The 39th outing gets underway on January 2 in Asunción, Paraguay. Here’s what you need to know:
- Why is a rally named after an African city held in South America?
- How did the Dakar begin?
- Why is the Dakar such a gruelling event?
- What happened to Margaret Thatcher’s son?
- Do the trucks race too?
- Who has made the most starts?
- How many people live in the bivouac?
- How much bad luck might I face?
- Which licence plate has been on the podium the most times?
- Who’s likely to win this time out?
Frenchman Thierry Sabine first beckoned people to the starting line on December 26, 1978 and 170 competitors heeded his call. Right from the outset, the rally, which originally went from Paris to the Senegalese capital, Dakar, was intended as the toughest test possible for man and machine. Sabine’s motto was: “If life gets boring, risk it!” Sabine died in a helicopter crash in 1986… during the rally, of course.
The 2008 rally was called off because of terror threats in Africa and in 2009 it moved to South America, which was both safer and had greater public appeal. But as the Dakar name was synonymous with cross-country rallies, the organisers kept it. There’s not much chance of it moving back to Africa either. Interest in South America is phenomenal. Every participant is a star. Plus, the added value to the local economy is about $300 million a year.
Because you don’t get enough sleep, you’re driving for extended periods across treacherous terrain; you’re going too fast, while on the road sections you’re debilitatingly slow. Because the other competitors are the best the world has to offer. Because all those little injuries add up and every tiny mistake is potentially lethal. Because it’s boiling hot and freezing cold and you’re not used to being 4,000m above sea level. All of that really.
In 1982, Mark Thatcher managed to get so lost during in the Dakar in his Peugeot 504 that even the Algerian Army needed six days to track him down, some 50km off course. The search for Thatcher generated international headlines and much harsh criticism for the somewhat unpopular offspring of a divisive British Prime Minister. “I did absolutely no preparation. Nothing,” the self-styled gentleman driver confessed afterwards. Top man.
Not all of them. Some trucks – the Kamaz and Ivecos, for example – are in it to win. Many others, however, are there to play a supporting role, carrying spares and other equipment in case the cars and bikes that started ahead of them have technical problems. Even though these trucks reach speeds of 160kph and have competition numbers – which they need in order to be allowed to enter the special stages – the actual race result for them is of no importance, because they have other duties to fulfil.
Japan’s Yoshimasa Sugawara has taken part in the race 33 times consecutively: first on a bike at the age of 41 in 1983; then seven times in a car; and he’s been racing in the truck category since 1992. His mechanics always know to observe etiquette. Whenever Sugawara San, now 75, rolls into the bivouac, they bow, as tradition demands.
With all the mechanics, organisational crew, media, medical staff, cooks’ etc, the total number of people in the bivouac, the Dakar’s travelling base, comes to about 3,000. The size of a small town.
Two-time motocross World Champ Heinz Kinigadner has started the Dakar seven times, but has yet to finish; he even had to retire when in contention for the win.
THE RED BULLETIN: What were the reasons for your retirements?
HEINZ KINIGADNER: I retired because of technical failure three times and crashed four times.
What caused the crashes?
On every occasion it was because I’d lost time due to problems and then I tried to sledgehammer my way back up the field. But try to do that on the Dakar and you end up in a helicopter – the rescue helicopter.
Do you think of yourself as jinxed?
Not at all. I’ve had so many experiences. At my very first Dakar, a dockworker discharging a shipment was decapitated by a steel cable in front of the drivers’ eyes. When things like that happen, it immediately puts sport into perspective. So being part of the Dakar seven times is definitely a case of good luck, not bad.
The current title-holders are Stéphane Peterhansel (car), Toby Price (bike) and Gerard de Rooy (truck). But watch out for Sébastien Loeb, Nasser Al-Attiyah and Carlos Sainz in the cars, Sam Sunderland and Matthias Walkner on the bikes and the spectacular Kamaz trucks.