The Dakar Rally has been running since 1978. Here are the five phases of the Dakar Rally’s history, from the perspective of motorcycles.
The Dakar Rally began in December 1978 (The 1979 Dakar Rally), founded by the late French adventurer Thierry Sabine. In the early days, the rally was divided into motorcycles and four-wheeled vehicles, but gradually the rules and management became more established, and the scale of the rally grew. Today, categories for multi-purpose four-wheeled vehicles such as camions (trucks), quads (all-terrain vehicles), UTVs and SSVs have also been created. The number of participants in the motorcycle category, which initially consisted of 90 motorcycles, has increased over the years, and by the 2000s, more than 200 motorcycles participated. When the event was moved to South America, the number of participants decreased, but now being held in Saudi Arabia, the number has returned to around 100 motorcycles.
In 2023, the 45th edition will be held. As with any rally, however, the road to this point has not been smooth. Here is a look at the history of the Dakar Rally over the past half-century, divided into several periods.
1979-1980: The Dawn of the Rally - The Door to Adventure Opens
The first Dakar Rally was held in 1979 as the Oasis Rally, which was later changed to the Paris-Dakar Rally, and nicknamed "Paris-Dakar.” Since 1981, the rally has been held as an FIM (Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme) sanctioned race.
As the name suggests, the race started in Paris, the capital of France, and covered approximately 12,000 km of many unexplored areas, reaching its goal in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. There were no settlements along the route across the Sahara Desert, and depending on the year the rally was held, competitors were sometimes lost or died, leading to the event being known as the world's toughest race.
1981-1993: Factory Teams Enter - Rally Becomes Extreme
Honda first entered the Paris-Dakar Rally in 1981. Four riders, including Cyril Neveu, winner of the first and second editions of the rally, joined the team, and Honda recorded its best result of 6th place that year. In 1982, Cyril Neveu won the 4th edition, marking Honda's first Dakar Rally victory.
Over the next three years, with the entry of other manufacturers and increasing engine sizes, the competition for victory became fierce, and Honda was unable to win. In order to win once again, Honda then developed the NXR750, a factory bike powered by a 45-degree V-twin engine, lightweight, compact, with a top speed of 180 km/h, and above all, highly reliable. In 1986, Neveu won the Dakar Rally on an NXR750. SInce then, Honda went on to win four straight rallies up to 1989, when it then pulled out of Dakar participation. In the 1980s, Honda had won five editions out of the nine it participated in, and fed back the rally bike know-how gained to its production models, such as the XRV650 AFRICA TWIN adventure model.
In 1986, the founder Thierry Sabine was killed in a helicopter crash: Not only was the route set for this year extremely challenging, but severe sandstorms had taken the lives of six people including Sabine. Another tragic accident occurred in 1991, when a Camion driver was killed in an explosion after veering off course and entering a minefield.
1994-2008 Downsizing Period - More Like a Motocrosser
From the first edition, there were basically no restrictions in the prototype class on engine displacement or customization, and many bikes were developed solely to win the Dakar Rally. As a result, competition among factory teams to win the rally intensified, resulting in larger engines and fuel tanks to reduce the number of refueling sessions, and the risk of fatal accidents increased due to the heavier weight and higher top speeds. In order to reduce fatalities, the ASO (Amaury Sport Organization), organizer of the Dakar Rally, established a regulation in 1994 that limited participating motorcycles to those production mode-based bikes.
In 1992, the final destination was changed from Dakar to Cape Town, South Africa, to increase route variation. In 1994, the route started and ended in Paris via Dakar, and in the following edition, the start was changed from Paris to Granada. This increased the variety of routes used from year to year. In 2003, the race started in Marseille, France, and finished in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, which did not pass through either Paris or Dakar.
2009-2019: Moving to South America - Uncharted Territory
Throughout the Dakar Rally’s history, the event has been constantly threatened by terrorists and robbers. In 2000, a five-day stage was canceled to avoid attacks by armed groups, and measures were taken to airlift participants. In 2008, the event was cancelled at the request of the French government due to an increased risk of terrorism in Morocco, which was part of the route, marking the only time in the 45-year history of the Dakar Rally that the event had been cancelled.
The ASO's solution to the security concerns was to move the rally to South America, as there were still desert areas like the Sahara Desert. Paris was no longer part of the event, which was renamed to the Dakar Rally. The 2009 rally started in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, and returned to Buenos Aires via the Atacama Desert in Chile. From then until 2019, the Dakar Rally spanned Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Bolivia.
While the race moving to South America reduced the threat of terrorism and robberies, the high altitude caused riders to suffer from altitude sickness. In particular, the route over the Andes Mountains in Bolivia is over 4,000 meters above sea level, and some riders became ill from the lack of oxygen. The Dakar Rally was indeed the toughest race in the world.
In 2011, restrictions were placed on the number of engine cylinders, with only single or two-cylinder engines being allowed, and displacement was limited to 450 cc or less. These regulations still remain in place. In the 1980s, around a quarter of the riders competed on Super Cubs, Vespas, and Yamaha XT225s, and the the percentage of riders able to finish the race gradually increased above 25 percent. By the 2000s, around half of the entrants finished the race.
In 2013, Honda returned to the Dakar Rally after a 24-year absence. As engine size was restricted to 450cc or smaller, and the venue was set in South America, it was a completely new challenge for Honda, unconstrained by past performance. Honda prepared the CRF450 RALLY, based on the CRF450X cross-country competition machine that had been marketed outside of Japan, aiming to overthrow KTM’s dominance in the Dakar Rally at the time.
The following year, the new CRF450 RALLY was completely redesigned, with more engine power, better aerodynamics, higher durability, and better maintainability. In 2017, and 2018, and 2019, Victory was within reach, but due to unfortunate circumstances including penalties resulting from differences in interpretation of the regulations and stage cancellations, Honda was unable to win.
In 2019, for the first time in its history, the Dakar Rally was raced in one country, Peru, without crossing any borders. After that, the Dakar Rally once again moved to another continent.
2020: Saudi Arabia - The New Dakar Rally
In 2020, the Dakar Rally moved to Saudi Arabia, where the route was contained within the country, similar to the 2019 race.
In 2020, Honda finally claimed victory as Ricky Brabec won the event, putting a stop to KTM's record of 18 consecutive victories dating back to 2001. Kevin Benavides won in 2021, giving Honda its second consecutive victory. In 2022, the FIM launched the World Rally Raid Championship. In 2022, the FIM will launch the World Rally-Raid Championship, in which the Dakar Rally is positioned as the opening round.
And in 2023, a new adventure awaits.