How the Dakar Rally works

In a few days, you’re going to see a lot of talk about the Dakar Rally — it’s exciting, and we like to cover the desert race. Here’s what you need to know before it starts on Sunday.

What is the Dakar Rally?

It’s known as the toughest race in the world. The Dakar Rally is an off-road rally-raid race that typically runs for the first two weeks of January; originally it ran from Paris, France, to Dakar, Senegal, which is where the name comes from. Ten years ago, however, the Dakar race moved to South America to avoid terrorist threats. It usually runs through several countries including Peru, Bolivia and Argentina, but this year, it will only run in Peru. The 2019 rally runs January 6-17 and will cover roughly 5,000 km, of which 3,000 km are sandy terrain.

What makes the Dakar Rally so hard?

Often, racers deal with altitude sickness while racing through the mountains, heat exhaustion while racing through the desert, general misery while racing through rainy stages, and navigational confusion while racing in the sand dunes and arroyos. On top of all that, there’s the extreme challenge of pounding out hundreds of kilometres every day at high speed in unfamiliar, always-changing off-road terrain.

You have to finish each day’s racing in order to continue for the win, and unless you’re on a well-sponsored bike, you may have to do your own maintenance and repairs each night. If you crash out or your bike burns up or you cannot complete the stage for any other reason, you are out of contention. This year, there’s apparently a second-chance entry that will allow racers to re-enter, but they won’t be able to win.

Lawrence Hacking was the first Canadian to complete the Dakar Rally by motorcycle, and one of only a handful of Canucks to finish it at all.
Who races at Dakar?

There are separate classes for trucks, ATVs and cars at the Dakar Rally, but those racers are all wimps compared to the motorcyclists. In the bike class, there’s a wide range of competitors, ranging from the factory teams (the world’s best rally racers, hired by manufacturers like KTM, Honda, Yamaha and Sherco to ride their bikes) to privateers (racers who run their own teams and arrange their own sponsorships) to amateurs (who are simply running the race for thrills).

To compete at Dakar, you must first submit an application to the ASO (the rally’s organizing body), which will check over your racing credentials to make sure you’re more or less capable of running the event. It certainly helps if you have dirt-bike racing experience in events like the Baja rally, the Morocco Rally, or a high-level enduro series. It also helps if you have a lot of money; Lawrence Hacking, a Canadian rider who’s entered Dakar multiple times, says he hears the total cost is $100,000-120,000 CAD to race the event now.

Most Dakar racers are from Europe, although an increasing number are from South America.

Matthias Walkner is back with the KTM factory team this year, and while he’s the repeating champion, he’s arguably not the favourite. Any of the KTM factory riders can win a stage, or the whole thing. Photo: Marcelo Maragni/Red Bull Content Pool
What sort of bikes are at Dakar?

These are all modified off-road machines, with a max engine capacity of 450 cc. KTM and Yamaha build what they call Rally Replica models, which they will sell to anyone with the money, and these machines come over-the-counter ready to race. The factory teams race machines that are even more advanced than these Rally Replicas, with the latest technology and parts —all highly secret stuff that’s never going to be available to the average customer.

Many of the other bikes, especially the machines the amateurs ride, are fairly standard dirt bikes that have been re-worked extensively to race the Dakar (bigger gas tank, emergency drinking water reservoir, improved suspension, navigational equipment).

Who fixes the bikes?

There’s a whole host of support that follows the Dakar Rally. Factory teams have an army of mechanics and even medical staff who travel behind, meeting up at the end of the day to mend the bikes and riders. Most teams have a similar arrangement, although the amateurs and privateers are on a much more modest budget and the mechanics may just be family or friends.

Then, there’s the Malle Moto class. Malle Moto riders must work on the bikes themselves, and the race organizers haul their tools and spare parts from stop to stop. Malle Moto is considered the hardest Dakar class to compete in, but also the most affordable.

Lyndon Poskitt’s bike from the 2017 rally. Poskitt’s daily updates from past Dakar rallies have made him the most well-known Malle Moto racer, wrenching on his own machine at the end of every day, instead of handing off to a mechanic.
How do racers know where to go?

Racers navigate the desert via a roadbook, which is basically turn-by-turn instructions that are displayed on the bike’s navigational equipment.

How do you win Dakar?

The short answer is: Finish first.

The long explanation is that each day has a total mileage (say, 500 km) that includes a Special stage (say, 200 km) and a Transit stage, which is untimed riding from A to B to get riders to the start of the Special from the campsite, then from the end of the special to the next campsite. Sometimes, a day will have multiple special stages, with transit stages between them.

Whoever runs the special stage or stages in the least amount of time is the day’s stage winner. To win the overall event, you must complete all the rally’s special stages in the least overall time.

This means you can win the majority of the stages, but if someone else gains time on you in the stages you don’t win, or if you crash out of the event and don’t finish the final day, you will not win.  There are no points for individual stage wins — the only number that matters is total elapsed time on all the special stages.

Riders can also lose by accumulating penalties, which add time to your total. There are penalties for everything from changing your bike’s engine to committing a navigational error; some are insignificant, but even the small ones add up, and if you’ve got enough, they can send you way down the standings, even if you finish the race first.

Paulo Goncalves, Honda’s Mr. Consistency for many years, is back this year, to the surprise of many who thought the injury that kept him out of last year’s rally would end his Dakar career. Photo: Honda
What strategy comes into play?

There are several strategies for winning Dakar. The most important is just knowing how to ride hard enough to put down good times without crashing. The factory riders are seemingly capable of extra-terrestrial speed (that’s why they call them “aliens”), but a screw-up at that speed can mean the difference between winning the stage or going home with broken bones, or worse.

Another strategy is knowing when to hold back and avoid winning a stage, to get out of the lead the next day. That might sound counter-productive, but remember navigational skills are just as important as pure off-road speed at Dakar, and if there’s a day with tricky navigation ahead, it might be better to let someone else do that difficult work all day, and just follow their tracks. Then, you can blast past them in an easier section the next day, when they’re all worn out.

Preserving the motorcycle is a key part of strategy. The transit stages (the section of the day’s racing that aren’t timed) can kill your bike, even if you aren’t racing the clock and your teammates, so you have to know how to get through the boredom of these stretches without blowing up your engine.

Speaking of your engine, knowing when, or if, to change your engine is a huge part of the race’s strategy. You can’t win if you don’t finish, but if you change the engine, the time penalty could cost you the race anyway.

Generally speaking, keeping your motorcycle together is essential for the small-time racers, the guys on small budgets who don’t have the resources of the factory teams. It’s hard for many of these racers to keep their bikes running for the duration of the race, as there’s so much that can go wrong. It’s especially hard for all riders on the marathon stages.

Pablo Quintanilla is a consistent winner in the FIM’s Cross Country Rally series, and will definitely want to improve on last year’s eighth-overall result. Photo: Husqvarna
What’s a marathon stage?

A marathon stage sees all riders banned from outside help at the end of the day — no replacement parts or mechanic help from the team is allowed until the end of the next day, as the racers camp by themselves. Only the riders themselves can work on the bikes, and they can only use the parts they have with them. This brings in all sorts of intrigue, as a factory team’s slower rider may be asked to give up parts off their bike to keep a faster teammate in the chase. Or riders may have to ignore repairs to their own bike to make sure a faster teammate’s bike is fixed. All manner of skullduggery and accusations surround marathon stages, and sometimes, much-needed parts for a well-funded team mysteriously appear out of thin air …

How can I watch and follow the Dakar Rally?

As usual, we’ll provide regular coverage of the Dakar Rally here on CMG, with breakdown of the day’s racing. The Dakar website says there will be television updates on Sportsnet, and of course, Dakar organizers and race teams have regular uploads to YouTube as well.


  1. I always wondered when and why they put a 450 cc limit on the bikes. Shouldn’t the riders and teams decide what to ride? I can see that the big bikes would have definite disadvantages.

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