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The ultimate rally-raid adventure - A guide to the history and future of the challenging Dakar rally

Published by Guillermo Rozas

Mark Miller and Ralph Pitchford in Argentina
Mark Miller and Ralph Pitchford in ArgentinaCredit: GEPA/Red Bull Photofiles

A challenge for those who go. A dream for those who stay behind.

- Thierry Sabine

History says that it all began back in 1977, when French driver and race organizer Thierry Sabine got lost in the Libyan desert during a rally. He fell in love with the landscapes, the challenge, the immensity of the sands, and returned back to Paris with the sole objective of sharing his discovery with the world. A year later, the stage was set for the first Paris-Dakar to start...

The legend

Renowned as the most demanding and extreme rally-raid in the world, "The Dakar" traditionally starts on New Year's Day and goes on for two weeks with a rest day in the middle. The total race distance can be in excess of 10,000 km, more than half of that at full racing speed. Each off-road special throws at the competitors the best sand dunes, camel grass, muddy or rocky path the organizers can find for the day. Imagine getting up with the sun to drive a couple of hundred of kilometers on road, then spend more than ten hours fighting with dunes and digging up your car from the sand, arriving in the middle of the night to a tent that's 800 km away from the place you started the day. Now repeat that feat 13 times... Open to professionals and amateurs alike, be it riding a bike, driving a car or in the 'comfort' of a truck, it's a massacring challenge both for men and machines. Why on Earth would more than 400 crews be there, every year, eager to start the race?

The answer is in the spirit surrounding the Dakar, a spirit promoted by Sabine since the beginning of the race. For him, his creation would not only be a sporting competition, but also a self-discovery adventure, a challenge to each ones own limitations. The Dakar would be a collective trip where sportsmanship, friendship and lending a hand to those in need along the path are more important than arriving first. That spirit is still alive in the hundreds of amateurs that take part of the race each year, for whom to 'win' is to be there at the end of the final stage. Sadly, that challenge doesn't come without serious perils: more than 60 people have died in the course of the race, including competitors and members of the organization and the public. Sabine himself was killed in 1986 in a helicopter crash, but the event survived him to honour his memory.

The route

Francisco Lopez Contardo navigates his way through Chile
Francisco Lopez Contardo navigates his way through ChileCredit: GEPA/Marcelo Maragni

Until the 2009 edition the Dakar was basically an African affair. Starting most of the years in Paris (France), the participants would quickly ferry across the Mediterranean Sea to start the 'proper' race in African soil. The mighty Sahara desert, the Atlas mountains, even the southern open savannah featured prominently during three decades. The traditional arrival to the banks of the Rose Lake in Dakar (Senegal) was for years the dream of many crews. Unfortunately, the wider and violent world finally reached the competition. Amid terrorist threats against the rally in Mauritania, the 2008 edition was cancelled the day before the start. The race was at its lowest point since Sabine's death...

For 2009, the organizers (ASO) took a calculated gamble: to move the Dakar to South America. Sabine himself had given some thought to the idea of moving around the race to find new challenges, but the decision was a jump into the unknown. The result: a resounding success. With a route leaving Buenos Aires (Argentina), going south to the Patagonia, before crossing the Andes to head up to the driest desert in the world, and back to the start, the new roads and landscapes proved to be popular among drivers and fans.

2011 route map.
2011 route map.Credit: Dakar

Two years later, the 2011 edition of the Dakar will start on January the 1st again from Buenos Aires. The 9500 km route, including more than 5000 km of specials, goes across the centre and north-western parts of Argentina, before crossing to Chile for a trip further north than in any of the previous editions, almost touching Peru's border. The race will start with a mix of off-road and rally specials, passing close to the former WRC (now IRC) tracks and heading north in a landscape that will continuously change from tropical woods to a high altitude rocky desert. The first cross of the Andes (to Chile) will be done at the Paso de Jama, putting crews and machines into the stress of driving well above 3000 meters for hours (peaking at an altitude of 4800 meters). And that's just the appetizer: on the other side of the border they will be welcomed to five days of hard work into the Atacama desert, a very dry mix of gigantic sand dunes, salt flats and lunar landscapes. The return to Argentina through the Paso de San Francisco (4700 meters) won't mean that the sand will disappear, only that the final objective is closer. Just a couple of fast and (maybe) more relaxed stages later they will be back at Buenos Aires, but last year the car's battle was fierce until the very end...

Sadly, with no sign of the African situation getting any better, the prospect of the event going back to its roots in the near future looks dim. Make no mistake: the Dakar belongs to Africa, and every rally fan should be hoping for it to return home someday. In the meantime, we in South America are pleased (and honored) to give it a safe harbor. We hope you'll enjoy it...

All content in the series Dakar Preview 2011