PH Footnote: Dakar Rally 2018


For the past five days some of the world's most decorated off-road motorsport competitors have been battling not only one another, but also the terrain, on the Dakar Rally. In many cases the terrain has come out on top.

This is the 40th running of the Dakar Rally, the tenth to have been held nowhere near the city of Dakar in Senegal, north Africa. Organisers were forced to move the rally to South America amid security concerns back in 2009. The event may now have a new home on an entirely different continent, but the gruelling, attritional nature of the rally is very much still in tact.

The event started in Lima, Peru, on Saturday last week and won't finish until it reaches Cordoba in Argentina on Saturday next week. There are 14 stages. The total length of the route is 9,000km, more than half of which is timed special stage. The longest stage is a monstrous 498km. That's London to Newcastle across dusty plains, rocky tracks and sand dunes, 3,500 metres above sea level, with the clock ticking.


Many of the leading drivers have called this the toughest Dakar route in years. Having won a pair of World Rally Championship titles in the early Nineties - not to mention the punishing Safari Rally in 1992 - Carlos Sainz is not given to unnecessary moaning. And yet, following Tuesday's 330km stage, which yumped its way across endless sand dunes on Peru's Pacific coast, he actually declared the route 'too much' for the rally's amateur competitors. The retirement list seems to backup Sainz's view; after just three stages, a total of 43 of the 335 starters had been forced to withdraw.

As it turned out, though, the route wasn't just too much for the rally's amateurs, but for several of the professionals, too. Mini's Mikko Hirvonen, for instance - who really should have won at least one WRC title during his seven years with Ford - admitted to having been caught out on the fifth stage by one particular dune that masked a sharp drop. His Mini John Cooper Works Buggy landed so heavily that he hurt his neck, forcing him to tip-toe his way to the end of the stage.


If ever there was a driver who should be a match for the challenge of the Dakar, though, it's Sebastien Loeb. This is the man who won nine consecutive WRC titles. This is the driver who has proven to be so adaptable that he's won races in the World Touring Car Championship, a round of the World Rallycross Championship, and conquered Pikes Peak. Whatever form of motorsport this guy puts his mind to, he wins. And yet his third - and most likely last - attempt at the Dakar ended with an accident on the fifth stage.

Loeb has led the Dakar on both previous attempts, but he's never won it. His team, Peugeot, is pulling out of the event after this year's running, which prompted the Frenchman to describe winning the Dakar as 'now or never'. Brake issues on the opening stage dropped him down the order, but he recovered over the next two days, won the fourth stage and found himself second overall.


But in the dunes of stage five, his bid came crashing down. Loeb climbed a crest in his insect-like 3008DKR Maxi, split off right to avoid a stranded competitor, and dropped heavily into an unseen hole, just as Hirvonen had done. Loeb's co-driver, Daniel Elena, injured his sternum and coccyx, and although the pair battled on to the end of the stage Elena's injuries were too severe for him to continue. And so it is that the greatest rally driver of all time might never win the Dakar Rally.

It's like warfare. Scores of brave, intrepid men and women heading out into unforgiving terrain, their equipment being ripped to pieces, some battling on, some getting injured and going no further. You get the impression, in fact, that it's not much more than a lottery. The conditions are so punishing that only by sheer good fortune does anybody manage to get to the end of each stage.


It's terrific, isn't it? We hope, of course, that nobody's injuries turn out to be in any way serious, but for there to still be such a motorsport event in this health-and-safety bedevilled day and age, one that not even the very finest competitors of their generation seem to be able to conquer, is truly something we should all celebrate.

And, after all, it isn't really a lottery at all. There is still an awfully long way to go, sure, but the leader of the rally is living proof that you make your own luck on the Dakar. His name is Stephane Peterhansel and he's 52 years old. He's driving for Peugeot, as he has done for the last three years, and as it stands he's on his way to winning the Dakar for the 14th time. His first six wins came on two wheels. This, if he stays out in front for the remaining nine stages, would be his eighth win on four.

Britain's Sam Sunderland, incidentally, started the rally hoping to repeat his famous 2017 victory in the motorbike category. He was leading the class until, on the fourth stage, he landed heavily and injured his back, forcing an early withdrawal.


I was lucky enough to spectate on the Dakar two years ago. In my mind's eye the event is characterised by vast, lifeless plateaus and limitless dunes that chop and cut like a storm-battered sea. As it was, I found myself spectating by the side of a rocky gravel track that was just like any other conventional rally stage (I'd love to go back to the Dakar one day to find the landscapes I'd imagined).

After the cars ripped across the stage and the massive trucks lumbered along lazily, the bikes came through. I can still see that one bike appear around the unsighted right-hander, drop into a rut and high-side, its rider being flung violently into the brush. He lay still for a moment, then picked himself up, hobbled on one hurt leg over to his bike, strained to right the thing onto its wheels, swung that hurt leg over and carried on. Not so that he could limp half a lap back to the pits, I thought to myself at the time, but to push on towards the end of the stage, this unimaginable point in space many hundreds of kilometres away. It was a moving display of resilience and fortitude. That was when I realised just how brutal the Dakar Rally is.





Photos: Red Bull]

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (7) Join the discussion on the forum

  • CM954 11 Jan 2018

    This and the IoM TT, greatest races on the planet.

  • JamesyBoy1975 12 Jan 2018

    I love these sporting events that are just outside of the view of the mainstream, they all seem to throw up so much drama. Last years Dakar was amazing to follow, the Sainz and Loeb story really engrossing, but then the Sam Sunderland sub polot turning into the main story, was a great thing to see unfold.

  • rastapasta 12 Jan 2018

    CM954 said:
    This and the IoM TT, greatest races on the planet.
    you speak the truth

  • stuckmojo 12 Jan 2018

    I grew up watching videos of Ari Vatanen on the Peugeot 205 and Edi Orioli and the Cagiva Elefant. Man, these were the days. 30 years later I still have a hankering for racing the dakar on a motorcycle.

    Fantastic stuff.

  • sisu 14 Jan 2018

    The english youtube channel for dakar is https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLSmCFH46WIX...

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