We all have our favourites. When it comes to motorsport, Formula 1 is mine - my true love. I find beauty in its technology as much as the drivers and the racing (and this year the latter's been woof-woof hasn't it?). I've been married to the F1 circus since the start of the 90s. Rallying is more like a fling, built from the patchy, sometimes late-night TV coverage of rallies, which made it harder to access consistently. I've only been to one WRC event, and, truth be told, the Dakar Rally was just something that occurred every year, somewhere in the world.
And yet I find myself on an arrow-straight stretch of motorway, heading north out of Saudi's capital, Riyadh. It's early, around 6am, and I've had less than an hour's sleep since departing the aeroplane that brought me here. Let's just say I'm bewildered, and not just from the lack of sleep. I like to have a handle on what I am reporting on but, right now, I am outside my comfort zone. I'm in a strange country and expected to deliver a piece about an event that I am wholly unfamiliar with.
As I sit, fretting, I notice the sun coming up on my right, revealing a flat, desert landscape as far as the eye can see. Then there's wailing to my left. I turn quickly to see Sebastian Loeb in his BRX Prodrive Hunter T1+ passing by in the outside lane. He's followed a moment later by Nasser Al-Attiyah in his Toyota Hilux and Carlos Sainz, who cruises quietly past in his Audi RS Q e-tron petrol-electric hybrid. "Jesus," I think to myself, "this Dakar experience is getting weirder by the minute." That's like seeing Lewis Hamilton cruise past on the A43 heading towards Silverstone.
The original Paris-Dakar route began in 1978 but was abandoned in 2008 because war-torn Africa became too perilous - there are tales of drivers having to carry wads of US dollars to sate the bandits looking to kidnap a prize. So it moved to South America for a few years, and since 2020, Saudi Arabia has been its home. To be frank, I am wondering if this is any less perilous. Not because of armed militia - I didn't see any evidence of that - but the locals' driving. It's crazy.
Indicators seem to be used to confuse, if they're used at all, and the two-second-distance rule is measured in milliseconds here, as bumpers almost connect with bumpers at heady speeds. I'm one of several international correspondents in a vast train of Toyota Land Cruisers (Land Rovers are notable only by their absence in these parts), led by an excitable police escort. Far from policing this madness, he's contributing to it; zipping back and forth like a wheeled fly, chastising any of our drivers who fall behind with furious and frantic hand gestures. Like our driver. He's a lovely local Saudi guy, but he keeps lagging because his mind's on the lengthy phone conversation he's conducting in heated Arabic.
The phone's hand-held, naturally, and to complete his distraction he occasionally starts texting, too - remember, we're part of a police escort. He has a technique for making up ground, though: wait until everyone slows and bunches up, then undertake the lot of them using the hard shoulder. If there is a highway code out here, no one seems to have read it.
We're en route to the start of Stage 5. Al-Attiyah in his Hilux holds the overall lead of the rally at this point, but both Sainz and Loeb have won a stage each, so the competition is hot. And, just like F1, there's political infighting, too. Audi's hybrid car is a new concept for the Dakar and, as it was when it took to Le Mans with a diesel, its rivals are questioning the FIA's equalising rules. They say Audi has been given an unfair advantage. Sainz says it's the opposite: the Audi is heavier than its rivals and should be allowed more power to compensate.
Then there's an argument about who is greenest. The Audi team thinks they are - after all, the e-tron is powered by a 52kWh battery and what Audi calls an 'energy converter.' In essence, it's a 2.0-litre DTM petrol engine that charges the battery, which powers two Formula-E motors that drive the wheels. The energy it converts, then, is still largely derived from petrol, but it says this is more efficient than pure internal combustion. It points to its car's 300-litre tank, while the others need 500 litres of petrol. Normally, one tank would be big enough to drive from the service centre to the stage, run the stage, then drive back again.
But its rivals say the Audi isn't as efficient as predicted. The team realised it wasn't going to make the full distance and asked the FIA for a dispensation to refill at the beginning and end of each stage. That was opened up to all the competitors, to make it fair, but they argued it wasn't necessary - their cars could manage just fine on one tank alone. Prodrive claims its car is the greenest. Not just because its carbon footprint is much lighter in the car's production (as a result of not having a whacking great lithium-ion battery) but it runs on Gen II biofuel. This reduces the CO2 output of the fuel used by 80 per cent.
All I know is this: as each car lines up at the start, separated by three-minute intervals, the Audi doesn't sound as good. When the engine's running, there's a constant drone, and when it's not, there's just a data-centre-like hum. It's the future, so get used to it, but be happy that, for now at least, the silence is punctuated by the spectacle of internal combustion. The Prodrive's 3.5-litre Ford Ecoboost V6 sounds deep and satisfying, while the Hilux's 3.4-litre V6 sounds like it's in a higher state of tune and much angrier. It's undoubtedly my favourite noise, and you can still hear it blatting through the gears a good couple of minutes after it's left the start and is long out of sight.
I am amazed by the lack of spectators for such an international sporting event. But then the Dakar's route is cloak and dagger stuff. No one, not even the competitors, know where they're heading until just hours before the start of each stage. That's because this rally pushes a driver's reactions but also their real-time reading of the road. Pace notes aren't allowed. Each night, the following day's route (the roadbook) is downloaded to the car's sat-nav, and by that point it's too dark for the teams to send out helicopters and recce the way.
Some say this hands an advantage to drivers like Al-Attiyah, because the Qatari-born triple-Dakar winner grew up surrounded by desert, so he has a special gift for reading it. The desert is certainly a mercurial place. Understanding the going is a key element of the Dakar, but others say that's offset by the driving talent of greats like Sainz and Leob. They can make up time on sand experts like Al-Attiyah with their God-given speed.
As the last of the top T1+ cars depart, the sun is rising higher above us and, thankfully, flushing away the biting cold that descends on the desert each night. We jump back in the trucks and head farther into the desert's reaches, hoping to intersect the runners and riders and see them attacking this otherworldly terrain. Brilliant. An hour of shuteye. Ah, but it's 8:30 AM and the chaos of the Saudi commute is now in full swing.
When I wake up after an hour or so, we're still not there. It makes me realise the bloody enormous distances the Dakar involves, even as a spectator. If you think it's a ballache schlepping from Copse to Club corner you ain't seen nothing. The Dakar's 12 stages are around 400km each. Adding on the journeys to and from the service area means that each competitor will cover over 8,000km - if they last the distance. Many don't, of course. This is some of the toughest terrain anywhere in the world.
Sometimes the sand is sprinkled with rocks, like millions of little grey hundreds and thousands. Sometimes these cover the sand completely, making it a full-on gravel stage, and sometimes the rocks become boulders, which the drivers must negotiate like an asteroid belt. There are sections with greenery, but far from lush foliage, these clumps of camel grass are sporadic and hide yet more rocks. So they're like little land mines, lying in wait to rip off a wheel if you stray too close. Sometimes all that natural furniture disappears completely. All you see are miles of soft sand rising and falling like Alpine snowdrifts, whipped into shape by the wind.
If you're spectating, trying to locate the cars in this vast expanse is a little like searching for lions in the Serengeti. There's a hell of a lot of hanging about, hoping you're in the right spot, looking this way and that because you're not entirely sure where they'll come from, if at all. There are false alarms. Many of the distant dust plumes turn out to be a local, in yet another Toyota. But the anticipation and fretting heighten the pleasure when, eventually, you do hear a snarling V6 - or if it's an e-tron, the loud whine of an overgrown Tamiya. It makes it feel all the more worthwhile and doubly spectacular.
Even more so when you throw in the desert's random factors. This is not a fenced-off motor race, so everything including camels, people and trucks - nearly always a Toyota, of course - can wander onto the 'racing line' and produce heart-in-the-mouth moments. At one point, a group of us were sat on a rocky plateau (the Dakar's equivalent of a grandstand). We were able to see the approaching rally cars but the chap in the Toyota below couldn't. Everyone was shouting and waving to him to get back, but like some sort of Frank Spencer moment, he managed to interpret this as move forward, into the line of fire. When the rally car popped over the crest and missed him by mere feet, there was a collective outpouring of breath.
Something similar happened when we were all sat watching from a Bedouin tent - the Dakar's equivalent of VIP hospitality, just with thick, Arabic coffee rather than champagne. This time, we could hear the thundering diesel engine of a Dakar truck (perhaps the most ridiculous yet impressive of the desert machines) approaching, just as a herd of hapless camels wandered onto the route. Heads and humps would surely roll? Nope, yet again, driver skill - with a bit of luck - saved the day.
I talk about racing lines and routes like these things are clearly demarcated but, of course, that's not the case. Sometimes the topography funnels the drivers down a certain path, but most of the time they pick and choose their own way, which is another difficulty for them and the spectators to overcome.
The next day, Stage 6 was through the dunes. This time we had a hunch we were in the right place because there were many SUVs - mostly Toyotas - either parked up or roaring around, their drivers showing off. When the first cars came through, we thought we'd struck oil as they passed just a few feet beneath us. Then the next cars appeared but chose a different path, which was several hundred feet away and blocked by another dune. Should I stay or should I go?
And to prove how difficult the navigating is for the drivers, we saw a bunch of cars take the farther route, then turn around and double-back past us realising they'd missed their waypoint. And think about that. It meant the drivers behind had the camels, the people, the Toyotas - roving and parked - and their fellow rally stars, now heading the wrong way, to watch out for.
Of course, the Dakar isn't just about the top cars or drivers, like Sainz, Loeb, Al-Attiyah and 14-time-winner Stéphane Peterhansel. It's also about the trucks, buggies and bikes that add to the spectacle - ex-MotoGP rider Danilo Petrucci's stage win was particularly heart-warming. There are also the numerous independent teams and privateers that brave the route, along with the classic Dakar entries that we saw dotted around the bivouac - the Dakar's equivalent of a pit lane. Among them, I spotted the most glorious Porsche 964 in full Rothmans colours, two Peugeot 205 T16s (one with a four-pot and one with a small-block V8), and a fantastic Peugeot 404 van. And it's the tales that brought some of these competitors here that add a human element to make them more than the sum of their parts.
One guy, in his mid-thirties, had built a replica of the Lada Riva his late dad drove on the Dakar in 1980. He'd persuaded his girlfriend to come along for the ride, which was his tribute to his father. His dad had made it halfway across Africa before his car broke and he had to be rescued, but not before he'd had all his belongings stolen, including his passport. So he had to wait four days to get home and vowed never to do the race again. He did, of course, because that's the crazy draw of the Dakar, but this time he chose a... Toyota. Another guy, from Catalonia, brought a Peugeot 405 T16 that originally came out of the Peugeot's Dakar programme. He owns a racing team and has painstakingly rebuilt the car, only to risk trashing it again in his first Dakar.
And then there are the foot soldiers. Those that support rather than drive or co-drive. The team members who work 14-days solid, sometimes through the night, just to keep the show on the road. When they do sleep, it's in clusters of pop-up tents covering areas of the service park like nylon molehills. Some of the team get the 'luxury' of one of the tents fitted on the roof of the support trucks. I can only assume the luxury element comes from not being on the ground, gathering up sand, but they are just as tiny and, perched up there without a guardrail, I wouldn't fancy getting up for a bleary-eyed midnight pee. Wherever you sleep in the park it's never a deep sleep, such is the endless noise of cars being tested all through the night.
Of course, when all's said and done it would be remiss not to remark on the winner of this remarkable event. Congratulations to the Toyota team and its winning driver, Nasser Al-Attiyah, who was crowned a four-time Dakar Rally champion yesterday. He led from start to finish, eventually winning by 27 minutes 46 seconds from Loeb. He won only two stages along the way, but that goes to show that the Dakar is a marathon not a sprint. Consistency wins the day -- or in this case, 14 long, arduous but wonderful days.
I knew next to nothing about the Dakar before I arrived in Saudi. I know a bit more now, but it's still a drop in the ocean compared with the real experts - the true Dakar enthusiasts. What I've absorbed is a huge appreciation and respect for what it entails for the drivers, the teams and the fans. I also had huge fun along the way. Much more than I thought I would, actually. It might not be the most obvious spectator event, being such a long way away and so spread out, but if you have the inclination to do something radically different and appreciate crazy people doing unfeasible things, I urge you: definitely do the Dakar. And then go to bed.
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