The Paris-Dakar Rally is known as the world’s toughest off-road race, where competitors weave through wadis and sand dunes. We look at the history of this tough event.

The Paris-Dakar Rally is known as the world’s toughest off-road race, where competitors weave through wadis and sand dunes. The event traditionally produces more than its fair share of spills and thrills.

The rally – “a challenge for those who go, a dream for those who stay behind” – provides contestants with the opportunity to drive through some of the most beautiful and desolate terrain on earth. But for many of its 25 years, the Dakar has been marked by death and accident.

The event was sparked by an incident in 1977, when Thierry Sabine got lost in the Libyan desert whilst participating in the Abidjan-Nice Rally. Found suffering from dehydration and heatstroke, he returned to France fascinated by the desert and vowed to share his passion for this immensity of sand with others. He thought up the idea of a challenge starting in Europe, crossing the most mythical deserts and finishing in Dakar. The project quickly took shape, with the first Paris-Dakar being held in 1978, but Sabine died in a helicopter crash during the eighth rally in 1986.

This year, a record number of 440 competitors set out from Marseille, France, on New Year's Day. The route takes participants through Spain, Tunisia and Libya before they head for the goal in Sharm El Sheikh (Egypt) on January 19. Total route distance is 8 552 kilometres over 19 days, with only one rest day. Between Marseille and Sharm El Sheikh they will cross five borders, including Libya, which features five of the 17 stages in the race.

The starting order each day is motorcycles first, cars second and trucks last. Besides factory-sponsored cars, motorcycles and trucks, many competitors are amateur racers.

Every day, as the rally traverses its 400-500 km-per-day course, 1 500 people follow the racers in the air and on the ground: 150 administrators, 40 cooks, 35 doctors and 300 journalists,

Planning begins months before the actual race. Each year, TSO – named for Thierry Sabine – sends a reconnaissance team into the desert to scout out the route, which shrinks or expands to keep pace with regional geopolitics. From Paris to Dakar, across the Sahara desert, the actual route varies due to political situation in Africa.

In 1988, after riots broke out in Algeria and Mali, TSO won co-operation from Moammar Gaddafi to enter Africa through Libya. But within a few years, that too became a problem, so TSO tried out some ingenious courses – running the race all the way down the Atlantic coast to South Africa one year, in a loop from Dakar to Mali and back. Until 1993, the race was run strictly on former French colonial soil, completely bypassing non-francophone countries, by ferrying the racers from southern France directly to Algeria.

However, it isn't mere geopolitical vagaries that induce TSO to change the map. With the winners racking up consecutive victories in recent years, criticism has forced the organisation to try to blunt the advantages of the factory teams (BMW, Citroen, Yamaha, Toyota, Mitsubishi, etc.) over entrants lacking deep corporate pockets.

Changing the map is one way to level the field; banning all but standard Chevy, Dodge and Ford engines in most of the car and truck classes is another. (Most of the bikes are standard 600cc hogs fitted with 54-litre petrol tanks for the long distances.)

It is difficult to race the Dakar without some form of corporate support, no matter how hot drivers/riders are. Each racer is pushed forward by a vast, moving pit crew of highly trained mechanics equipped with every conceivable spare part that might be needed along the way. Riding in huge Tatra trucks, these support crews are almost as important as the drivers themselves, and in some cases they decide which of a team's many drivers will be allowed to win. Not all the cars, trucks and bikes get the same level of support.

But the drivers and riders have the toughest job, both exciting and infuriating. They are not given information about the next day's route until they've finished with the current stage. And although they are equipped with detailed maps and high-tech GPS devices, every day someone invariably gets deeply lost and can't find the bivouac by nightfall. Racing through the wadis and huge sand dunes may sound glamorous but the glamour wears off pretty quickly for the competitors. Each night's bivouac can be little more than a grimy campsite at the end of a small desert airstrip where the support planes and trucks lie in wait with food, fuel and water. There's precious little sleep for the weary, especially when there's another day of racing ahead.

Says Paul Krause, 33, an American motorcyclist who competed last year on a KTM. "As soon as you get into the bivouac, you've got to feed yourself, and then as soon as you've eaten you start planning the next day's route. Just when you're ready to go to sleep, the crews are working on the bikes and trucks. They make a helluva noise."

The high drop-out rate of this year's race attests to the toll the rally takes on man and machine, and much worse can lie in store. In previous years, a Spanish motorcyclist was helicoptered to Dakar in a coma after a crash; a Belgian team was fired on by Tuareg rebels in Mali (the rebels also kidnapped a Tatra, but later released its occupants); one vehicle was hit by rebels with rocket-propelled grenades; and two racers had to go to a hospital after colliding with a Mauritanian car, whose five occupants died at the scene.

But that's not what the drivers talk about when asked why they take part in the rally. They talk about the sheer pleasure – and challenge – of driving through some of the most beautiful and desolate terrain on earth. Dakar organiser Hubert Auriol, commenting on the route, said this week: "For this 25th anniversary we wanted to innovate and cross the most beautiful deserts.”

Winners and vehicles of previous races:

1979 Genestier/Terbiaut/Lemordant Range Rover

1980 Kottolinsky/Luffleman Volkswagen

1981 Metge/Giroux Range Rover

1982 Marreau/Marreau Renault

1983 Ickx/Brasseur Mercedes

1984 Metge/Lemoine Porsche

1985 Zanirola/Da Silva Mitsubishi

1986 Metge/Lemoine Porsche

1987 Vatanen/Giroux Peugeot

1988 Kankkunen/Piironen Peugeot

1989 Vatanen/Berglund Peugeot

1990 Vatanen/Berglund Peugeot

1991 Vatanen/Berglund Citroen

1992 Auriol/Monnet Mitsubishi Paris-Le Cap

1993 Saby/Serieys Mitsubishi

1994 Lartigue/Perin Citroen Paris-Dakar-Paris

1995 Lartigue/Perin Citroen Granada-Dakar

1996 Lartigue/Perin Citroen Granada-Dakar

1997 Shinozuka/Magne Mitsubishi Dakar-Agades-Dakar

1998 Fontenay/Picard Mitsubishi

1999 Schlesser/Monnet Renault Granada-Dakar

2000 Schlesser/Magne Renault Paris-Dakar-Cairo

2001 Kleinschmidt/Schulz (GER) Mitsubishi

2002 Hiroshi Masuoka/Pascal Maimon (JPN)(FRA) Mitsubishi Arras-Dakar

2003 Rally Calendar

January 22-26: Rally of Monte Carlo

February 5-9: Rally of Sweden

April 9-13: Rally of New Zealand

May 7-11: Rally of Argentina

June 4-8: Rally of Acropolis (Greece)

July 23-27: Rally of Germany

August 6-10: Rally of Finland

September 3-7: Rally of Australia

October 1-5: Rally of San Remo - Rally of Italy

October 15-19: Tour of Corsica

October 22-26: Rally of Catalonia

November 5-9: Rally of Great Britain.

Original article from Car