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2024 Dakar Rally: A newcomer’s guide to rally raid

9 Mins read
Credit: Flavien Duhamel/Red Bull Content Pool

2024 may have only just started, but it is already time to shift back into racing mode. On Friday, the forty-sixth edition of the legendary Dakar Rally will begin.

As we have since 2022, The Checkered Flag is excited to present live coverage and daily recaps of each stage and the entire World Rally-Raid Championship. But with every new year also means the arrival of new fans wondering what the fuss is about.

Confused on where to start? We’ve got you covered in this nifty guide.

What is the Dakar Rally?

The Dakar Rally was founded in 1977 as the Paris–Dakar Rally. While rally raids were held in years prior, they started to grow in prominence—especially in Western Europe and North Africa—during the late 1960s and 1970s. One of these events, the World Cup Rally from Europe through the Sahara Desert and back, inspired Thierry Sabine to create the Dakar. The inaugural edition was held just after Christmas 1978 and into 1979, taking competitors from Paris to the Senegalese capital of Dakar.

Over the next three decades, the Dakar evolved into a symbol of the great rally experience as those like Jacky Ickx and Ari Vatanen to Jean-Louis Schlesser and Stéphane Peterhansel etched their names into history. The magic eventually ended in 2008 when the race was cancelled due to security concerns in Mauritania, prompting a move to South America from 2009 onwards; although the relocation meant it no longer goes through Senegal, the rally retained the Dakar name. Even in a new environment, Peterhansel continued to be the race’s lead figure alongside Nasser Al-Attiyah and Carlos Sainz.

The Dakar’s South American stint wrapped up after 2019 and it was moved to its current home in Saudi Arabia. Al-Attiyah, Peterhansel, and Sainz remain among the Dakar’s notable aces even in an all-desert environment.

As one of, if not the most prestigious off-road race in the world, the Dakar has and continues to attract racers from virtually every form of motorsport. Whether it be rally, Formula One like Fernando Alonso, MotoGP with Danilo Petrucci, NASCAR with Robby Gordon, sports cars like Romain Dumas, or even beyond the racing realm like alpine skier and 2006 champion Luc Alphand, you can always count on there being an eye-catching name in the grid whenever January rolls around.

All of this is swell and all, but you might now be asking…

What is rally raid?

Rally raid, or cross-country rally, is a bit different from other off-road disciplines. As its name implies, it shares similarities with traditional rallying as competitors race from one point to another and try to set the fastest total time across multiple stages, but the overlap mostly stops there.

In a sense, a rally raid is like a cross between rallying and orienteering. Rally raids take place across virtually any form of terrain such as forest, dirt, sand, and pavement, but more extreme elements such as high dunes and river crossings are also prevalent features. Unlike in rallying where pacenotes are used to figure out the course, rally raids rely on a roadbook filled with diagrams, GPS coordinates, and compass readings. In most cases like the W2RC, racers only receive the roadbook shortly before a stage begins, effectively making them blind to what’s to come and they have to figure out the route on the fly. Because of this, it is not uncommon to see them ride together in groups as they try to ascertain where to go.

Informal cooperation is the norm in rally raid such as competitors stopping to help an overturned vehicle, pull one that is stuck in mud or water, or lending assistance in repairs. This will be particularly emphasised when the Dakar Rally enters its marathon stages, which prohibit racers from receiving help from their teams. For all these above reasons, many describe rally raid as the ultimate off-road adventure.

A typical rally day is divided into a timed sector called a Selective Section (SS) and the liaison. The SS is where the racing itself takes place and when the clock starts ticking. The liaison, which can vary from being virtually nonexistent to much longer than the SS, is the untimed route that takes competitors between the SS and the bivouac. The bivouac is basically a base camp with tents where everyone sleeps and stays when not racing while teams work on their vehicles.

Rallies that last four days are called Bajas (taking a page from the legendary Baja 1000, but not to be used interchangeably with it); Bajas are sanctioned by the FIA and FIM under the separate Bajas World Cup moniker or its regional counterparts in Europe and the Middle East. By comparison, a “rally-raid” as seen in the W2RC runs slightly longer at five days, while the Dakar Rally is a “marathon rally-raid” because it is two weeks long.

You might notice that we avoided using the term “drivers”. Why is that? Simple, it’s not just cars that race. This might make your next question…

Credit: DPPI/Red Bull Content Pool

What types of vehicles race?

Unlike a WRC event or, well, most motorsport events, the average cross-country rally features a wide diversity of vehicles field spanning a multitude of categories. For 2024, there are five FIA classes and four FIM.

  • Ultimate (T1): The top category for “prototype” race cars, these are the premier vehicles in rally raid who you will routinely see at the top of the leaderboard. Examples include the twice reigning Dakar champion Toyota Hilux, the Prodrive Hunter, and Audi’s RS Q e-tron E2. Unlike Toyota and Prodrive, Audi’s machinery is electric powered.
  • Stock (T2): Production-based cars that generally resemble the models that you see on the road. This is the smallest FIA category by far, and only three entries are taking part in 2024. With its small size, the only consistent presence is the Toyota Land Cruiser.
  • Challenger (T3): Basically a prototype version of a side-by-side vehicle, often used as the final stepping stone for those hoping to ascend to T1 in the future. The Can-Am Maverick XRS Turbo and MCE-5 Taurus T3 Max are the top cars, while other vehicles include the Yamaha YXZ1000R Turbo Prototype and GRally OT3.
  • SSV (T4): Much like the difference between T1 and T2, a T4 car is a side-by-side vehicle akin to a T3 but is mostly still in its stock form. SSV is usually a Can-Am playground though Polaris hopes to play spoiler.
  • Truck (T5): These beloved big boys are the only class with three personnel in the cockpit as the driver and co-driver are joined by a mechanic. The Russian KAMAZ has long reigned supreme at Dakar in the Truck category, though ongoing sanctions related to the war in Ukraine have sidelined them since 2023. In their place, IVECO, Praga, and Tatra have come out to play.
  • RallyGP: The lead bike class is for professional and factory riders who must be approved by the FIM. Honda, KTM, GasGas, and Hero all field factory teams, though some privateers also take part.
  • Rally2: Rally2 bikes are identical to those in RallyGP, so the difference between the categories is simply the presence of amateurs and newcomers to rally raid in this. Some Rally2 riders compete without teams under the Original by Motul (Malle Moto) subcategory.
  • Rally3: Like Rally2, Rally3 is an amateur category though it uses enduro and production bikes with more limits imposed on them; for example, Rally3 bikes can only go 130 km/h versus the 160 km/h of its higher counterparts. Rally3 only appears at select W2RC races and will not be present at Dakar.
  • Quad: The only four-wheel FIM class, Quads are admittedly a dying breed but still have the hearts of many. The Yamaha Raptor 700 is the vehicle of choice in this class, though other brands like CFMOTO have also appeared on the scene.

Growing more invested? We hope so. Now that you know the basics, you might be a betting person and want to know…

Who are the top faces this year?

FIA

Al-Attiyah is perhaps the biggest name in rally raid today. With five Dakar Rally victories, two World Rally-Raid Championships, and many more victories in Bajas to his name, the Qatari stands proud at the top of the world. 2024 will be his first year racing a Prodrive Hunter, moving over from Toyota.

As Al-Attiyah joins Prodrive, his rival Sébastien Loeb is now his team-mate. Loeb needs little introduction as a nine-time World Rally Champion who seems to be able to win in anything he drives from rallycross to Extreme E. However, he has yet to get over the hump in rally raid with just one W2RC victory to go with his runner-up championship finish in 2022 and three second-place runs at Dakar. He won a record six stages in a row at the 2023 Dakar Rally but mechanical troubles plagued him and Prodrive; if the team can slay the demons that plagued them, especially with Al-Attiyah on their side, expect Loeb to be a threat.

Peterhansel is nicknamed “Mr. Dakar” for his fourteen Dakar Rally victories on both two and four wheels. Now in his late fifties, he still has more than enough in the tank as showcased by his 2021 Dakar and 2022 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge victories, though he has retired from the last two Dakars due to crashes. Nonetheless, he remains a contender.

Sainz and Peterhansel are both team-mates at Audi, the former a three-time Dakar champion with his most recent in 2020. Rallycross star Mattias Ekström, who raced for Sainz in Extreme E in 2023, is also an Audi driver. While Audi has shown speed against their petrol-based rivals, they struggled with bad luck and accidents in 2023 that they want to put behind them.

With Al-Attiyah gone, Yazeed Al-Rajhi and Juan Cruz Yacopini are now the top drivers in the Toyota camp as they finished second and third behind him in the 2023 championship. Al-Rajhi was the only other driver besides Al-Attiyah to win a W2RC race last year. Toyota has also filled the void left by Al-Attiyah with reigning T3 champion Seth Quintero, who holds the record for most stage wins in a single Dakar with twelve in 2022, and Lucas Moraes.

Quintero’s graduation leaves the Challenger class in a toss-up. Austin Jones hopes to score his third consecutive Dakar win, though fellow American Red Bull driver and championship runner-up Mitch Guthrie will try to snap that streak. Red Bull is well represented in the category as their ranks also include two-time winner Francisco López Contardo, Cristina Gutiérrez, and 2023 T4 champion Rokas Baciuška. Baciuška moves up to Challenger alongside the Goczał family, whose scion Eryk beat him for the Dakar T4 win at just eighteen years of age in 2023.

The SSV category is small in star power compared to Challenger, but names to watch include João Ferreira, Sara Price, Shinsuke Umeda, and Gerard Farrés. Ferreira, who boasts T1 and T3 experience, switched to T4 and won on début in Morocco in October, while Umeda was the 2023 W2RC runner-up. Farrés is set for his seventeenth Dakar. Price, a former Extreme E driver, clinched a spot on the Dakar grid by winning the Road to Dakar challenge at the Sonora Rally last year followed by finishing second in class at Morocco.

While Truck no longer has KAMAZ, IVECO hopes to repeat with Janus van Kasteren and Martin Macík Jr. headlining the manufacturer. Aleš Loprais, who was leading the class overall in 2023 before withdrawing following a fatal accident, will also be a favourite in his Praga.

FIM

Kevin Benavides enters as the reigning RallyGP Dakar winner, scoring his second win on the final leg. His younger brother Luciano Benavides went on to claim the W2RC and will sport #1 for 2024.

Two-time winner Toby Price fell short in the 2023 points battle. As he contemplates a switch to four wheels, he wants to at least secure another Dakar before making the jump.

Monster Energy Honda Rally Team will bring six bikes to Dakar spearheaded by third-placed Adrien Van Beveren. Skyler Howes, Luciano’s former team-mate who finished third at Dakar in 2023, is now a Honda factory rider as is Tosha Schareina, who impressed as a satellite last year. Ricky Brabec won the 2020 edition.

Rally2 is always murkier to discern, but Romain Dumontier is the defending winner and world champion. Paolo Lucci, Bradley Cox, and Michael Docherty hope to end his reign in 2024, while Konrad Dąbrowski is committed to do the same after missing the 2023 race to appendicitis.

Only ten Quads are entered at Dakar, though Alexandre Giroud figures to be the favourite as he has won back-to-back Dakars. Laisvydas Kancius is the defending champion.

With the big names out of the way, the next big question might be…

Where do I watch?

Because the Dakar takes place in a massive desert, traditional broadcasts like in circuit racing is virtually impossible. Instead, many networks opt for highlight shows and similar packages.

In the United States, MAVTV will air one-hour highlight shows each day at noon and 7 PM Eastern Time. NBC Sports will also have highlights on Peacock. FOX Sports holds the broadcast deal in Mexico.

Europeans can follow along via Eurosport‘s three-hour daily shows, while L’Équipe now has the broadcast rights in France. L’Équipe’s parent company is also the owner of the Amaury Sport Organisation, who oversees the Dakar. TV3 Group has coverage rights in the Baltics as does RTVS in Slovakia.

In the Middle East, Saudi Sport Company will air the race on its SSC News and SSC2 channels while MBC Action is available in twenty-four countries.

Other online opportunties include FloRacing and Red Bull TV, though the latter focuses on those sponsored by the energy drink.

That covers the who, what, and where, but what about…

When is the Dakar taking place?

The 2024 Dakar Rally begins on Friday, 5 January, with a Prologue stage starting and ending in Al-‘Ula. Racing will take place each day for the first six stages from 6 to 12 January.

Stage #6 is on 11/12 January as a new forty-eight-hour leg dubbed the Chrono Stage, where competitors will camp overnight before continuing the next day. Such a rigorous stage means 13 January will be a rest day before the race resumes on the 14th. Action continues until the final day on 19 January.

We’ll see you there!

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Justin is neither a NASCAR nor off-road racer, but he has covered them for The Checkered Flag since 2018.
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