The Dakar Rally is still special

by Dickie Meaden on 22nd January 2018

The Dakar Rally is still a truly captivating and gruelling event, says Dickie Meaden

After a fortnight of gruelling action across some of the world’s most extraordinary terrain, the 2018 Dakar Rally was won by Spanish rallying legend, Carlos Sainz.

In much the same way I have to check myself from referring to Wales Rally GB as ‘the RAC’, so I still struggle not to refer to this iconic desert raid as the Paris-Dakar. Must be my age.

Whatever, since 2009 the Dakar has taken competitors through equally remote and arguably more challenging terrain found in the wilds of South America. This year saw competitors plot a 5600-mile adventure (including 2800-miles of special stages) starting in Peru and crossing parts of Bolivia before finishing in Argentina two weeks later.

It remains a crazy and captivating event, one that consistently draws an unlikely combination of vehicles and a stellar gathering of drivers from all corners of motorsport. Sainz’s win is particularly pleasing, for it means he avenged his dramatic departure from last year’s event; an imperious victory on what many are describing as the toughest Dakar in years.

Like most fortysomething petrolheads, the Dakar is special to me. Tales of armed bandits and the cancellation of the entire rally in 2008 due to terrorist threats bolstered the event’s hair-raising reputation, as did accounts of motorcycle riders continuing for hundreds of miles nursing broken ankles or smashed ribs, and injured team service personnel being left in the care of local tribespeople for days until they could be collected and taken to safety.

It also had a more brutal and tragic side, with Thierry Sabine – founder of the Paris-Dakar – losing his life (along with the four other people on board) when the helicopter in which he was travelling crashed into a sand dune in Mali. The 1986 Paris-Dakar continued in his memory and has proceeded to flourish in the years since.

For many, the most memorable era was that in which Peugeot entered specially adapted 205 T16 Group B cars. And who can forget René Metge’s win in the Rothmans-liveried Porsche 959? During the mid-nineties, it was Citroën’s turn to dominate with the fabulous ZX Rally Raid. Ari Vatanen and co-driver Bruno Berglund completed a personal hat-trick of Dakar wins in 1991 (remarkably their fourth win in five years), but it was Frenchman Pierre Lartigue and co-driver Michel Périn who would become true Dakar legends for Citroën, scoring a hat-trick of wins in the ZX between 1994 and 1996.

Since its shift to South America, the Dakar has seen its fair share of dramas and a steady ebb and flow of big-name manufacturers including BMW, Mitsubishi, MINI and VW. It was with the latter than Carlos Sainz scored his maiden Dakar win in 2010, having led in 2009 before crashing out. When VW withdrew from rally raids to concentrate on its WRC campaign the MINIs briefly dominated until Peugeot returned in 2015. Though that year would see the MINI win once more, Peugeot would take the event in 2016 and 2017 thanks to the master of Dakar, Stéphane Peterhansel, a seven-time winner on four-wheels and six-time winner of the motorcycle class.

This year he had to give best to team-mate Sainz, who had failed to finish the previous three Dakar’s for Peugeot, but drove masterfully to secure the French manufacturer another hat-trick by finishing almost 44 minutes ahead of second-placed Nasser Al-Attiyah’s Toyota Gazoo Racing Hilux. To appreciate the scale of that achievement take a few moments to watch the accompanying highlights film.

Shortly before his death in that tragic helicopter crash on the 1986 Paris-Dakar, Thierry Sabine spoke to an interviewer of the event he had created: “I wanted to develop a car rally that would be a true adventure. I have always wanted to go beyond my limits and to take other people beyond theirs.”

More than 30 years on the Dakar continues to do just that.

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