Often labeled as the last great challenge of motorsport, the Dakar Rally since its inception in 1978 has attracted some of the most impressive competitors from across the world to the rolling desert landscapes.
To win the Dakar once takes great skill, perseverance and a large degree of good fortune. To win it multiple times requires mastery of the conditions, the capricious nature of the undulating terrains, sound mechanical knowledge and expertise in car control. Oh, and bloody mindedness to boot.
The Dakar is a test unlike any other, which is why these eight drivers stand above the rest, having cemented their place in rally raid folklore as multiple winners of the classic.
Hiroshi Masuoka (2 victories, 25 stage wins)
2002 & ’03 (Mitsubishi Pajero)
Masuoka is one of the most successful Dakar drivers, having amassed a total of 25 stage wins, two rally wins, two seconds and another seven top-six finishes throughout his career.
His first Dakar came in 1987, where he won two stages en route to finishing 27th in the overall classification.
Masuoka spent all of his time within the Mitsubishi stable, and came fourth behind the Citroën podium lock-out in 1994 after the factory Pajeros were withdrawn.
His best victory chance came in 2001, which produced one of the most controversial moments in Dakar history.
Masuoka had been leading the rally ahead of defending winner Jean-Louis Schlesser in his eponymous buggy heading into the final stretch. But Schlesser and team-mate Jose Maria Servia started the stage before their time slot and, crucially, in front of Masuoka, who had to fight against the plumes of dust thrown up by the buggies.
Although not strictly illegal, the move was against the spirit of the Dakar and both buggies ultimately were disqualified as Servia acted as a shield for Schlesser who had a clear road ahead of him.
Masuoka, fuming, set off in pursuit of the pair, eventually passing Servia and giving the Spaniard a taste of his own medicine. But the Pajero suffered terminal suspension damage after hitting a hole, which left the co-driver slamming his crash helmet onto the ground several times and thumping the side of the car in disgust.
Masuoka finally took his first Dakar win in the Pajero Evo the following year, leading a Mitsubishi sweep of the top eight positions. And even better for Masuoka was Kenjiro Shinozuka making it two Japanese drivers on the podium in third.
Up against Stéphane Peterhansel in 2003, Masuoka came out on top again after Peterhansel struck mechanical issues and dropped nearly eight minutes.
Jean-Louis Schlesser (2 victories, 15 stage wins)
1999 & ’00 (Schlesser Buggy)
The nephew of the late Jo Schlesser, who raced in Formula 1 and sportscars before his tragic death in 1968, Jean-Louis Schlesser made a name for himself on the Dakar thanks to his self-designed buggy which took the rally raid by storm in the late 1990s.
Come 1997, Schlesser proved that the Seat-powered buggy, built around an American tubular chassis in France, had the potential to win as it pushed the factory Ralliart Mitsubishis all the way until spectacularly somersaulting out of the rally on stage six.
That pace, however, would eventually be transformed into success two years later as Schlesser stroked his now Renault-powered buggy to the overall win, beating the Mitsubishis of Miguel Prieto and former Schlesser Buggy driver – and 2001 winner – Jutta Kleinschmidt.
Schlesser’s route to victory in 1999 began inauspiciously as poor weather wreaked havoc on the prologue and opening stage in Granada, Spain. Schlesser suffered from a broken windscreen wiper and co-driver – ex-naval navigator – Philippe Monnet was even forced to dangle halfway out of the car and manually operate the wipers so that his driver could complete the short stage.
Once over the Strait of Gibraltar and into Africa, things turned decidedly in Schlesser’s favor, catapulting from 28th to 11th in the first proper stage on the continent. A handful of rapid stage times moved Schlesser into the lead, which he maintained until the end despite a puncture costing him time on stage 11.
The following year, Schlesser again proved the dominant force, and clinched his second straight Dakar win on the event most remembered for the infamous ‘Airlift’ episode which took competitors from Niamey in Niger to Libya amid terrorist threats.
Pierre Lartigue (3 victories, 21 stage wins)
1994, ’95 & ’96 (Citroën ZX)
Following the departure of Peugeot at the end of 1990, Citroën became the preferred PSA Group brand for the Dakar from 1991 onwards. At the helm was Guy Fréquelin, ironically taking the equivalent role at Citroën as his former WRC navigator Jean Todt held at Peugeot. By the 1994 edition, the battle for supremacy on the Dakar was fought between Citroën and Mitsubishi – the latter being led by defending event winner Bruno Saby.
Lartigue, much like his team-mate the late Hubert Auriol, was a veteran of the Dakar having finished fourth on his debut at the wheel of a Range Rover in 1982 and was effectively co-leader of the Citroën team for 1994.
Alongside long-term co-driver Michel Périn, Lartigue took the first of three consecutive Dakars wins, amassing an incredible 10 stage wins on what proved to be a highly controversial event. The main challengers from Mitsubishi withdrew, partly in protest after Saby spent over 24 hours in the desert following waypoint struggles in the dunes.
Citroën elected to by-pass the waypoint and cop a hefty time penalty as a result, but the organizers neutralized the stage, which in turn helped Lartigue and Auriol claim a one-two.
Lartigue was then the man to beat anyway 12 months later, albeit taking a more measured approach to victory with just three stage wins.
Team-mates Ari Vatanen (various mechanical issues) and Timo Salonen (five hours lost after getting stuck in the dunes) were unable to provide back-up for Lartigue, but the Frenchman fended off Saby, Shinozuka and Jean-Pierre Fontenay to claim back-to-back wins.
Lartigue’s final win came in 1996, completing a hat-trick of triumphs and leading another Citroën one-two. While Vatanen took the most stage wins with seven, Lartigue elected to employ the same kind of tactic as the previous year, this time only winning one stage.
René Metge (3 victories, 13 stage wins)
1981 (Land Rover Range Rover), 1984 (Porsche 911), 1986 (Porsche 959)
A three-time winner, event director and all-round ambassador for the Dakar, René Metge stands as one of the Dakar’s most recognizable names. The Frenchman was already a hugely versatile driver before tackling the first Dakar in 1978/79, having raced single-seaters, touring cars and sportscars. While he is perhaps best known for his exploits in the iconic Rothmans Porsche 911, with which he took victory in 1984, his first win came in a Land Rover Range Rover three years prior.
Three stage wins for Metge gave he and co-driver Bernard Giroux the edge over the Citizen Buggy of Hervé Cotel and Claude Corbetta, despite a broken steering arm on the ninth stage costing the pair time.
The following two editions were troublesome for Metge and the move away from Range Rover to Porsche came about ahead of the 1984 rally, which proved to be a thriller from start to finish.
Metge’s rally very nearly ended on the ninth stage again from Niamey to Ouagadougou when he came across a herd of cows, hitting one of them and damaging the front-left corner of his 911.
The stage was ultimately canceled and Metge continued to fight for the win, taking two more stage wins to take his total to three as defending winner Jacky Ickx – co-driven by French actor Claude Brasseur – provided a stern challenge.
Metge took his third win in somber circumstances two years later, as Thierry Sabine’s death marred the 1986 edition. Metge had moved from the 911 to the 959 but was in no mood to celebrate when the cavalcade reached Lac Rose.
He then forged the next chapter of his career in rally organization, first as Dakar director in 1987 before going on to manage rally raids in the 1990s.
Carlos Sainz (3 victories, 38 stage wins)
2010 (Volkswagen Toureg), 2018 (Peugeot 3008DKR), 2020 (X-raid Mini JCW Buggy)
Convinced by former Citroën, Ford and Subaru team-mate Colin McRae, who did the event with Nissan in 2004, Sainz teamed up with Volkswagen for his first assault on the Dakar in 2006 alongside German co-driver Andreas Schulz.
Much like Sébastien Loeb in later years, Sainz kicked off the Lisbon-Dakar edition by winning the first two stages before the long boat trip to Africa.
Another two stage wins followed but mechanical and navigational issues limited Sainz to 11th place by the finish as Mitsubishi’s Luc Alphand profited from a rare piece of misfortune for Peterhansel, who relinquished the lead on stage 12 of 15, to win overall.
Mechanical gremlins plagued VW for 2007 despite ultimately being faster than the dominant Mitsubishis, and while team-mates Giniel de Villiers and Mark Miller secured a one-two in 2009, Sainz was again left disappointed after crashing out on the 12th stage.
Revenge came in the form of his first Dakar podium and win in 2010, showcasing VW’s new-found dominance. By this point, Sainz had already notched up 13 stage wins, and there was more success to come albeit after an eight-year wait and a change of colors.
Sainz then joined Peugeot for its big return to the Dakar and, although the first three outings ended in retirement, he collected his second victory in 2018, winning two stages. A third manufacturer then beckoned as Peugeot pulled the plug in 2018; Sven Quandt’s X-raid Mini JCW operation providing adequate refuge for the Spaniard.
He was 13th in his first appearance with the team in 2019, then claimed a third win overall and four stage wins in 2020. This year he finished third behind Nasser Al-Attiyah’s Toyota Hilux and Mini team-mate Peterhansel after numerous navigational errors.
Nasser Al-Attiyah (3 victories, 40 stage wins)
2011 (Volkswagen Toureg), 2015 (X-raid Mini All4Racing), 2019 (Toyota Hilux 4×4)
No driver has finished runner-up in the last decade as often as Nasser Al-Attiyah. If Peterhansel is nicknamed “Mr Dakar”, then Al-Attiyah happily assumes the title of “the Sandman” due to the Qatari’s prowess on the loose sandy tracks over the years.
An accomplished rally driver, who was Production World Rally Champion in 2006, WRC2 Champion in 2014 and ’15 as well as a 13-time Middle East Rally Champion to boot, Al-Attiyah made his Cross-Country name known on the 2009 Dakar, where he was a major victory contender before being disqualified for missing nine checkpoints – five more than the allowed maximum.
Nevertheless, with a move to Volkswagen for the following year he fulfilled his promise by finishing second to team-mate Sainz and then becoming a Dakar victor in 2011. He claimed four stage wins on each of these outings with VW and has won at least one stage every year since then.
Like Sainz, Al-Attiyah spent the two years following VW’s withdrawal in non-rally winning material, firstly with Hummer and then with Demon Jeffries but recorded five stage wins, nonetheless.
A big move to Mini brought three more podiums, including a second victory in 2015 with the All4 Racing 4×4.
He retired in 2017, but this was the only real blemish in what was otherwise a superb run of podiums in the next four editions. Four stage wins and a finishing runner-up for a third time in 2018 behind Sainz’s Peugeot preceded a third victory – this time with Toyota Gazoo Racing in 2019. Punctures hampered his chances of victory in 2020 while a perceived performance disadvantage to the X-raid Mini buggies meant it was another second place in 2021 for the affable Qatari driver.
Ari Vatanen (4 victories, 50 stage wins)
1987 (Peugeot 205 T16 Grand Raid), 1989 & ’90 (Peugeot 405 T16), 1991 (Citroën ZX)
When Peugeot stepped away from the WRC for 1987, as a result of the ban on Group B cars following a number of tragic accidents throughout the 1980s, the PSA Group brand headed to the desert in search of the next big challenge.
Despite a serious accident of his own in 1985, Vatanen took the brave decision to return to competition and duly dominated proceedings in the first Dakar edition to have a comprehensive, fully factory-supported team at the front.
Vatanen should have won again in 1988, but his 405 T16 got stolen a few stages from the end. He was leading his compatriot and team-mate Juha Kankkunen at the time and was ultimately disqualified for being outside of the maximum time available to start the stage. Kankkunen won his only Dakar, but Vatanen had been the man to beat again.
Across these first two years, Vatanen had amassed seven stage wins and added a further seven in 1989 as he claimed his second victory and Peugeot’s third in a row. Alongside Swedish co-driver Bruno Berglund since 1988, the Finn proved utterly unbeatable for the bulk of his time on the rally raid in the late ’80s and early 1990s.
Now in the new decade, that domination didn’t abate as he took his third victory on the Paris-Tripoli-Dakar and seven more stage wins. Vatanen was now becoming as legendary on the toughest motorsport test as he was in the WRC.
A final win came in 1991, this time at the wheel of a Citroën ZX which bore a striking resemblance to its PSA Group partner, the Peugeot 405 T16.
Vatanen stayed with Citroën for 1992 to 1993 but failed to add a further victory to his books as team-mate Lartigue took the fight to the Mitsubishis ahead of his maiden win in 1994. Vatanen skipped that year’s edition before returning in 1995, winning three stages but failing to reach the finish.
His record of stage wins increased year-on-year but a fifth overall victory never came and he ended his Dakar career having taken an incredible 50 stage wins between three manufacturers.
Stéphane Peterhansel (8 victories*, 48 stage wins)
2004, ’05 & ’07 (Mitsubishi Pajero Evo), 2012 & ’13 (X-raid Mini All4Racing), 2016 & ’17 (Peugeot 3008DKR x2), 2021 (X-raid Mini JCW Buggy) *in the car class, 14 in total
The Frenchman may have fewer stage wins than the great Vatanen but he has more overall wins than anybody else in the history of the rally raid classic. Six victories on the bikes and now eight in cars following his recent 2021 triumph, Peterhansel has seen and done it all.
Having made the switch to the car category in 1999 at the wheel of a Nissan, alongside co-driver Jean-Paul Cottret, the pair went on to the create a formidable partnership which produced their first Dakar win on four wheels in 2004 in the dominant Mitsubishi Pajero Evo, backed up a year later with win number two.
By the time the Dakar’s era in Africa came to a close, Peterhansel’s prowess was no longer in any doubt. A total of nine wins was a seducing number but the manner in which Peterhansel constructed his victories also started to make headlines. Naturally, the strong partnership with Cottret, with whom Peterhansel stayed with until the end of the 2019 edition, meant that in terms of navigation, few could hold a candle against the French duo.
Peterhansel also had a knack of avoiding trouble where others floundered, such as in 2007 in the face of his sternest challenge, from the Volkswagen Touregs of Sainz, Miller and de Villiers.
The Touregs had been impressive in 2006 and eventually went on to become the first diesel-powered car to win the Dakar, but mechanical problems curtailed their 2007 efforts. Peterhansel, not without his own puncture dramas, stroked his Pajero home in typical non-aggressive fashion to come out on top. But the writing was on the wall for Mitsubishi, and the Japanese firm soon left the Dakar, forcing Peterhansel to go elsewhere.
He landed at Mini, and ended his longest losing streak of four years – three editions following the cancellation of the 2009 event. Victory in 2012 was followed quickly by a fifth crown in 2013 as the competition got even stronger.
Having moved on from Mini, Peterhansel took another pair of wins in the Peugeot 3008DKR buggy in 2016 and 2017 before returning to X-raid’s Mini team as Peugeot pulled out once more.
At 55 years-old, Peterhansel showed that, if anything, age is no barrier to success on the Dakar as he claimed his eighth victory – and first in Saudi Arabia – after another tactically astute drive.
His most recent win was aided no end by co-driver Edouard Boulanger, whose inch-perfect navigation of the 100% electronic roadbooks kept “Peter” ahead of the field while others lost their way.