The beginning of a new year can only mean one thing in the world of off-road motorsport.
It’s Dakar time.
The 46th edition of the epic rally raid adventure is about to get underway, and for the fifth time, the competitors will take-on the brutal desert terrain of Saudi Arabia in their quest for one of motorsport’s biggest prizes.
While Dakar may be an incredible spectacle, its myriad of classes and subclasses across different vehicle types, various stage formats and complex jargon which non-rally raid fans might struggle to decipher can make the event a difficult one to follow.
But here at DirtFish, we’re on a mission to bring you closer to the Dakar than ever before.
With this year’s edition primed to be an all-time classic, here’s everything you need to know about Dakar 2024:
What is the Dakar?
Dakar differs from modern rallying as it takes place completely off-road, as opposed to the closed-road stages of the World Rally Championship. It’s rallying, but in a quite different form. Welcome to the discipline known as rally raids.
In rally raids, drivers and riders travel cross-country, across any and every type of terrain, covering huge distances, often over several days of competition. Raid raid is to the WRC what an ultra-marathon is to the 100m sprint – it takes a completely different set of skills to be successful.
The Dakar is the most recognised and prestigious rally raid event in the world, and is one of the most spectacular and dangerous in all of motorsport. Now part of the World Rally Raid Championship (W2RC), the event first took place in 1979, with a route that took competitors from Paris to the Senegalese capital of Dakar – the place from which the event takes its name.
Traditionally held in January each year, the rally has been through numerous iterations and changes in the years since, including being held on three different continents as geo-political issues forced the event to move from its original African home.
But none of those changes have lessened the challenge; the Dakar remains one of motorsport’s most arduous tests.
When is Dakar 2024?
This year’s event starts with the prologue stage on January 5 and runs over two weeks, with the final stage and ceremonial finish taking place on January 19.
Where is the Dakar?
Dakar 2024 takes place entirely within the Middle Eastern country of Saudi Arabia, and sees competitors cover almost 5000 miles in total, 2937 of which are competitive.
The event begins in the ancient oasis city AlUla in the west of the country, and crews will progress east towards Shubaytah in Saudi’s Empty Quarter – a vast desert region with almost no civilization.
After reaching Shubaytah on January 11, the crews turn around and head west, returning to AlUla on Jan 17 before finishing the event in Yanbu the following day.
How does the Dakar format work?
Each day on the Dakar consists of a single stage, with the exception of a one day break for crews on Jan 12.
First up is the prologue stage, which is effectively a qualifying stage from which the road order for the following day is set.
The first of the 12 ‘proper’ stages then begin, with stage lengths ranging from 200 to 540 miles in length. Crews set off from a centralized service park (called a bivouac), which moves with the event as it criss-crosses the country.
Guiding the competitors through each of the daily marathons is the event road book, which directs them to various waypoints throughout the stage, with crews needing to hit all of these milestones within the stage to avoid collecting a penalty.
But navigation in the middle of the desert is far from easy, and the teams will encounter no end of hazards and some of the toughest terrain imaginable as they fight to avoid losing time to mechanical issues, driving errors, or just simply getting lost.
And that road book? The crews get that – in tablet form – a matter of minutes before they start the stage, eliminating what used to be hours of preparation for the co-drivers.
For this year’s Dakar, the organizers have thrown in yet another challenge: the first ever 48 hour “chrono” stage. During this test, which replaces the “marathon” stages of recent years, crews must go 48 hours without any assistance from their teams. And that doesn’t just mean no team members to work on their machines, it means no communication either.
Expect to see the likes of Sébastien Loeb and Carlos Sainz servicing their cars in the middle of the desert, and plenty of competitors helping each other, such is the long-standing spirit of the Dakar.
As with the WRC, a stage winner is declared at the end of every day, and the fastest overall time across the 12 stages wins the event.
What vehicles compete on the Dakar?
The Dakar is split into five main vehicle categories: cars, bikes, trucks, lightweight vehicles and quads, although predictably there are subcategories for each.
Here’s a summary of the vehicles you’ll see across each division:
T1 is the headline car class, which essentially comprises prototype vehicles made especially for rally raid events. These aren’t vehicles you can buy from your local dealership.
Cars can be either four-wheel-drive or two-wheel-drive, and various means of propulsion are permitted; including electric and hydrogen power alongside the more traditional petrol and diesel. Each car is piloted by a two-person crew.
Toyota has been the manufacturer to beat of late, winning the last two editions of the event, and this year the works team will enter five Toyota GR DKR Hiluxs.
Audi returns with a trio of petrol-powered but electric motor-driven RS Q e-tron E2s, while the British Prodrive squad will enter seven of their V6-engined Hunters across three different teams.
Mini is another returning entry, bringing two John Cooper Works Rally Plus cars to Saudi Arabia, while this year’s newbie is Ford M-Sport, with a pair of Ford Rangers ready to make their Dakar debut after a long year of testing.
But while the works-run vehicles might get a lot of the focus, expect to see an even greater range of mean-looking bespoke off-roaders run by private teams, including multiple Century CR7-Ts and MD Optimus’s.
The T2 class meanwhile is for stock vehicles, and will include both Toyota Land Cruisers and Nissan Patrols on this year’s event.
An impressive 136 bikes will start Dakar 2024, including 23 in the elite RallyGP class for factory bikes. Eight manufacturers are represented; KTM (defending winners), Husqvarna, GasGas, Honda, Sherco, Hero, Yamaha and Kove.
Bikes on the Dakar all have an engine capacity limited to 450 cc, making the competition between brands extremely competitive. Unlike the car and truck classes, the bikers ride alone.
Yes, you read that right. The images of prototype trucks surfing on the Saudi sand dunes are part of what makes Dakar so iconic.
Vehicles are bespoke for rally raid competition, but the cabin and certain components must be production-based. All trucks are limited to a top speed of 140 km/h – some going in machines that weigh almost 10 tonnes.
The T5 truck class boasts 47 entries, with manufacturers including IVECO, Hino and Tatra, and each is run by a three-person crew.
Classes T3 and T4 are reserved for lightweight vehicles, which are considered to be a more affordable and attainable way of competing on the Dakar than the car class. They are also known as side-by-side vehicles (SSVs) or simply “buggies”, and like the cars, each vehicle is piloted by a two-person crew.
The T3s are bespoke prototypes, while the T4s are production vehicles with minor modifications.
A total of 79 lightweight vehicles are entered in this year’s Dakar across both classes, with manufacturers including well-known brands such as Can-Am, Taurus and Polaris.
Just 10 quad bikes are set to start Dakar 2024, with nine two-wheel-drive Yamaha Raptors entered alongside a single four-wheel-drive CFMOTO CFORCE.
Like the bikers, quad riders are all alone in their quest for Dakar glory, and must navigate the Saudi deserts without assistance.
Who is competing on the Dakar?
If you’re a WRC fan, there will be plenty of names you’ll recognize in AlUla on Friday.
Nine-time World Rally champion Sébastien Loeb makes his eighth Dakar start in a Prodrive Hunter entered under the Bahrain Raid Xtreme banner. The man who denied Loeb a maiden Dakar triumph in 2023, Nasser Al-Attiyah, will also seek his sixth event win in a Hunter as part of Prodrive’s stellar driver line-up, which also includes Brazilian brothers Marcos and Christian Baumgart.
Double-WRC champion and triple-Dakar winner Carlos Sainz heads Audi’s driver roster, alongside “Mr Dakar” Stéphane Peterhansel – 14-time a winner across the bike and car categories – and World Rallycross and DTM champion Mattias Ekström.
Following Al-Attiyah’s move from Toyota to Prodrive (and Dacia for next year), 2009 Dakar victor Giniel de Villiers returns to lead the South African-based Toyota Gazoo Racing effort, alongside Lucas Moraes, who has been promoted to a factory seat after a hugely impressive third place finish on his Dakar debut 12 months ago.
Ford M-Sport’s line-up is headed by two-time event winner Nani Roma, alongside South African rally raid star Gareth Woolridge, while WRC fans will also be familiar with the name of Martin Prokop, who competes on the Dakar for his own Jipocar Team.
Among the remaining vast number of entries are numerous rally raid specialists, as well as famous names from other forms of motorsport such as Guerlain Chicherit, Romain Dumas and Tim and Tom Coronel.
In the bikes, defending winner Kevin Benavides returns for KTM alongside a host of star names, not least of which is Kevin’s 2024 W2RC champion brother Luciano, who is Husqvarna’s sole factory rider. Other former winners include KTM’s Toby Price, Honda’s Ricky Brabec and GasGas rider Sam Sunderland.
For the truck classes, look out for names like defending winner Janus van Kasteren and young talent Martin Macík Jr., while 2023 winner Austin Jones will look to defend his crown in the T3 class. Five-time world rally winner Kris Meeke will also be well worth watching.
T4 is where you’ll find the likes of Portugal’s João Ferreira and DirtFish-supported American driver Sara Price, who is set to shine on her Dakar debut, while the man who in 2023 became the youngest ever Dakar winner at just 18-years-old – Alexandre Giroud – will defend his title in the quad class.
How do I follow the Dakar?
DirtFish have got you covered for Dakar 2024.
Stay tuned to our social channels for stunning pictures, videos and live updates from Saudi Arabia courtesy of our man on the ground: Mr Colin Clark!
Make sure to check back to the website every day for more news and in-depth features, and keep an eye out for some exclusive content on the DirtFish YouTube channel.
The Dakar website offers live timing across the event, so you can keep up-to-speed with the action as it unfolds.
Red Bull TV also offer a daily highlights package, as does Red Bull Rally and the official Dakar Rally YouTube channels.