As endurance racing, bicycle road racing, or even soccer, all have their own strategies and tactics. The Dakar Rally is no different, having a unique way to compete. Knowing this makes watching the Dakar a lot more enjoyable.
What kind of race is the Dakar Rally?
The word "rally" is used to describe a wide variety of events. The four-wheeled WRC, for example, is a race focusing on how fast competitors can drive through mountain passes and gravel roads, rather than on covering long distances. In contrast, the Dakar Rally covers a distance of 8,000 km in total. The rally takes two weeks to complete. Although the Dakar Rally is now held in Saudi Arabia, it once traversed the African continent, and began as a truly "cross-country" rally. The founder, Thierry Sabine, said, "I will show you the door to adventure. Only you can open it. I can take you along if you wish.” The Dakar Rally is indeed the door to adventure for motorcycle riders and four-wheel drivers to open.
Special Stages (timed stages) within the rally’s route determine rankings by total time. There is no need to race flat out over the entire route. If you’re the fastest rider in the Special Stages, you win. It’s that simple.
Recent Dakar Rally editions are considered to place more emphasis on navigation. The route and special stages are provided in a roadbook (frame map), which displays instructions, such as “turn left after 5 km.” By correctly following the roadbook while watching the trip meter, riders should will be able to reach the finish, unless they make a mistake along the way. The roadbook is like a car navigation system that does not show you the route. The ordinary route is not timed, so riders can take their time to look at the roadbook, but in the timed Special Stages, riders need to follow the route and look at the frame chart in the shortest possible time. Riders must race at speeds often exceeding 140 km/h, while checking their frame charts and trip meters at the same time.
Special stages are often raced over deserts. These areas are called off-piste, where there are no roads or ruts. Riders must rely on a compass (azimuth) alone. The frame map only provides directions: Turn in this direction by this many degrees after this distance. If a rider is even one-degree off, everything goes wrong, so if they believe they made a mistake, they have to check the distance against the trip meter and calculate where they should be, or return to the previous spot and reroute. If they cannot find the correct route, they lose time and positions, often disastrously over timed stages.
This sounds difficult, because it is. Navigation holds the key to modern Dakar strategies.
Only the lead rider needs to be 100% navigate 100% accurately. Every day, another leader
Although there are no roads to follow off-piste, The first rider leaves tire tracks which subsequent riders can follow. On a desert, competitors often see riders ahead in the distance. This means that the first rider is at a disadvantage, having to navigate on their own.
In general, the starting order in the Dakar Rally is determined by rider ranking from the previous day. The rider who finished first is at a disadvantage the next day, making Dakar racing interesting to watch. Riders in positions 1 to 10 start three minutes apart, so the rider who finished second the previous day has the chance to shave off 3 minutes off by overtaking the lead rider, who is at a disadvantage having to navigate the route. If a rider slows down to avoid becoming lead rider the next day, their overall time increases, which can add up to lost placings. It is rare for a rider to consistently finish at the top each day, and the top riders lose their positions the next day, while the riders around 10th position rapidly close the gap by following the bikes ahead of them.
The aim is to formulate team and rider strategies while considering the disadvantage of being the fastest rider, and being caught up with the following day. This is how the Dakar needs be approached. To add even more difficulty, some stages are started with all riders at once, or in reverse order. In the 2023 regulations, the final stage alone may have a simultaneous start.
Adding interest to the Dakar is that each rider brings their own strategy and personality to the race. For example, Ricky Brabec, who gave Honda the victory in the 2020 Dakar, is the kind of rider who does not care much for these strategies, and rides as fast as he can in each stage, winning the Dakar with two stage victories. Kevin Benavides, who won in 2021, also won two stages. In the final stage, Benavides thought he would be able to have an easy time starting third, but the first and second place riders got lost in navigation, and he was put in the difficult position of having to navigate and win the stage. where he had to navigate and make his way alone to win the stage. In the Dakar Rally, even the smallest issues can dramatically change the outcomes.
The Dakar is a team effort, where the importance of teammates increases as the race goes on
The Dakar Rally is also very much a team race. In past editions, team riders called water carriers rode along with their team leader, providing assistance carrying spare parts and water and sacrificing their own chances of winning.
In today's Dakar Rally, all factory riders are good enough to win, but as the race progresses into the latter stages, the time gap between the riders increases as the number of contenders decreases. This is where the cooperation of teammates becomes vital. For example, a rider who wants to decrease their Special Stage time has an advantage is a teammate ahead does the navigating. In some cases, advice from teammates helped riders who got lost to go on to win.
New 2023 rules - What does 1st place even mean?
A new rule, where riders leading the early stages get bonus time, was announced for the Dakar 2023. In this system, bonus time is awarded to the three fastest riders to arrive at the hidden waypoints, not the stage win. The amount of bonus time is determined by how far the hidden waypoint is from the stage’s start. For example, a rider who is first to a 200 km waypoint gains 5 minutes bonus time. Riders with better navigation skills have the advantage. And, planning tactics has become more difficult in 2023.
As you have learned, the rules are not that difficult, but with the Dakar Rally, there are many unique tactics needed to win the ultra-long race, such as navigation and pacing. Most top teams have staff who specialize in strategy, who assist the team manager. As the race progresses and the field stretches out, you will now have a better understanding of which riders are struggling, and why riders have a hard time to win consecutive stages. With your deeper understanding of Dakar tactics, watch the 2023 Dakar Rally and enjoy it like never before.