Take a road trip. Start in Los Angeles and drive to New York. Then pull a U-ey and head out to Seattle. It’s around 5,500 miles, and Google Maps suggests you can make it in just under four days if you have enough Red Bull in your system. Now get rid of the highways. In fact, lose most of the pavement in general. Finally, copy and paste the LA-Denver terrain and conditions across the whole route. What if it were a race? If you’re not having too much trouble imagining this, you’re probably familiar with the Dakar Rally. If you still can’t picture it, read on for a picture of the most adventure to be found in modern motorsport.
The Paris-Dakar Rally began in 1978 when Thierry Sabine, a French racing driver, got lost in the desert and thought that, if many other racers had the same opportunity, it would make for a magnificent race. He was right. The inaugural rally took place the next year,
running from Paris, France to Dakar, Senegal, and though the route changed almost annually, it ran until 2007, when African political climates became too dangerous. It resumed, however, in 2009, in South America. Though it is still called the Dakar Rally, the climates and terrains are now more varied, boosting the adventure factor almost exponentially. This year’s ran from Mar Del Plata, Argentina, through Chile, to Lima,
Taking place over the first two weeks of every year, including a day in the middle for rest and rebuilding, the Dakar is a grueling, 5,500 mile trek all across the South American continent. It pits the philosophies of safe and steady against raw, roaring power and desperation. And though it is run in daily stages, and drivers only spend an average of
four hours every day racing, it’s an ordeal, especially if you’re riding a motorcycle.
That’s right. There are four types of vehicles that race in the Dakar: Quads, Bikes, Cars, and Trucks. You might imagine that rides of four different sizes and speeds might
make things interesting, and you’d be right. This year was no exception. Here’s a quick rundown of the four horsemen of the South American Sands, and how things turned out this year.
Quads – We Americans know these as “four-wheelers,” though the Dakar machines offer a bit more punch than your uncle’s hunting mule. This year’s winner, for example, was a Yamaha Raptor 700 R, armed with a 686cc single cylinder engine, putting out 45 horsepower. That’s more than an original VW Beetle. And since it only weighs 422 lbs bone dry, it could reach its 75 mph top speed before you could figure out how to say the name of the man who rode it.
Argentine rider Alejandro Patronelli claimed that, taking his second career Dakar win, and beating his brother Marcos, who placed second, by just over an hour and 20 minutes. This year is only the fourth year of Quad competition, as they weren’t included in the African runnings.
Bikes – These aren’t quite the “dirt bikes” we’re used to seeing at motocross or on the Baja. The most noticeable difference is the large fairing meant to house the navigation equipment. But the single-cylinder 450cc engine in this year’s winner, the KTM 450 Rally, certainly got the job done.
Riding it was Frenchman Cyril Despres, who has been trading the winning spot with KTM teammate Marc Coma since 2005. He beat Coma, who made a few navigational errors and earned a one-hour penalty, by just 53 minutes and 20 seconds.
Undoubtedly, the bikes offer the greatest physical challenge for their pilots, and the most danger. Tragically, 38-year-old rider Jorge Boreo was killed in the first stage of this year’s race after getting lost and crashing. Our condolences to Boreo’s family, friends, and fans.
Trucks – The 1979 Paris-Dakar couldn’t have been possible without the team support trucks, which often followed the same rough and rugged route as the cars and bikes. Pinzgauers and Unimogs, jacked up and fitted for duty, tracked across Europe and Africa, chasing their bosses. Apparently they were a hit, because the very next year they got a racing class of their own. Trucks are now divided into two classes, T4, and T5. T5 trucks support the racers, often team-specifically, but don’t participate in competition. T4 trucks are mostly for racing, though homologated examples can offer support mid-stage.
These massive machines, built by companies with hard-edged, Eastern European names like Kamaz and Tatra might be the most spectacular machines on the course, bombing over sand dunes, spewing black diesel smoke to mingle with their white, sunlit dust trails, holding true to the tradition of their forebears.
This year made for a bit of an upset, as the Kamaz cab-over trucks, long-installed as the Dakar champions, suffered defeat at the massive wheels of the newcomer front-engine Iveco trucks. This year’s winning truck, piloted by Dutchman Gerard de Rooy, employed a 900 horsepower C13 diesel. Trucks have to weigh more than 7,700 pounds to compete, though, so that massive cavalry charge was put to good use.
Cars – Finally, the cars are for many the stars of the Dakar Rally. “Cars” is a loose term to differentiate these rally buggies from the trucks, but nothing resembling a “car” has been run at the Dakar in some years. Most of these vehicles are vaguely reminiscent of production SUVs like the BMW X5 or the Volkswagen Touareg, though they are usually mid-engine tube-framers, built from the ground-up for Dakar. (A production class of cars also races, and these can only be lightly modified from their homologated cousins. Last year a Ford F-150 Raptor took the prize in this class).
From 2009-2011, Volkswagen dominated the podium with the Race Touareg, perhaps one of the coolest off-road machines ever built, but VW did not return for 2012, letting their competitors at BMW fill the gap with their Mini All4 Racing, a buggy meant to look like the Mini Countryman. It’s a 3-liter diesel cranking out 315 hp. Its main rival was as different as brisket from schnitzel- the Hummer H3 Dakar. It’s fitted with an LS7, obviously uses gasoline, and is only rear-wheel drive, but it’s faster and has a greater
Qatari Hummer driver Nasser Al-Attiyah, who won last year in a VW, retired before the end of the race, a broken alternator belt costing him the race. Meanwhile, Frenchman Stephane Peterhansel ran his Mini into one of the bike racers while crossing a stream, an incident overlooked by the officiators, while American Robby Gordon, a former NASCAR driver, was disqualified for allegedly modifying his onboard tire pump air compressor to feed into the engine. Gordon appealed, allowing him to finish the race, though his hopes for victory were dashed when the Hummer faced various mechanical failures. Incidentally, among them was a fouled transmission Gordon earned while trying to pass Peterhansel, who was supposed to give Gordon the road. The American managed a 5th place finish.
So this year the trophy went to Peterhansel in his Mini, after none-too-little controversy.
But this is Dakar. It is two weeks of dust, exhaust burns, and infinite variables. It is weather and anger and tire punctures. How much fuel will you need for this stage? How many spare tires should you take to satisfy the hungry, jagged stones you may encounter? Will your co-driver be able to keep up with the navigation and pace-notes? Did you bring enough water to avoid passing out under the heat?
In short, you’re unlikely to encounter more adventure in modern motorsport.