Despite a 2009 switch from Africa to South America, the Dakar Rally remains every bit as grueling and dangerous for everyone involved.
Half off-road rally and half endurance race, the Dakar Rally is one of the most punishing and intense events in all of motorsports. But for the manufacturers that recognize the race's potential, it can be an amazing opportunity for product development, to say nothing of the potential bragging rights for the winner. And while any motorsport event carries a certain amount of danger, with its uniquely grueling and treacherous conditions, at Dakar there is always a very real chance that you won’t survive.
The Dakar Rally was first dreamed up by French motorcycle racer Thierry Sabine. While taking part in a different rally in 1977, Sabine got lost in the Libyan desert, and while there, couldn’t help but notice that it would be an excellent setting for a larger-scale race. Thus was born the Paris-Dakar Rally. As the name implies, the race would begin in Paris and end in Dakar, a port town in Senegal, formerly part of France’s West African Empire. The first race was held in 1979, with classes for both cars and motorcycles. A truck class was added the next year.
Each class also has various sub-classes for different levels of modification. For trucks, this has included some with dual engines and combined power ratings in excess of 1,000 horsepower. Since 2009, quads, which had formerly been a sub-class of motorcycles, have received their own class. Despite the name, the Dakar Rally is not really a rally, strictly speaking. The off-road endurance race is actually classified as a rally raid, and the vehicles used are much more off-road focused than those in the World Rally Championship. Though the route has changed many times, the terrain is invariably highly treacherous.
Sections of Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania (when the race was held there) were possibly the most difficult in all of off-road racing. Some 60 people have been killed during the relatively short history of the race, quite a high number for these days. Not all of these fatalities have been competitors, quite a few have been people living along the race course, and even the races founder, Thierry Sabine, died in a helicopter crash in 1986 while observing the race. The deaths of locals have obviously been the subject of a fair amount of criticism over the years, and even though the course has changed many times, these incidents still occur.
With the race organizers and participants being so heavily French, and with much of the race taking place in former French colonies, the race has even been condemned as colonialism, despite the fact that everyone goes home once it’s finished. Up through 1991, the race took place primarily in North Africa, although in 1992, for one especially challenging year, the finish line was moved from Dakar to Cape Town in South Africa. From that point, the route would change, sometimes drastically every year or two for quite a few years.
In 2008, a series of terrorist attacks carried out by Al-Qaeda in Mauritania led to the cancellation of the race, with no clear indication that it would be resumed. But in 2009, the race moved to South America, where it continues to be held. It's now primarily centered in Chile and Argentina, but in the last two years, Peru has been added as a host country, and the capital city of Lima is now part of the route. Now held on a different continent, the Dakar Rally is no less difficult or dangerous. TV viewing audiences have dwindled since the race was moved, as it is now less visually exciting, but the racers still find it every bit as grueling.