Was Dakar’s radical new stage format a success?

The reviews are in after the first ever 48-hour "chrono" stage


The 2023 edition of the Dakar Rally was gruelling by anyone’s standards. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any tougher, race director David Castera had an idea.

How about a new kind of stage to add even more spice? A Stage lasting 48 hours and covering 341 competitive, dune sickness-inducing miles.

Already covering more than 3000 miles in 15 days – one of which was a rest day and another a marathon stage through Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter (a vast, uninhabited dune field roughly the size of France) – it was hard to imagine how last year’s event could be made an even great test of crew and machine.


But the “chrono stage” was designed to do just that. Castera’s latest innovation took the crews deep into the Empty Quarter on day six of the rally. At four in the afternoon, competitors had to park up and set up camp at one of seven mini-bivouacs placed along the route, before hitting the dunes again at seven the following day – racing back to the stage’s starting point at Shubaytah. Outside assistance from their teams was banned, and crews had no way of communicating with the outside world through their overnight stop.

Think that sounds complicated? Well, you’re not the only one.

“It was complex, a bit of a crazy idea from David Castera,” the FIA’s cross-country and regional rally category manager Jérôme Roussel told DirtFish. “The first time he told me [about it], I asked him to explain again because I was not sure I caught everything.”

Crazy or not, Castera certainly isn’t afraid to mix things up when it comes to the Dakar’s format. The question was, would the chrono stage add an extra dimension to the rally, or would it prove a challenge too far? Would it push crews beyond their quite considerable limits?

For a minority, the answer was the latter. Saudi-native Yazeed Al Rajhi, who led the cars class heading into the chrono stage, crashed on a dune, ending any hopes of a maiden victory. Challenger class competitor Kris Meeke had a frightening incident with a car, ultimately causing his retirement from the rally, while Dakar legends Nasser Al-Attiyah and Stéphane Peterhansel also encountered major issues, dropping several hours which knocked both out of contention.

But for most, the reviews for Castera’s bold idea were largely positive.

“Yeah, it was enjoyable in the end,” said stage winner Sébastien Loeb. “At the beginning I was a bit afraid of my road position, and things like that. But, OK, the strategy is part of the game, so we know that we need to play for that, which is what we did. And then after that, in the stage, it was fun.


“It was very long [Thursday], but the concept is interesting. It makes for something to talk about, which is the goal! So, yes, it was good.”

The strategy to which Loeb referred came on Wednesday’s stage five, where the nine-time World Rally champion intentionally missed a waypoint and took a 15-minute penalty, dropping him down the stage leaderboard and therefore improving his road position for the 48 hours of dune surfing that awaited him.

Loeb’s gamble appeared to somewhat pay off, as the Frenchman climbed to third in the overall standings, 29 minutes from the lead but still very much in contention. The man who played the strategy perfectly, however, was Audi’s Carlos Sainz.

The wily Spaniard didn’t go quite as fast as the Loeb on stage six, but also didn’t drop as much time as the Bahrain Raid Extreme driver on stage five, while securing himself a strong road position for the following day. As a result, Sainz now leads the rally by 20 minutes over Audi team-mate Mattias Ekström at the Dakar’s halfway mark.


For Sainz, the chrono stage was a challenge reminiscent of the Dakars of old.

“[It was] one of the most challenging stages of my career for sure,” commented the double World Rally Champion. “It reminded me a lot of the first year I did [the Dakar] in Africa (2006), it was something similar.

“The dunes were very, very, very tricky. [There were] A lot of cut dunes, [so it was] very easy to make mistakes, and to get stuck. Like today (Friday), I got stuck for five minutes. So it was not easy.”

Saudi’s dunes in particular were the talk of the Bivouac on Friday night. Two days of near-constant dune driving takes its toll on a driver’s mind and body. Physical endurance and maintaining concentration are key to avoiding disaster.


“It’s like being 600km on the ocean, going up and down, up and down,” said Toyota’s Lucas Moraes, who climbed from tenth to fifth in the standings over the course of the stage, and had a trick up his sleeve for dealing with the dune-induced motion sickness.

He added: “I did everything, took pills, [wore a] patch, and put ginger in my socks. I heard [about ginger] from the team, they have got some tricks going. So, I guess it worked!”

But despite having to resort to unorthodox methods just to survive the chrono stage, Moraes hopes organizers keep the new format for next year.


The Brazilian said: “The concept itself, of sleeping in the tent, having these bivouacs to choose [from], I thought it was quite interesting for the show, let’s say. And yeah, I’m looking forward for the next one.”

After providing an extreme test of the crews’ driving and navigational skills, not to mention their willpower, which was worthy of the Dakar Rally, the view of the FIA on the chrono stage was clear.

“It worked,” said Roussel on Friday night. “I have to say that [Thursday] morning, first [with] the cars and the bikes starting at the same time, taking different routes, [it] was a great show.

“Afterwards, we could see that there was a sporting interest. We had a very open race during the first week with many drivers in contention for the win and small gaps. On this big stage it did its job, as we can see, because we have a clearer view [now] on who can win the Dakar.


“It was very interesting in a sporting sense. Thursday night I was at one of the break points (bivouacs) and it was a great atmosphere; camp fires, tents, military rations. Everybody was happy to be in such magical scenery. I think it worked.”

Excuse me… military rations?

It’s no joke. Crews were provided with some fairly basic provisions, including packet soup and instant noodles, to keep them going as they settled in for a night under the stars, in keeping with the spirit of adventure that underpins the Dakar.

Predictably, there were those ready to improvise.


“I had some French saucisson,” Loeb told DirtFish, with a smile. “And some Spanish ham. And some bread and olive oil. That’s what we took with us in the car.”

“The stuff in the box [provided at the bivouac], it was really not so good.”

Catering reviews aside, drivers were almost universal in their praise for the challenge the stage provided on Friday night. And with the Dakar’s organizers seemingly pleased with their new creation too, it seems the chrono stage might have become a new staple of the world’s toughest motorsport event.

After Saturday’s rest day, the Dakar Rally continues with Sunday’s 300-mile stage from Riyadh to Al Duwadimi.