Returning as a defeated competitor on the Abidjan-Nice Rally having been rescued from the desert after getting lost, Thierry Sabine was an inspired man in 1977. The wondrous scenic views and the inexorable challenge of racing through the sand dunes of northern Africa was, to him, too precious to keep to himself.
The Paris-Dakar Rally was therefore born in Sabine’s mind, and no sooner had he devised what would later become the most demanding and recognized rally raid in the world, that the inaugural event was held a year later.
The Place du Trocadéro, with the Eiffel Tower as its backdrop, was the location for the start of the very first Paris-Dakar on Boxing Day, 1978. A full 6213.7 miles lay in front of the 170 competitors, trekking through Algeria, Niger and Mali before reaching the Senegalese capital of Dakar 19 days later.
Coining the enduring phrase that epitomizes the Dakar, Sabine had laid the foundations for one of the most difficult, brutal and iconic motorsport events on the planet. “A challenge for those who go, a dream for those who stay behind.”
Over the course of its history, the Dakar and those involved in it have experienced triumph, tragedy and a lot of change, through three distinct chapters. From its origins in Africa, to a new life in South America before embarking on its current adventure in Saudi Arabia, the Dakar has transcended the motor racing world throughout the last 42 years.
The early years (1979-1982)
Sabine was keen to make sure the Paris-Dakar was an event for everyone, from the amateur to the professional, and the 1979 edition was just that. The legendary bike figures of Cyril Neveu, Hubert Auriol and Jean-Claude Morrelet (nicknamed Fenouil) were joined by the likes of journalist and adventure seeker Philippe Hayat, teacher Jean-Pierre Domblides and even a Renault Gordini technician Daniel Nolan – who drove a Renault KZ 11 CV, the very same model that had been used by Commander Etienne in 1927 to connect him from Oran to Cape Town.
The enthusiasts were as welcome as the hardcore competitors in 1979, which featured seven female bike riders as well.
Come the following year, such was the interest and intrigue in this new event, that manufacturers began to get involved, through the renting to teams of their vehicles. Volkswagen was the first major brand to reap the rewards as Freddy Kottulinsky – grandfather of Extreme E test and development driver Mikaela Åhlin-Kottlulinsky and former ERC driver Fredrik Åhlin – became the first, and as yet only, Swedish driver to win the grueling event in his VW Iltis.
The route had expanded from the first edition as well, with more countries being traversed by the 116 cars, 90 motorbikes and 10 trucks. Mauritania was added for the first time, as was Upper Volta, with iconic locations such as Gao and Timbuktu featuring on the itinerary.
Now established as a legitimate event on the motorsport calendar, the Dakar was attracting big names from other categories, as well as forging reputations that would stand the test of time. René Metge won the first of his three Dakars in 1981 at the wheel of a Range Rover while the Marreau brothers, Claude and Bernard, came out on top in 1982 despite not winning a single stage. Instead, seven of the 17 stages that year went the way of ex-Formula 1 driver and Le Mans winner Jacky Ickx, while fellow sportscar drivers Jean-Pierre Jaussaud and Vic Elford also won stages.
Sabine’s death rocks the Dakar (1986)
The circumstances remain unclear to this day, but what is known is that on the morning of January 14 1986, the Paris-Dakar was irrevocably changed. Midway through the rally, and a day after the rest day in Niamey, the helicopter transporting Sabine and four others to a soccer match in Mali crashed as it attempted to land amid a heavy sandstorm at night. All five onboard – including popular French rockstar Daniel Balavoine, journalist Nathalie Odent, a radio technician Jean-Paul Lefur and pilot François-Xavier Bagnoud were killed.
The impact of Sabine’s death was profound as the Dakar had lost its shining light – its master, race director and inspiration – in the middle of the rally. Sabine’s father Gilbert took over and the rally finished as planned, but without any enthusiasm. The future looked uncertain for many months after, but Gilbert continued as race director until 1993.
Before Sabine’s death, the 1986 Dakar Rally was a turning point in the event’s history. Sabine had announced a series of humanitarian efforts for local communities, to help impoverished families by installing water pumps. Balavoine was a keen motorsport fan, having competed himself in 1983, but also part of the Paris-Dakar, Paris du Cœur foundation that donated fresh water supplies to African villages.
Metge won the event in his Porsche 911 (pictured above) but this was a rally nobody wanted to celebrate.
Victory – and a car – stolen within sight of Dakar (1988)
One of the most bizarre incidents in the history of motorsport, let alone the Dakar, occurred in 1988 when Peugeot’s Ari Vatanen was literally robbed of a chance to win his second event in succession. The Finn had already tasted success on the beach of Lac Rose the previous year, in Peugeot’s first entry as a factory team using the old Group B 205 T16 and he looked certain to add another victory in 1988.
Now in the new 406 T16, Vatanen was leading Peugeot team-mate and then double World Rally Champion Juha Kankkunen having won four stages before arriving in Bamako in Mali. With the cars stored in the bivouac overnight, there was no cause for alarm, until noise broke out at around 4am. Vatanen’s car was on the move.
Several onlookers who had been awake at the time noticed that Vatanen’s car was leaving the bivouac, but they assumed it was merely a member of Peugeot taking it out for a shakedown. It was only when the car failed to reappear that the warning signals came out. The leader’s car had been stolen.
Peugeot team boss at the time Jean Todt then received a call from the thieves, demanding a ransom be paid if they were to return the 406.
Speaking to French TV at the time, Todt said: “What happened was that at 7.30 this morning I received a phone call in my hotel room. I was passed from one person to another person who was very much a European. He said, ‘We have the car of Vatanen, come in a taxi in 15 minutes with the sum of 25 million francs CFA’. Right now, we’re looking for the car.”
It was labeled the robbery of the century, and it was hard to argue with that. Eventually, the car was found (thieves not included) in a field close to Bamako Airport. Peugeot brought it back to the bivouac, where they had already missed the start time for Vatanen by half an hour. The result? Disqualification five stages – of which two would be canceled due to high winds – from the end. Kankkunen inherited the victory, his only triumph on the classic raid.
Checkpoints and politics
The 1994 edition was unique for many reasons, with the traditional Paris start and Dakar finish tweaked so that the event became a true Paris-Dakar loop. Beginning in the French capital on December 28, turning around at Lac Rose and working back to Paris for the finish at Eurodisney [which had opened two years prior], this year’s rally was a controversial affair.
Following the sale of the Dakar from Gilbert Sabine to the Amaury Group after the 1993 event, ASO took over the running with Fenouil at the helm as race director.
Citroën and Mitsubishi were the two brands in contention for the victory, with 1993 winner Bruno Saby leading the Japanese charge against Citroën’s Hubert Auriol and Pierre Lartigue.
The battle was intense and unrelenting. That was, until the 11th stage. The arduous 391-mile trek over the sand dunes of Mauritania from Atar to Nouadhibou took its toll on both cars and bikes as almost all competitors got stuck in the fesh-fesh (terrain covered with sedimentation composed of soft, powdery sand).
The crews had to navigate the dunes in order to pass through Checkpoint 8 but Citroën, led by Auriol, elected to by-pass the Checkpoint and therefore accept the five-hour penalty that came with such an offence.
Saby and Jean-Luc Fontenay keep on digging, aiming to complete the stage, which they hoped would be neutralized as it had been for the bike category.
A disgruntled Fenouil gave the Citroën crews a telling off for not completing the stage in the correct way, to which he received a barrage from the drivers in return, who claimed no road openers (who would lay tracks in the road for the competitors to aid navigation) had been deployed when Fenouil said there would be.
“It’s your responsibility!” Auriol cut back with, claiming that the dunes had been impossible to overcome.
“You said there would be openers and there were none,” Lartigue added with substantially more venom than Auriol. “Liars!” Fenouil did not back down for either Citroën or the hapless Mitsubishi crews.
The Citroëns arrived back at the bivouac in the early hours but that was nothing compared to the Mitsubishis, which spent nearly 25 hours trying to get their way through the stage. Saby and Fontenay figured that if they were the only ones to complete the stage, they might get rewarded. Eventually, they made it to the finish; the co-drivers led the way on foot to find tracks but by the time the two Pajeros finished, they were beyond the time limit allotted for the stage. Aggrieved that the stage times had not been neutralized for his valiant crews, and not willing to risk the welfare of his drivers and mechanics, Mitsubishi team principal Ullrich Brehmer decided to withdraw the rest of the factory cars in protest.
The agonizing irony had been that Mitsubishi’s efforts were all in vain. Fenouil had canceled the stage at the fifth checkpoint, but the perseverance of the two crews was Dakar typified.
For the first time since 1992, the rally did not finish at Dakar, instead trekking west to east from Dakar and finishing in front of the Pyramids in Cairo for the 2000 event. This was a year marked by the threat of terrorism, which forced a temporary halt to the rally for five days as the whole bivouac – teams, cars, drivers and equipment – was transferred from Niamey in Niger to Sabha in Libya.
Leading the way early on were the Factory Mitsubishi Pajeros of 1997 winner Kenjiro Shinozuka, Carlos Sousa and Jutta Kleinschmidt, but the considerably lighter Mega Prototype of Stéphane Peterhansel was giving them a real run for their money; the six-time bike winner took his first stage win on four wheels and ultimately finished second at the finish.
It was an extraordinary operation, but the satisfying thing is we will restart the race and that is the most important thing for the competitorsRace director Hubert Auriol, after the rally was moved 2000 miles by air bridge
Previous year’s winner Jean-Louis Schlesser led the way in his buggy as he, Sousa, Kleinschmidt, Peterhansel and Shinozuka shared the stage wins across the opening five tests. Sousa won the sixth stage from Ouagadougou to Niamey before the event took a sinister turn.
At the end of the stage, race director Auriol learned of a terrorist threat to the Dakar participants in Mali. Under the instruction of the French Ministry of Defence and Foreign Affairs, the decision was made to form an air bridge across Africa to take the rally out of danger.
To do this, the organizer ordered three Antonov 124 transport planes – the largest in the world – from Kiev in Ukraine to move the entire rally over 2000 miles to Sabha where the event continued.
“It was a quite extraordinary operation,” Hubert said. “But the satisfying thing is that tomorrow we will restart the race and that is the most important thing for the competitors.”
Schlesser duly took another victory ahead of Peterhansel and Fontenay’s Pajero. Kleinschmidt, who would go on to become the Dakar’s first female winner in 2001, finished fifth.
Shinozuka and Sousa, along with Guillaume de Mevius were forced to retire after hitting an unstable dune on stage nine. The normally flat erg caused a number of cars to crash, with eight of the drivers suffering injuries, Crucially, none were seriously hurt but helicopter rescues were required.
Chapter 2: South America
The 2008 Dakar Rally had been scheduled to start from Lisbon in Portugal before reaching his customary home in Dakar, but the event was canceled on the advice of the French Foreign Affairs Ministry not to go to Mauritania. Four French citizens and three Mauritanian military members had been murdered just days before the start of the event, with the competitors already in Lisbon. Three weeks later, a terrorist attack in Nouakchott, the location of one of the planned stages, meant that the cancellation was ultimately the correct decision.
The event therefore moved to a new home for 2009, with South America taking up the mantle of hosting the Dakar Rally for 11 years. It proved to be a successful tenure, albeit not overly popular with the true Dakar anoraks, who preferred to see the event remain in Africa.
The first edition on the continent produced a changing of the guard in many regards, as Mitsubishi bowed out of the Dakar at the end of the event, leaving Volkswagen to revel in its first victory since 1980 in the hands of Giniel de Villiers. It was also the first victory on the Dakar for a diesel-powered car.
VW had tried, and fell short, in 2006 and 2007 but made the most of the bullet-proof Toureg to sweep the top two spots on the podium. Carlos Sainz, who claimed his first win the following year, should have finished second but crashed out late on, allowing Robby Gordon’s Hummer to claim third place.
The event started and finished in the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires and the opening ceremony attracted a crowd of nearly 600,000 people. It is calculated that almost three million spectators turned out to watch the rally on the stages. Proof if any was needed, that South America and motorsport go very much hand in hand.
Volkswagen dominated the next two years by sweeping the podium in 2010 and 2011, before the arrival of Mini to the top step of the rostrum in 2012.
Peterhansel (2012, 2013 and 2016) and Nasser Al-Attiyah (2011, 2017 and 2019) each claimed three wins during a period in which the Dakar visited Bolivia, Paraguay, Chile and Peru, while Sainz added to his 2010 win with a second in 2018, as Peugeot cemented itself as the dominant brand towards the end of the decade.
Chapter 3: Middle East
Al-Attiyah’s 2019 victory marked the end of the Dakar’s stay in South America, with a new home agreed in Saudi Arabia for 2020. The rally started in Jeddah and finished at Qiddiya, covering nearly 5000 miles as the Dakar chartered into new territory.
At 57 years old, Sainz, now with Mini John Works Cooper alongside Peterhansel, claimed his third victory after a nip-and-tuck battle with the Toyota Gazoo Racing Hilux of former team-mate Al-Attiyah.
The country is now well and truly part of the Dakar story for the foreseeable future at least, after a five-year deal agreed by the ASO last year. The capricious terrains of the Saudi deserts make it an ideal location for the Dakar, with rolling dunes and fast stretches along the Dead Sea – reminiscent of the Lac Rose stage – offering the sort of variety and drama that the Dakar has become accustomed to over the years.
These terrains and the types of vehicles currently at the top table of the overall category are also a perfect match. The Mini JCW buggy is the lightweight rear-wheel-drive option and comes to the fore on the flat, fast stretches, while the 4WD Hilux enjoys the advantage in the dunes. To top it off, there’s a reason Al-Attiyah is nicknamed the “sand man”.
The 2021 edition will again start in Jeddah and feature a loop that returns to the city at the finish.