The Paris-Dakar Rally – besides being one of the world’s most famous motorsport competitions – is probably the world’s most disputed one as well.
Over the years it came under criticism from the most diverse sources, and the charges brought against it were quite varied themselves.
Some accused it of crossing the Western Sahara without the permission of the Polisario Front – the Western Sahara authority of the Sahrawi, however, starting with 2000 this problem has been largely solved, as, since then, races have been held with the permission of the PF.
Other critics pointed out that the race was degenerating into some type of a “bloody sport” as year after year it never failed to rein in its regular number of victims, both from among participants and from among native people whose turfs the caravan crossed.
Still others accused the rally of being an unscrupulous and brutal display of wealth and power in a land where people were still dying of hunger and thirst, or that it was a modern form of colonialism that should be done away with.
The matter of the fact is, the Dakar Rally is not something for the faint of heart as far as competition goes, or logistics for that matter. Supplying for tens of cars and crews, motorcycles and riders, all sorts of auxiliary personnel, all of this in one of the harshest environments the planet has to offer, can indeed prove to be a logistical nightmare. In a word the Dakar is probably the mother and father of all offroad motorsports in pretty much every respect.
Apparently it all started in 1978, when French racer Thierry Sabine got lost in the desert and of all things he figured: why not have a regular race there, since it was an environment that challenged rider and vehicle in ways no other competition ever would.
The first such rally started from Paris, France and went to Dakar, Senegal – crossing the Mediterranean through the Western Sahara and Mauritania.
Later, however, both the starting location and the route were often varied due to different political and logistical issues.
From 1979 to 1994 the rally’s start location was Paris, only to be changed to Granada in 1995-96, Dakar in 1997 and briefly back to Paris in 1998.
Other start locations were Arras, Marseille, Clermont-Ferrand, Barcelona and Lisbon (2006).
The longest and - in my opinion – most spectacular rally took place in 1992, starting from Paris it went all the way down to Cape Town, RSA. The variety of terrain and climate the racers had to cope with was just awesome to behold, as they crossed the whole of Africa the long way. The television coverage seemed a lot more exhaustive that year too.
The rally itself consists of three vehicle classes: motorcycle, car and truck. French motorcycle rider Hubert Auriol won the cars class in 1992 thus becoming the first ever person to register victories in both the motorcycle and the cars class as he had won the motorbike race twice before.
Through its existence the Dakar rally has been witness to a number of incidents – resulting from its high stakes, high risk nature. Out of these incidents probably the most famous one was when Mark Thatcher – the son of then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher - went missing in the desert, in 1982, for six days. Later rescue efforts managed to locate both him and his navigator 50 miles off course.
Another – more tragic – incident came in 1986 when the father of the rally, organizer Thierry Sabine died as the support helicopter he flew in, crashed. The death toll continued to be high year after year, especially among motorcycle riders as they were the ones most exposed to the hazards of the track. As a result in 2006 organizers decided to improve on safety by introducing compulsory rest at fuels stops, speed limits and reduced fuel capacity for bikes. Despite these measures 41 year old Australian KTM rider Andy Caldecott died in 2006 just a few miles from the place where Italian rider Fabrizio Meoni died the year before.
Regardless of all these tragic incidents that gave the rally a bad name, car, truck and motorbike producers still view it as the ultimate testing grounds for their machines, riders and drivers are still flocking to it in large numbers because it’s quite obvious whoever takes part in the Dakar becomes part of motorsports history.
Over the years the cars class has been dominated by brands like Citroen , Mitsubishi and the impressive Schlesser buggies – custom built by Jean Louis Schlesser for the Dakar, the motorcycle class seeing the triumph of KTM and Yamaha while the trucks class celebrated Tatra, Kamaz, MAN, DAF and Mercedes as winners.
Because of the fact that racing equipment producers, car and motorbike manufacturers as well as riders, drivers and fans view it as the ultimate rally, the future of the Dakar seems assured despite all the negative feedback it drew in the past.
To see a list of Dakar rally winners go to www.MotorSportsEtc.com