People often ask which is harder; the Dakar or the Baja 1000? They are such different events that it’s an almost impossible question to answer. You’ve never seen a MINI winning anything in Mexico and, so far at least, there has never been a bright orange Hummer on the top step in South America so although we can’t say which is harder we can point out some of the biggest differences. So here is RDC’s list of 12 reasons why the Dakar is so different to desert racing.
We’ll start with the obvious. Desert races are run over epic distances that can start at dawn and finish in dusk, or even the next day, so long that it’s not actually possible for one driver to do the full distance… But the Dakar does pretty much the equivalent of the length of the Mint 400 every day for 13 days! Not all of the mammoth 9,000km (5,592 mi) route is out and out attack though. The days are split up into timed specials and liaison sections, which are also strictly controlled as you have to check into the camp before a certain time or you are penalized. Receiving any sort of assistance in the liaison sections also means instant disqualification.
2) 4×4 vs RWD
Imagine a soft, delicate snowflake fluttering down and settling on a rock which would normally be roasting in an especially inclement corner of hell. The same chance of that snowflake not instantly turning into steam is statistically equivalent of a MINI winning the Baja 1000. In the early 2000’s, Jean Louis Schlesser did win with a rear wheel drive buggy but that was back when the Dakar actually went to Dakar. (In case you didn’t know, Dakar is the capital city of Senegal) South America has a much more varied terrain, from twisty WRC sections in the plains of Argentina to dunes in the driest place on earth, the Atacama desert. So although Robby Gordon’s Gordini and Peugeot’s stunning new DKR 2008 are amazing pieces of machinery the Dakar is 4×4 country and has been for every one of its South American editions.
On the other hand with the wonderfully open build regulations of the unlimited Trophy Trucks if someone could come up with a design that didn’t restrict suspension travel and made CV joints with a metal stronger than any currently known to man then traction would be significantly improved… and then the MINI’s would really be worried when they saw something orange in the mirror.
Interesting fact. RWD cars have been obsolete in the WRC since 1983 when Audi introduced the Quattro. Back in the desert racing days who remembers the 4×4 conversion kits that Spencer Low used to sell for Datsun pick-ups?
3) Roadbook vs Pre-Running
Here you can spend weeks before the race practicing every twist and turn, every jump and blind crest to the point where a driver can actually learn parts of the course. Dakar is run blind. The night before the next stage the organizers hand out roadbooks which is a series of tulip diagrams with distances between each which the co-driver reads against the Terratrip mounted on the dashboard. It might be a fork left and then 3km later turn right and absolutely no information in between. Out in the desert sometimes all you have is a bearing such as continue at 270 degrees for 2.14km then bear 60 degrees for 7km. The only thing similar to this is nautical navigation. In the Dakar the co-driver works infinitely harder than in desert racing and the best drivers are the ones that have developed an innate feel of how the terrain they are racing on for the first time changes.
Both events might have the same amount of service areas but the Dakar only has one a day at the end of the stage, as working on the car by anyone else other than the driving crew is strictly forbidden. Also, entry into the bivouac (French for wild camp) is controlled to the point of the local military scanning and an RD Chip on your wrist band. Compare this wall between fans and teams to making a bonfire next to Cameron Steele’s Yokohama truck, getting a taco from the caravan next to the Speed Energy trucks or taking a selfie with Rob MacCachren.
You know how TV can’t really convey the sense of speed in series like NASCAR or F1,? Well, it’s the same with size. Unless you’ve seen a 1200bhp, 10 ton HGV clear 3ft of air and made the ground shake under your feet you cannot truly appreciate the spectacle of these behemoths. The Russian KAMAZ Master Team own this super-sized category but you don’t know anything about them because their market is only in Russia. (If you have seen a normal KAMAZ truck on the road that is because you have family in Eastern Europe.) In the Motherland though the drivers are superstars, the pride of the nation and the fan base ranges from vodka-blinded Siberian truck drivers to presidential approval from Putin himself. The team had a regime change a couple of years ago when they retired Chargin and brought in the new guns. This allowed teams like IVECO to be competitive for a brief while. But if you look at the leaderboard this year you will see the names of Nikoleav, Mardeev and Karginov. And these are full-time truck rally drivers. Think about that for a moment!
In desert racing, basically anyone can get in and drive at any point. If needed, you could probably get a Mexican local to swap his poncho for a fire suit and carry on without the organizers being too bothered. If anyone with a name different from the two written on the doors so much as sits inside a Dakar vehicle, some French guy with ‘Official’ embroidered on his crisp white shirt will calmly strike your name from the time sheets. But it’s actually even stricter than that! If a spectator so much as lays a hand on your car you will get a penalty… and it might even mean disqualification. So if you slide into a ditch in Argentina don’t smile in relief at the crowd of eager fans coming to help!
7) Sentinel Device vs Metal Bumpers
Dakar is a non-contact sport. Remember the furore over Stephane Peterhansel upsetting a bike rider with his wing mirror in the river crossing a few years ago? To get a slower car to move out of your way you press a button called the Sentinel which activates a siren in the car ahead indicating that they need to find a convenient place to pull over. Very civilized and there are penalties for ignoring it too. What about desert racing? The cars have metal bars welded to the front for the specific purpose of bumping rivals out of the way! Or cacti, if your name is Shelden Creed!
8) Street Legal vs Race Course Only
Every vehicle in the Dakar has to be registered as street legal in its country of origin, which is why there is a profusion of wheel arches, mud flaps and reasonable sounding exhausts. If you drove a Trophy Truck on a road in Europe you would be arrested… although looking at BJ Baldwin’s new video you would have a fair chance of escaping the pursuit.
9) Windscreen vs Open
In desert racing with daft powerful RWD trucks throwing rocks like a Sharia mob around a half-buried adulteress, it’s not really worth having a windscreen so filtered helmets were invented. With mud flaps, 4×4 and smaller tires, the Dakar competitors can get away with having screens which allows for the extravagance of in-cabin A/C and open face helmets.
If you live in the western states maybe you were lucky enough to be able to listen to a pirated stream of the Weatherman but there is little to no international coverage for the Baja 1000. Legends pass over the ocean but they are no more than dusty whispers caught on the trade wind breeze. This is a real shame because we all know how awesome Trophy Trucks are. The Dakar, in stark contrast, is a global media powerhouse. 4.6 million spectators come out to line the stages and the event is broadcast in 190 countries, many on the same day. That’s not quite every country in the world… but it’s every country with TVs! Overall the race is seen by an absolutely staggering 1 billion people! That means 14% of all the people in the world will be watching a presumably pissed off Robby Gordon chasing a MINI across the desert.
11) Entry Fee for Press Vehicles
You need to concentrate on this because it involves math. Each press pass costs a whopping 3,200 euros. ($3,970 USD) No, those zeros are not mistakes! And this doesn’t get you two weeks in 5 star hotels with open bars filled with long-legged local girls. The Gumball 300 this is not. All it includes is entry to the bivouac, breakfast and dinner and if you are not too late in and a cold shower. Oh, and the privilege of paying 2,000 euros ($2,480 USD) for 2GB of data of the organizers internet. And that’s 2GB over the two weeks… But there’s more. Each press and support vehicle has to pass tech inspection! Also, each and every vehicle in the whole entourage (apart from the 18 wheel rigs) has to be a 4×4. Every single vehicle.
12) International Competitors
The Baja 1000 podium might have looked resplendent with the random assemblage of Irish, Finnish and Korean flags but apart from Armin Schwarz and an Australian crew there’s not much international about desert racing. For the Dakar most crews ship their competition and service trucks half way around the globe to the start in Buenos Aires. The organizers rent a whole container ship that leaves Le Harve in northern France at the end of November and brings back some containers of broken bits in February. Think driving back up Route 1 is a chore? Imagine the cost and logistics for this?