Very few motorsport disciplines allow for the sort of seamless transition from two wheels to four such as cross-country rallying. There are some notable exceptions, of course, with MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi proving a dab hand in a rally car on the Monza Rally Show over the years.
But imagine Valentino Rossi switching to the World Rally Championship full-time and being right up there with the likes of Sébastien Ogier and Ott Tänak from the off. You just wouldn’t think it possible in the slightest.
This is where cross-country – and specifically the Dakar Rally – differs from conventional off-road categories. Competitors who have raced in the bike category have typically done just as well after moving into the cars. The late Hubert Auriol was the first biker to win in cars, with Stéphane Peterhansel adding eight car wins to his six bike triumphs and Nani Roma winning in 2014.
Cyril Despres has been in the business for 22 years now and the Frenchman’s bike record is (joint) second only to Peterhansel, with five victories on the classic event, tied with the legendary Cyril Neveu.
Since 2015, Despres has raced in the car category, first as part of the crack Peugeot squad which featured Carlos Sainz, Sébastien Loeb and Peterhansel and subsequently driving the same 3008 DKR as he did previously, but with the help of PH Sport running the car.
“I think what makes me come back [every year], it’s like learning English for me. You never stop learning,” Despres explains.
“Cross-Country and Dakar is a bit like that, because there’s a part of it that you always think you can make better, that you can make fewer mistakes, you can be faster, you will try to win more stages and this is helping you to come back every year, to make it better and faster.
“And, I have to say that after 22 years, it’s still my motivation.”
Despres is, if nothing else, something of an adventurer. You’ve got to be if you’re tackling the Dakar, right? His wealth of knowledge amassed over the years as a biker means he knows everything there is to know about cross-country rallying.
The technique required to get a bike from point A to point B without losing your way or having an accident cannot be understated. Bikers have a particular knack when it comes to the precarious navigation of the Dakar as well, which is exactly why Despres has opted for South African and fellow ex-biker Taye Perry to sit alongside him for January’s 44th edition.
“It was [an] easy [decision],” Despres says.
“I took the list of the special stages [from last year], took the rankings and Taye Perry was an ex-motorcycle rider – she still competes on a motorcycle – but was competing last year for the first time in a car as a co-driver.
“And then, I just sent a message, gave her a ring, she was interested in the project, the future of the hydrogen car, and then she moved from South Africa to Germany and here we are.
“She had the wishes and goals [as me], she is talented, she is strong, she knows about navigation, and she wants to perform…exactly like me.”
For Perry, the Dakar always seemed like a pipe dream, never likely to actually come to fruition. But, through sheer determination and bloody mindedness amid illness and lack of budget, she made it to the start in 2020.
Since then, it’s been a love affair with the classic rally raid which has stemmed from nearly two decades of motorsport passion.
The adrenaline, the thrill, it’s something that some of us chase, there’s nothing like it in the worldTaye Perry
“I got into motorsport when I was about 13, so it’s been well over 15 years of racing now,” says Perry.
“And for me, it was an escape from daily life, it was my activity and what I got up to in the afternoons. And when I started, it’s been part of my life for a very long time now and I think I’ve fallen in love with it; without it, I wouldn’t be the same person as I am today.
“[The Dakar] has always been about freedom, the freedom to go at speed, to be in full control, to be able to do what not many people in the world get to do.
“The adrenaline, the thrill, it’s something that some of us chase, there’s nothing like it in the world.”
Having reached the finish in 2020 aboard a customer KTM, Perry then teamed up with compatriot Brian Baragwanath last year in an SRT Racing Century CR 6.
It was during the second visit to Saudi Arabia that Perry’s impressive navigation caught the eye of Despres.
“[Climate activist and adventurer] Mike Horn with whom I drove the last two Dakars didn’t want to come back to the Dakar with another combustion engine,” Despres said.
“He said: ‘I will come back with the next generation of car, the one [hydrogen] which we are building now.
“And then, to keep the pace, to keep the speed but also to try some new components, even on this combustion engine car, I had to find somebody.
“I think we can be there; the potential of the car is still really good. I have taken part in many races with the Peugeot. I know it and I love it and let’s make it happen. It’s a top 10, a top 5 or better; this is what we hope for.”
Two bikers joining forces for an assault on the car category is sure to bring the sort of navigational prowess that Audi’s Stéphane Peterhansel shares with co-driver Edouard Boulanger.
And unlike those from purely car backgrounds, the advantage that Despres and Perry have with shared experience on two and four wheels is a common understanding of what the road ahead of them has in store.
“I’m new to the Peugeot but the system is very similar to what I’m used to, we’re planning to do very well,” said Perry.
“I know Saudi Arabia very well and I know the Dakar roadbooks well now and the navigation of the Dakar has changed a lot over the past two years. It’s got a lot more technical and the co-driver’s job has become a lot more important in these past two years.”
Even though the pair communicate on a common ‘rally language’ there is still some work to do before the Dakar begins in earnest on January 2, as the partnership develops.
“I’m very confident in Cyril’s ability, he’s an excellent driver and I think the challenges is that he speaks French and I speak English. So, he’s also having to do a little bit extra to understand me, and me doing a little bit extra to make my words and my navigation a bit more understandable to him. So, we’re having to learn a whole new language in the car, a rally language if you will.
Luckily, we both have an understanding of what needs to be done when, and I’m very logical and I understand when things are going wrongTaye Perry
“But I think it’s even better because we’re learning to perfect it and to simplify it even further, and if we can get that right, if we do encounter problems, it might be a different game.
“Luckily, we both have an understanding of what needs to be done when, and I’m very logical and I understand when things are going wrong, so he doesn’t have to say too much when things maybe are going wrong.”
That mutual understanding will have to be on point come the opening stage of the Dakar, with 2645 miles over 12 days to tackle. But bikers are instinctive, possess a savoir-faire if you like, meaning that this Dakar, while different, has a familiar feel to it in more than one way.