The Dakar Rally and its organizer, the ASO, have always prided themselves on innovation, of pushing the boundaries that bit further to create the most demanding off-road event in the world.
For the latest edition of the classic rally raid, the fifth to be held in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a new type of stage will make its debut, the 48-hour stage. It’s going to produce some drama and it may well have a big bearing on the end result.
In essence, this is the Marathon Stage, which has been present on the Dakar for the last couple of years, but the ASO has been keen to change things up a gear to keep its competitors on their toes.
And on paper, it looks like they might just do that.
“This is a new stage format, contested over two days with the constraints of a marathon stage, although competitors are permitted to help each other during the evening,” read the ASO’s announcement.
“But this time, there will be no choice of canteen or repair companions, as the drivers and crews will be spread out over eight different bivouacs. When the clocks strike 4pm, all vehicles will be required to stop at the next bivouac they come across.
“With no connection and therefore no visibility of their rivals’ performances, the competitors will camp and set off again at 7am the following day to complete the remaining section of the route.”
Sounds fun, doesn’t it? And hopefully it is the antidote to how previous marathon stages have played out.
You see, while in years past it has provided crews with a taste of the original Dakar spirit – the long special stages with no assistance, crews camping on their own, with their own food supplies and having to carry out repair without the help of their teams – those at the top could find an easy work-around to come out the other side in the same position they arrived in.
The Dakar organizers want to change that, adding another dimension while staying firmly away from manipulation. The ones who can manage the 48-hour stage will still be the best crews, but they will need to jump additional hurdles from next year.
The biggest change from the previous Marathon Stage is the race against the clock.
The ASO announced during its initial route presentation earlier this month that eight separate bivouacs will be in place throughout the Empty Quarter special stage, with crews required to head straight to the nearest one once the clock hits 4pm.
They will then have to set up camp wherever they end up, conduct any repairs necessary, feed themselves and get ready to complete the final part of the two-day stage from 7am the following morning.
This stop-clock type format has strong potential but of course, until we see it in action, it will be impossible to know just how much of an impact it will have on next year’s event.
One thing that will undoubtedly have an effect as far as the car category is concerned, will be the fact that no road openers will be available throughout the 48-hour stage. That could have big consequences on the stage times and may well produce a more strategy-oriented approach to the stages leading up to the Marathon.
The importance of road openers cannot be undersold: the road order on Dakar begins with the motorbikes, then the quads and then cars. Navigation for car crews is aided slightly by the tracks already laid down by the bikes and quads ahead, but for the 48-hour stage, bikes/quads will run separate special stages to the cars.
This means the first car on the road will be at a significant disadvantage to those starting further behind. It also means that crews hoping to win the 48-hour stage may well sacrifice their stage times in the previous special to gain a more favorable road order heading into the Empty Quarter.
All very intriguing. But it also remains to be seen just how much importance crews place on setting fast times in the Marathon.
What is guaranteed, however, is the ultimate spirit of the original Dakar will return once again. There’s no checking on the progress of other rivals as connection in the Empty Quarter is, as you’d expect, precisely zero.
It’s a place where crews fend for themselves until 7am the next again morning when they have to commence the rest of the 600km special stage.
That element is terrific, it needs to be part of the Dakar, if not for a nod to the past then simply to make this the truest endurance event in the world.
The route as a whole also promises plenty of challenges, starting from the historic archaeological site in AlUla, which will play host to the Prologue and opening stage of the 12-day event.
Taking place through January 5-19, the 2024 Dakar is once again a point-to-point route, taking competitors through Ha’il, Riyadh and down to the Empty Quarter before working its way back north towards the finish in Yanbu.
Next year’s rally will also feature a number of innovations on the competitor front, with the first hybrid T3 Lightweight Prototype, developed by renowned side-by-side manufacturer Can-Am, making its debut.
In the T1 car category, the first hydrogen-powered machine will take the start, Philippe Croizon piloting the GCK Motorsport designed and engineered eBlast H2; while M-Sport will make its long-awaited maiden outing in cross-country, running a Ford Ranger T1+ in association with Neil Woolridge Motorsport.
So if that doesn’t whet the appetite for next year’s Dakar Rally, there isn’t much that will. We wait with baited breath now…