’h / DPPI.
Paris-Dakar was never as simple as navigating between a start point and an end point. As a rally raid, it consists of one stage and a minimum of one “special stage” per day, often incorporating difficult or unmarked terrain. The road book covering the exact route of the day’s stage isn’t distributed until the evening before, and over the course of the 10-15 day event, one day of rest is the norm (though some Paris-Dakar Rallies were held without rest days). The overall length varies by year and route, with the shortest on record (6,263 kilometers, or 3,883 miles) taking place in 1981. The longest, held in 1986, measured 15,000 kilometers (9,300 miles) in overall length, and was marked by the death of founder Thierry Sabin, killed in a helicopter crash along with four others.
Though named for the initial starting and ending points, the event has not always begun in Paris and ended in Dakar. The first break from this tradition came in 1992, when the route ran the length of the African continent, beginning in Paris but ending in Capetown, South Africa. In 1994, the event began in Paris, used Dakar as a midpoint, then returned to EuroDisney on the outskirts of Paris, racking up a total distance of 13,379 kilometers (8,295 miles). The following year, 1994, the start was moved to Granada, Spain, where it remained in 1995, and in 1996 Dakar was both the origin and end point.
The 2020 Dakar Rally route, which begins and ends in Saudi Arabia. Photo courtesy Dakar Rally.
Though 28 competitors and 42 others have died during the event’s four decades, safety has always been a concern for organizers, and on the eve of the 30th running in 2008, the deaths of four French citizens and three Mauritanian soldiers at the hands of al-Qaeda prompted a warning from the French Foreign Affairs Ministry to avoid the country of Mauritania. With no time to re-route the rally, organizers opted to cancel the event, ultimately ending its time on the African continent.
In 2009, the event – now the Dakar Rally – shifted continents to South America, where Argentina became the most frequent start and end point. After 11 years of rallies across Argentina, Chile, Peru and Bolivia, the event will undergo a major relocation for the 2020 running, with the deserts of Saudi Arabia now playing host to the world’s most punishing endurance event. The third evolution of the storied rally will begin in Jeddah on January 5, 2020, finishing in Al Qiddiya on January 17 after traversing the “Empty Quarter,” described as “sand as far as the eye can see,” with “dunes over 250 meters (820 feet) high.”
Other changes for 2020 include color-coded road books with clearer marking of hazardous areas, and a rule change that allows those out of the race to continue on — categorized differently and ineligible for a podium finish — in order to gain competition experience. For additional details, including a comprehensive, downloadable PDF on the event’s history, visit Dakar.com/En/.