When WRC drivers tackled the Dakar Rally

The toughest rally raid event has attracted some of the WRC’s best over the years, though their success has varied

Carlos Sainz and Lucas Cruz

Often seen as poles apart, the WRC and the Dakar Rally have, in fact, a long history of convergence and next year’s 43rd running of the Rally Raid classic promises to be no different.

Winner in 2020, Carlos Sainz, is among the favorites for overall victory, Sébastien Loeb returns to front the Prodrive-run Bahrain Raid Xtreme effort, while Kris Meeke plots success in the SSV class.

Since 1979, the Paris-Dakar Rally as it was known then (now simply the Dakar Rally) has been the most demanding, brutal and mentally challenging rallying event in the world. Although the rally has deviated away from its traditional Paris start and Dakar finish – it’s spent 10 years in South America and has recently started a new life in Saudi Arabia – the allure of the event has remained the same throughout the years.

Created by Thierry Sabine in 1978, the Dakar has attracted the likes of former F1 drivers Jacques Laffite, Ukyo Katayama, Philippe Alliot and, more recently, Fernando Alonso.

Celebrities have also not been too far away from the allure of the Dakar; the late French rock legend Johnny Hallyday channeled his love for the race to a credible 46th place in 2003.

But that’s not what we’re here for: here are some of the best performing WRC stars who tackled the ultimate test in rallying.

Ari Vatanen, Juha Kankunnen and Peugeot


Photo: DPPI/Peugeot Sport

After his near-fatal WRC crash in Argentina 18 months prior, few would have held it against 1981 World Rally Champion Ari Vatanen had he hung up his helmet from a discipline that had, the previous year, claimed the lives of Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresta in Corsica as well as three spectators in Portugal.

That the Finn made his comeback was one thing, that he made it on the 1987 Dakar as part of the Jean Todt-led factory Peugeot team and won on debut was another. Three more victories followed in 1989, 1990 and 1991. Vatanen quickly became something of a Dakar specialist and is currently the most successful WRC champion to ever compete on the fortnight-long event.

A year after the tragic 1986 Dakar, where Thierry Sabine lost his life after his helicopter – which had also been carrying four other passengers including renowned French singer Daniel Balavoine – crashed mid-rally, Peugeot arrived in full force with their tried-and-tested 205 T16 with Vatanen.

Despite breaking his suspension on the routine Prologue, caused by a faulty ball joint, Vatanen took the lead on the ninth stage of 20 after winning his first ever Dakar scratch on the previous test as team-mate Shekhar Mehta lost an hour after getting lost. Mehta would play a more crucial role near the finish, sacrificing his spare tire for Vatanen, who suffered a second puncture.

The whole story is just incredible, it’s really just like in a film Ari Vatanen on the discovery of his stolen Peugeot 405 T16 Grand Raid

In 1988, Vatanen was joined by another rallying legend Juha Kankkunen, who had just won his second WRC title with Lancia. Kankkunen came out on top by the end of the rally but only after one of the most bizarre incidents in Dakar history (and Dakar has seen some weird stuff!).

On a rally that still holds the record entry of 603 cars, Vatanen was in control ahead of the 14th stage when, in the early hours of the morning, his Peugeot 405 T16 Grand Raid was stolen from the bivouac. Officials saw the car leaving but assumed a Peugeot mechanic was simply giving it a test run before that day’s 330-mile Bamako-Kayes stage in Mali. It was only when the car failed to return that they realized something was up.

For Peugeot, their leader’s car was gone, and team boss Todt faced the prospect of having to pay a 25-million-franc ransom to get it back.

Eventually, Vatanen’s car was found abandoned in a field three miles away past a bridge that led to the airport, but the whole affair remains a mystery to this day.

Speaking with French television at the time, Vatanen said: “The whole story is just incredible, it’s really just like in a film. If it is true that my car has been found, I’m sure the race will continue with just a lot of harmless publicity, that’s all.”

Harmless it may have been in the grand scheme of things, but the impact on Vatanen’s rally was devastating. Peugeot only discovered the stolen car as Kankkunen left the start-line for stage 14; Vatanen had his start time pushed back by force majeure but missed this time by half an hour, prompting his disqualification the following day and handing Kankkunen his first and only Dakar victory.

Björn Waldegård

1992 Paris-Cape Town Rally world wide copyright: McKlein

Photo: McKlein Image Database

The WRC’s first official drivers’ champion waited a while before making his Dakar bow, but Björn Waldegård enjoyed his share of success at the wheel of a Peugeot 405 in the sister car to Vatanen in 1990.

Like the previous year, the route once again went through Tripoli before heading to southern Chad and back up through Agadez towards its traditional finish in Dakar at Lac Rose.

Vatanen won his third Dakar in four years but unlike the previous three events, there would be no rest day during the fortnight.

For Waldegård, it was an impressive debut, as he took three stage wins on Tumu-Dirkou, Tahoua-Niamey and Tombouctou-Nema and finished second as Peugeot took a clean sweep of the podium positions.

For 1991, Waldegård switched to a Citroën ZX Rallye Raid but failed to reach the finish before his final appearance on the Dakar coincided with his last WRC season, in 1992. That ended with fourth place at the finish, held in Cape Town, South Africa; the first time in the event’s history that it did not finish at Dakar.

Kenjiro Shinozuka

920101Dakar Shinozuka 01

Photo: McKlein Image Database

Mitsubishi dominated the 1992 event in much the same way Peugeot had in 1990, with a podium lockout. The following year produced a victory for another WRC driver, Bruno Saby. The veteran, who rose to prominence during the Group B period of rallying, came out on top in his Pajero.

Kenjiro Shinozuka finished that 1993 edition fifth for Lada. The long-term Mitsubishi driver already had a long association with the Dakar, but made history four years later when he became the first Japanese to win the event.

Even before then, Shinozuka had been renowned for his off-road expertise, with Mitsubishi’s WRC team utilizing the Japanese driver’s knowledge to set up its cars for the Safari Rally, most notably for the 1996 event in which Tommi Mäkinen bucked the trend of careful driving to take an unorthodox victory.

Shinozuka’s first Dakar came in 1986, where he finished 46th. The following two years brought a third and a second respectively, while further podiums followed in 1992 (third) and 1995 (third again).

Come 1997, the first time the event actually started and finished in Dakar, and Shinozuka was on fine form, recording three stage wins to beat Mitsubishi Pajero team-mate Jean-Pierre Fontenay by just over four minutes.

Shinozuka finished second in 1998 and fourth in 1999, confirming his prowess on the event.

His relationship with the event was, however, bittersweet after suffering a serious accident in 2003, this time driving for Nissan. He hit a sand dune and rolled his pick-up several times and suffered life-threatening injuries, while co-driver Thierry Delli-Zotti fractured both his legs. Shinozuka was placed in a coma, but recovered and went on to compete one final time in 2007.

Carlos Sainz

VW Red Bull Factory Team  , Carlos Sainz

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

If there was any doubt that ‘El Matador’ still had the motivation, the speed, and the durability when he finally hung up his WRC boots for good after a mid-season cameo in 2005, Carlos Sainz firmly put that to rest with his subsequent performances on the Dakar.

The 1990 and 1992 WRC title winner embarked on his first Dakar in 2006 with the burgeoning Volkswagen team, finishing 11th on the event won by former Alpine Skier Luc Alphand.

Sainz claimed his first win in 2010, having taken six stage wins before crashing the previous year, but it would be another eight years – and a change of manufacturer – until Sainz won again.

That was with Peugeot, celebrating its final Dakar appearance before concentrating efforts on its World Rallycross and World Endurance Championship plans, as part of the “Dream Team” of Sainz, Sébastien Loeb and 13-time winner Stéphane Peterhansel.

Now firmly based in South America, the 2018 Dakar started in Peru before heading through Bolivia and Argentina. Sainz picked up two stage wins and beat Toyota’s Nasser Al-Attiyah by over 40 minutes at the finish.

Once Peugeot said adieu to the Dakar, Sainz found a new opportunity at Mini X-Raid for 2019 but spent more time stationary in the dunes than moving on the long, dusty roads. Many would have forgiven Sainz had he decided to pack it in, but the Spaniard stayed on for 2020 and collected his third victory in style, beating Al-Attiyah by six minutes with Peterhansel just three minutes further back.

*It would be remiss of DirtFish not to give an honorable mention to the late Colin McRae – Sainz’s rallying team-mate at Subaru and subsequently Ford and Citroën as well as his title rival in 1995. McRae entered the 2004 event, won by Stéphane Peterhansel for Mitsubishi, in a Nissan Pickup and finished a respectable 19th on his first Dakar attempt. He won two stages, including the famous Lac Rose test.

Nasser Al-Attiyah

Nasser Al-Attiyah - Action

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Nasser Al-Attiyah made 73 WRC starts, usually at the wheel of either a Subaru, Citroën or Ford Fiesta, but it is on the Dakar where he really made a name for himself on an international stage. A year after winning the Production WRC title in 2006, Al-Attiyah recorded his best Dakar result since his debut two years prior, finishing sixth.

He’d go on to add three wins, in 2011 with Volkswagen, 2015 with Mini, and 2019 with Toyota, joining rival Carlos Sainz in winning the event three times each with a different brand.

Al-Attiyah is used to the rough stuff, having won the Middle East Rally Championship 13 times as well as taking the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies four times between 2008 and 2015.

And when he wasn’t winning the Dakar, he was often coming close, which is yet further proof of the current Toyota driver’s prowess on the event.

His first outing with VW in 2010 yielded second place with four stage wins, while a pair of DNFs following his maiden win while driving for Hummer and Demon Jefferies are best forgotten.

His comeback with a manufacturer, Mini, in 2014 brought Al-Attiyah back to the podium in third. Victory in 2015 was followed by another second, while his Toyota career to date has produced a pair of runner-up finishes and that third win.

All the signs point to Al-Attiyah being a force to be reckoned with again in 2021.

Sébastien Loeb

Sebastien Loeb

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

The whole rallying world – which generally prepares for the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally for the duration of January – stopped to see how the most successful WRC driver of all time, Sébastien Loeb, would fare in his maiden Dakar outing in 2016.

The answer was very well indeed. Loeb won four stages (more than anyone else in 2016) and finished ninth overall as Stéphane Peterhansel won his 12th Dakar Rally. Loeb seemed to embrace the fast roads of Argentina and Bolivia and dominated the opening week, winning the 316-mile Villa Carlos Paz-Termas de Rio Hondo stage before showing his navigation skills on the technical 203-mile Jujuy-Uyuni test.

Mechanical woes left Loeb struggling on the sixth stage, losing the lead to Peterhansel, but he responded on the next test to reclaim top spot from his vastly more experienced rival.

Alas, all hopes of victory ended on the eighth stage. After a series of rolls, Loeb lost chunks of time and was out of the running. Lengthy repairs from the accident left the car way down the order, but that was only exacerbated with further trouble on the next test.

Despite this, ninth at the end after leading three of the greatest Dakar competitors on his first outing was mightily impressive.

In 2017, Loeb shot out of the blocks by winning the opening stage of the event. Again, the nine-time World Rally Champion claimed four stage wins and looked every bit the young pretender in his bid for a first Dakar triumph. He finished just five minutes adrift of Peterhansel in second.

The following year, victory was the only option, but Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena’s journey came to a premature halt after a crash on the fifth stage. But the pair did finish third in 2019.

Loeb and Elena skipped the 2020 edition but are now readying themselves for another new challenge for 2021, this time with the David Richards’ Prodrive-run Bahrain Raid Xtreme team, driving a BRX T1, with Nani Roma as team-mate.

The thing about Loeb is that his new adventures – be that the World Touring Car Championship, World Rallycross or the Dakar – tend to deliver success quickly. Time will tell if the maestro can reach the summit this time.

Mikko Hirvonen


Photo: Mini X-raid

A winner of 15 events, Mikko Hirvonen ended his spell in the WRC at the end of 2014 and went in search of a new challenge, which he eventually found on the Dakar with Mini All4 Racing, driving a Mini Countryman.

The Finn made his first Dakar start in 2016, and although he went largely under the radar as the world centered its attention on his WRC nemesis Loeb, Hirvonen scored an impressive fourth overall at the end of the grueling marathon event, winning the penultimate stage.

Another year in the Countryman followed in 2017, resulting in a 13th-placed finish on an event dominated by Peugeot, which locked out the top three positions on the podium.

Hirvonen remained with the Mini John Cooper Works team for 2018 and got his hands on the new lightweight and eagerly anticipated buggy prototype from X-Raid alongside German co-driver Andres Schulz.

The rally began well for Hirvonen, as he set the seventh-fastest time on the opening stage of the rally. A further top-10 stage time on the second test promised a strong event, but Hirvonen’s fortunes took a tumble on stage three after getting stuck in the notorious South American dunes, losing nearly two hours while he and Schulz desperately tried to dig the buggy out of the sand.

Hirvonen would get stuck again before the end of the rally but impressed with a pair of strong top-six stage times before the rest day and ultimately finished his last Dakar to date in 19th place.