The Dakar rally is nearing its close, and while it’s looking like traditional competitor Honda will take the motorcycle class, some new makes have joined the competition in the car and truck categories, and they probably aren’t ones you might have expected.
Of course, this is a year of many firsts for Dakar, chief among them the new venue. For the first time, the Dakar Rally is being held in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the first of a five-year agreement that brings the competition back across the Atlantic after a stint in South America after security concerns made the original route from Paris to Dakar in Senegal untenable.
Dakar going to Saudi Arabia has been controversial. The rally’s arrival is part of the country’s blitz of motorsport investment that some argue is designed to deflect foreign coverage of the country’s recent human rights abuses. But the controversy hasn’t kept many away, with F1 Fernando Alonso competing for the first time this year, Honda on track to pull off their first win in decades, and a number of rather surprising older brands joining the fray as well.
Among the competitors this year are the Chinese limousines favored by Chairman Mao and his successors, the reborn Borgward crossover, and a truck with a name on the front largely unseen since the ‘60s. It’s a wild bunch of entries and I’m glad they’re getting their due.
About five years ago, we were taken aback by the return of a German brand called Borgward that we hadn’t ever given much thought. Bankrupt in 1961, Borgward used to make a car called the Isabella and then it was gone. Now owned by Chinese truck mater Foton, the brand is building a crossover called the BX7 and this year they brought it to Dakar.
Competing in the T.1.1 class with other gas-powered 4x4s, two Borgward BX7 Evos are out there this year. While the brand itself is having trouble finding footing with a proposed European plant, Borgward is actually doing pretty well in the race, with Spanish driver Nani Roma sitting in 12th place after the 6th stage on Friday.
The Qianan Jiu Jiang Landsail Racing Club has brought three rather unique cars to the T1.1 4x4 class this year. Racing as numbers 340, 363, and 373, the team’s three cars are bodied to look like 1970s-era Hongqi CA770 limousines. According to an interview the team did with Dutch TV, the carbon-bodied and Chevrolet LS V8-powered cars have nothing mechanical in common with their politburo-toting döppelgangers, which is probably a good thing for their chances (The original CA770s were based on 1950s Imperials). While this effort doesn’t appear to have any relation to Hongqi, the limousines and parade cars the brand currently builds for Chinese Communist Party leadership look awful similar to the ones jumping dunes this week in Saudi Arabia. And I think that’s pretty neat.
With relatively unknown rookies behind the wheel, the three Hongqis haven’t been receiving much coverage and unfortunately, ASO hasn’t shown us any photos of the cars bashing dunes and kicking up Saudi sand. Still, the cars are performing pretty well with the cars in 2nd, 4th, and 5th place overall among newcomers this year. I’d say that’s a pretty big achievement.
Rounding out this list of old brands making their Dakar debut is Praga. The Czech brand might be doing its best to make a name for itself as a lightweight supercar manufacturer in the vein of Radical and Caparo these days, but its history actually lies in truck manufacturing. Though it is hardly as famous as its tube-framed countrymates at Tatra, Praga’s V3S was an ultra-capable off-road truck built for the Czech army and this year it has a successor racing at Dakar, the V4S. With an Iveco diesel engine making nearly 1000 horsepower, the Praga has what it takes to meet the competition from Russian KAMAZ and Belorussian MAZ, as well as Tatra and the rest of of the Western European makes too.
Behind the wheel of the V4S is Ales Loprais, whose own successes (along with those of his father and uncle) driving for Tatra have made him a formidable force in the truck classes for years. So far, Loprais has been killing it in his new truck, sitting in fourth place overall in his class as of right now.
With Dakar winding down later this week, we will see how things shake out for the mighty Praga, the two Borgwards, and the three Hongqis. Regardless of how they place, I think their participation is a big enough win. We need more brands and history mixed into our motorsport. It’s just more fun that way.