Since 1978 the name Dakar has stirred the adventurer – A race that has very few boundaries. A mad dash across Africa… well erm, South America. Where ever it is, the Dakar still attracts more than its fare share of absolute nutters on bikes.
In 1978 Thierry Sabine got lost. He was competing in the Abidjan-Nice rally and bumped into the Ténéré desert by mistake, but in having so much fun he decided that he’d tell the guys back home …and so the Paris-Dakar Rally was born.
A 10,000km route was chosen between the capital of France and Dakar, the French-speaking capital of Senegal on the west coast of Africa was becoming an important financial centre with a buzzing nightlife and was seen by many as a bit of a playboy’s hangout with bars and restaurants and warm but not stifling heat. The organisers loved it.
The route was gruelling to say the least. The hack down from Paris to the south coast was straightforward enough but after a ferry trip to Algeria everything would start getting a bit testy. Basically the country makes up a big chunk of the Sahara Desert and at the time, no one lived there.
There were about 3 roads, nothing more than sandy tracks for hundreds and hundreds of miles. Landmarks consisted of a few villages and small towns, one amusingly called Tit.
The route then headed further south into Niger from which it hooked right to go south-west before zig-zagging on to Mali, Burkina Faso, Mali again then almost touching Mauritania before heading due west to Dakar.
People who entered the first race where either unhinged or seriously competitive bordering dangerous. Only 74 of the first race’s 180 vehicles (80 cars, 90 motorbikes, and 12 trucks) survived the crazy epic which saw them struggling through ergs, dunes, wadis, and swamp and dodging unsavoury types they might meet along the way.
Cyril Neveu, a 23 year old bike nut from Orleans, France won the first race on a Yamaha XT500. Good old Cyril became a bit of a hero and went on to win again the following year only to be chased off the podium by a series of wins by BMW who were now getting much coverage in the press with their R100GSs.
When Honda realised that the event was also being watched in 190 different countries the company realised it was a marketing opportunity and built the perfect bike for Africa amongst a blaze of publicity. The Africa Twin.
The race went through the same countries for many years but competitors would often take detours for days to see if there was a better way round major geographical obstacles, often getting completely lost.
Some were real rookies using standard cars, bikes and trucks stocked with basic food and a few large cans of water, the most famous being Mark Thatcher, son of the UK’s prime minister who openly admitted “I did absolutely no preparation. Nothing.” when his Peugeot 504 got marooned in the desert.
According to the records, six military aircraft and a good number of Algerian troops took six days to find him.
That year however Cyril Neveu chose the XR550 and won the competition outright. The XR and XLR600s Africa Twins also gave him top 10 positions over the next two years, but by this time the BMW R100GS flat twins were becoming the bike of choice again.
Honda fought back with the NXR750V giving Cyril two successive wins in ’86 and finally in ’87 where he engaged in a fierce battle with Hubert Auriol, only to win after Hubert fell, broke both ankles, but still jumped back on to complete the stage.
The next year Edi Orioli from Italy stole his crown on the beefier Honda NXR800V followed in ’89 by Italy’s Edi Orioli.
The route now took in a few beers in Catelonia before swapping from Algeria to Tunisia, following the road to Libya and Chad. Scary stuff as Libya was a little tetchy with Europe at the time.
In 1992 the route planners went a bit off piste and missed out Dakar altogether and headed for South Africa instead. It was a blessing that GPS was introduced this year otherwise some may still be there.
By this time other bike manufacturers were taking big notice and Yamaha launched their YZE850T Tenere and dominated by taking 7 out of 10 wins during the 1990s. Only the Cagiva Elefant and BMW could knock them off the top spot.
Then a strange thing happened.
First Tatra swapped to KTM 660s and then Team Kamaz featuring Vladimir Chagin, Semen Yakubov and Sergey Savostin, and wiped the floor with everyone. KTM have gone on to dominate every Dakar since.
In 2000 the route, having swapped various cities for Paris and Dakar, including Morocco, Barcelona and Lisbon amongst others, the race hit a major problem. Terrorists based in Nigeria held all of the teams Niamey for five days until an Antinov 124 could be chartered to airlift everyone to safety.
Alas, in 2008 further unrest in central Africa worried the organisers so much they decided to pull the plug and the event was cancelled.
2009 saw another crazy thing happen when Argentina and Chile jumped into the limelight with a strange offer. Move Dakar to South America! …and so it has been there ever since.
Now restricted to 450cc bikes of no more than two cylinders. The event attracts around 600 vehicles every year, from complete novices through to teams with full support and facilities.
But it’s always the bikes that dominate with manufacturers such as BMW, Cagiva, Honda, Yamaha, Sherco and Gas Gas all taking a gigantic share of the success.
Okay, it’s in the wrong country, actually on the wrong continent altogether. There’s not as much desert and even less camels, but it’s still the world’s most fantastic and unusual race.
Whether you want to compete, visit or just watch on TV it provides thrills and spills like no other. So what if Dakar isn’t in Dakar anymore, as they say, it’s the taking part that counts.
The Dakar 2016: Live from 3rd to 16th January 2016
France Télévisions will allow viewers to enjoy the most beautiful images and the most exciting moments of the 2016 Dakar, on www.francetvsport.fr The new route will be audacious, with technical and rapid stages at altitude and on vast plains.
Competing through the most stunning and gruelling terrain between Argentina and Bolivia from Buenos Ares to the Andes this is a race that is unlike anything else you’ve seen.
Don’t miss it!