An X-Raid Mini at a shakedown in Morocco
Photo: Mini

The Dakar Rally’s uniquely challenging combo of impossible terrain and ridiculous logistics make it pretty much the meanest motor vehicle race on Earth. The 2019 Dakar Rally is coming right up on Jan. 6. Here’s everything you need to know.

Give me the quick and dirty...

  • It’s a rally raid race; long-distance and off-road
  • Drivers don’t know the course until they’re on it, then go off turn-by-turn directions which they must keep track of with their odometer
  • Race starts Jan. 6, ends Jan. 17
  • Buggies, UTVs, SUVs, trucks, cars, motorbikes and quads are all in the mix
  • 334 vehicles are competing: 167 bikes/quads, 126 autos/UTVs, 41 large trucks. Hundreds more vehicles will be involved in support
  • 534 racers and co-drivers are signed up; 135 are doing their first Dakar
  • Race loop is 5,000 kilometers (about 3,107 miles)
  • Entire event stays in Peru; beginning and ending in Lima
  • Americans can watch on NBC Sports starting Jan. 7 at 6:30 p.m. EST

What is it?

The Dakar Rally pits a wild menagerie of vehicles against each other over an immense distance, usually featuring sand dunes as tall as tidal waves. To complete the race, competitors have to follow directions from a road book that just gives them one instruction at a time. Drivers in cars have a copilot to read each turn to them. Bigger trucks carry a mechanic, too. As for the people on motorbikes and quads, heaven help them.

This clip, featuring the Red Bull team which wins on the regular, will give you a pretty good idea of what navigating the Dakar is like:

The central pillar of the Dakar Rally is, and always has been, endurance. Getting a vehicle from start to finish is a team effort, in many competitors fail simply because something breaks. Deaths are not at all uncommon. And it was all founded on a French guy’s obsession with driving in the sand.

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According to Dakar lore, French rally racer Thierry Sabine got lost in the Libyan desert while competing in the 1977 Abidjan-Nice rally. Sabine produced the first Paris-Dakar Rally for the very end of 1978, which literally involved racing from Paris, France to Dakar, Senegal. Then as soon as 1980, major companies like Yamaha, Volkswagen, Lada, and BMW had entries.

The event built momentum and notoriety from there until 2008, when as Dakar’s history page explains, four French citizens and three Mauritanians were murdered days before the start. French authorities identified terrorist threats against the rally, and organizers had no choice but to cancel the race.

The following year and every year since, the Dakar Rally has taken place in South America. The 2019 Dakar Rally runs from January 6 to 17, and will stay within the beautiful nation of Peru.

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Peru has all of the geographic hallmarks of the event: namely huge seas of sand and extreme weather changes.

Illustration: Dakar Rally (ASO)

Why is a race in South America still named after a city in Senegal?

The last time I asked a Dakar Rally official, the answer was simply: “Heritage.” It seems that race organizers have become attached to the word “Dakar” as a brand name, and the silhouette of the desert robes guy as a logo. I don’t really like it either.

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What kind of vehicles race?

Screenshot: Red Bull

The Dakar Rally’s vehicle classification can seem a little vague without context. Competitors are broken down as: cars, trucks, bikes, quads and UTVs also known as Side-by-Sides (SxSs).

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Photo: Dakar Rally (ASO)

Cars include everything from heavily modified buggies wearing bodies to look like Mini Coopers to SUVs like Toyota Land Cruisers and Range Rovers. There’s a big range here in capability, and vehicles are sub-classified accordingly.

Photo: Dakar Rally (ASO)

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Trucks at the Dakar are not Tacomas or F-150s. These are enormous land elephants on wheels that look like delivery trucks on Monster Jam tires. They have the advantage of being able to carry a mechanic and extra tools, and the disadvantage of having a lot more to break.

Photo: Dakar Rally (ASO)

Bikes look like dirt bikes, but they’re set up for much longer distances than something you might see at Motocross. Huge fuel tanks and wind fairings make Dakar bikes pretty heavy, and a lot of work to manage through deep sand.

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Photo: Red Bull

Quads are sometimes referred to as “ATVs.” They’re like dirt bikes but with four wheels. Maybe you rented one on a beach vacation one time. Much like the Dakar bikes; Dakar quads are outfitted for extra long distance travel. And look sketchy as hell.

Photo: Dakar Rally (ASO)

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UTV/SxSs got stuck with the worst name in the automotive animal kingdom, but they really are quite cool. They boil down to two or four seats surrounded by a roll cage with a small engine strapped behind the passengers. The combination of low weight and big power makes them excellent tools for traversing sand.

What’s unique about this year?

The 2019 Dakar Rally is introducing a “second chance half-marathon” mode to make the event suck a little less for people who break down early on.

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If you’re in a car, UTV or truck that can’t make it to the middle of the event, you can rejoin the race at the halfway point. You’ll get a little orange plate and won’t be competing directly with the full marathoners anymore, but at least you get a second chance at Dakar glory. This should make the event more fun to watch, as there will be a lot more vehicles in the field at the end.

This year will also feature an Open UTV class, for very fast buggies. The 2019 event has 17 registered female competitors, which is apparently the most since the race came to South America in 2009. The youngest competitor in Dakar history will also be in the mix–a 16-year-old mechanic named Mitchel Van Den Brink.

Staying within one country is new for the Dakar as well. while that certainly saps some of the mystique out of the event, not having to cross borders will make spectating and supporting the race a whole lot easier.

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Who should I watch?

The names Carlos Sainz, Cyril Despres and Stephane Peterhansel will be well-known to anyone who has tuned into the Dakar Rally in the past. they have moved from Peugeot to Mini, joining Nani Roma, Kuba Przygonski and Orlando Terranova to form what will be a powerhouse team for sure.

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Their chief rivals will be Nasser Al Attiyah, Giniel De Villiers and Bernhard Ten Brinke driving Toyotas.

Sébastien Loeb is running a Peugeot, and Robby Gordon is going to give the Dakar another shot after trying and failing to finish the race many times. Gordon is a legend in the United States; his racing resume includes NASCAR, IndyCar and many Baja victories. But he has yet to clinch a win in South America. Most commentators would probably say that he drives too aggressively for a 3,000 mile race. I might agree. but since the 2019 Dakar Rally should be the logistically easiest in years, he might have a better shot than ever.

American entries are pretty rare at the Dakar in general. So it’s noteworthy that Casey Currie, a successful American off-road racer you’ve probably heard of if you follow short course or Ultra4, will be racing in Peru this year as well. He will be running in the Open UTV class, and I know a lot of folks will be pretty interested to see how he does on his first try compared to Gordon who’s struggled at the Dakar.

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As far as big rigs go, look for Gerard De Rooy to put in work in his teal Iveco as he takes on the Red Bull-sponsored Russian- built Kamaz trucks.

How can I watch?

Image: Dakar

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If you’re a TV haver, you can watch 2019 Dakar Rally action on one of the channels listed above. If you’re in Australia, SBS published a very nice guide explaining how to watch its coverage of the race.

In the U.S., NBC Sports is running Dakar coverage at around 6:00 p.m. EST every day from Jan. 7 on. You can watch it online too but you’ll still need a cable subscription.

For the rest of us who just casually want to see some Dakar action online without paying for it, the Red Bull Dakar Daily will be posting updates. But of course that will focus on the Red Bull-sponsored riders and drivers.

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The subreddit r/DAKAR has a great roundup post with links to individual teams, timing and other information that will make following the race easier and more fun.

The Dakar Rally itself will undoubtedly post big updates on its Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.