On January 15, the legendary Dakar Rally wrapped up two full weeks of off-road endurance racing in Saudi Arabia. It’s a contest that draws inspiration from the historic Paris-Dakar event that traversed through Europe and the remotest reaches of Africa. This year’s approximately 5,000-mile route snaked through much of the Arab nation, from the beaches flanking the Red Sea up through the mountainous northern region before turning south to pass through the capitol city of Riyadh. Then came a grueling few days in the Empty Quarter before finishing on the Persian Gulf at Dammam.
The 14-stage event drew an amazing assemblage of global competitors intent on recapturing the spirit of one of motorsport’s most notorious challenges. The field comprised an array of prototype race cars, motorcycles, nimble side-by-sides and massive T5 trucks.
The new Red Bull Can-Am Factory Team arrived ready to fight for wins in both individual stages and the overall classification with five Can-Am Maverick X3 side-by-sides entered in the T3 and T4 classes. South Racing manages the drivers and race cars of the new partnership, fielding an extensive crew of mechanics and engineers to keep the Mavericks running well enough to compete against other teams, but also to survive the constant abuse from the rugged terrain, as well as the added complexities brought on by the treacherous weather this year that caused flash flooding, dampened sand into heavy mud and forced the Dakar organization to re-route three days of competition.
The originally planned course looked hard enough at the outset, but adjusting to the weather conditions resulted in the hardest rally most could remember. Nonetheless, the Red Bull Can-Am Factory Team logged an overall win in the T3 class for modified side-by-sides as Austin Jones and co-driver Gustavo Gugelmin claimed a lead from Guillaume de Mevius on Stage 11 and held a steady pace for the rest of the way. This prevented teammate Seth Quintero from being able to close a gap that hovered around an hour. Quintero and his co-driver Dennis Zenz ended up claiming second overall, along with two stage wins, despite tearing off crucial suspension components and running out of fuel on Stage 4. And Guillaume de Mevius managed to scrape in for third, even after struggling with mechanical issues for much of the final few stages.
Meanwhile, in the stock side-by-sides, current T4 Rally Raid World Champion Rokas Baciuška entered the final day of Stage 14 with a lead of less than four minutes over fellow South Racing entrant Eryk Goczal. Both drivers elected to leave spares behind to shed weight in full attack mode. But Baciuška’s propshaft failed between the last checkpoint of the rally and the finish line, breaking the hearts of a flock of enthusiastic Lithuanian fans and allowing the 18-year-old Goczal to set a new record as the youngest class winner in Dakar history. Every member of the new team logged at least one stage win, while the team totaled 13 podium finishes on the way to Can-Am’s unprecedented sixth straight class victory at the rally.
The highly anticipated showdown in T1 was also notable in that Audi’s futuristic RS Q e-tron E2 suffered a series of disasters throughout the race that saw Dakar legend Stephan Peterhansel knocked unconscious and Carlos Sainz Sr require a medivac via helicopter. This left only Mattias Ekstrom to finish for Team Audi Sport. But Audi’s nightmare opened the door for an epic clash between Sébastien Loeb, in a Prodrive Hunter prepped by Bahrain Raid Xtreme, and reigning champion Nasser Al-Attiyah in a Toyota Hilux. After a minor rollover on Stage 5 that caused surprisingly little damage to the Prodrive, Loeb spent the rest of the race trying to make up time lost to the steady Al-Attiyah. Though his efforts fell just short in the overall rankings, Loeb garnered six stage wins in a row, which proved the Prodrive platform’s eminent capabilities in the desert.
But no class provided more drama than the motorcycles, as Red Bull KTM Factory Racing’s rider Toby Price of Australia entered the final stage with a lead of only 12 seconds over teammate Kevin Benavides of Argentina. Benavides finished the race one position ahead of Price on the road, looking over his shoulder in anticipation as the moments ticked by. Price, though, gave up 43 more seconds to hand Benavides the overall win.
Other than the rollercoaster ride of emotions that such a demanding race produces over the course of a fortnight in the desert, the sheer spectacle of Dakar’s traveling circus brought out local fans to witness dirt bikes mingling with vintage SUVs and turbodiesel cab-over semi-trucks. At the celebratory podium erected below the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Dammam, members of Saudi royalty gathered to present completion medals and trophies to Dakar winners, while also plugging a sustainable future vision for a race with an unmistakably heavy environmental footprint.
Audi’s advanced hybrid RS Q e-tron E2 demonstrated one potential path forward for more environmentally friendly off-road motorsport, with a DTM-sourced turbocharged inline-four engine charging a 52 kwh battery that powers two electric motors in classic Quattro fashion. But South Racing also took an opportunity, on the rest day after Stage 8, to unveil a new concept design for a next-gen side-by-side potentially powered by either a hybrid or fully electric power train. Matt Tandrup, who penned the concept, presented the new design to competitors, FIA President Mohammed bin Sulayem and members of the press assembled in Riyadh.
“When you see the concept, it’s very far out there,” Tandrup said. “I think when we get to the finalized product, it’ll probably be something quite different. But for us, it was that semantic that we wanted to convey of technology, and it lives through the aesthetic. It’s a very unique vehicle, it’s a purpose-built vehicle for off-road . . . I think that old philosophy of NASCAR, where it was ‘win on Sunday and sell on Monday,’ I think that’s still there.”
Scott Abraham, South Racing’s team principal, believes that motorsport can also contribute to a sense of social responsibility and that off-road racing in particular can help to change hearts and minds given the setting of such stunning natural environments.
“The future vision goes beyond the race cars,” Abraham said. “Obviously, in the OEM car world, there’s been huge investment in electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles. However, in the side-by-sides, because it’s been primarily a recreational product, it’s not a core focus. And we’re saying, ‘Well, let’s start looking, let’s start understanding, let’s start changing the way we think.’”
Though the South Racing Vision Concept will likely change drastically as more concrete details begin to dictate form and function, the focus on sustainability at races like Dakar will continue. This year, Prodrive already filled the Hunter T1 cars with an innovative EcoPower fuel that reduces carbon emissions by as much as 80 percent. And the FIA and Dakar have already announced plans to power the massive bivouac that plays home to thousands of racers, crew members and media with renewable energy sources in coming years.
The picturesque desert dunes might produce the most breathtaking imagery, but the traveling bivouac is something Dakar devotees need to see to believe. To that end, South Racing also announced its luxury vision for tour experiences in a program called 34 Degrees South, which will provide fans an exclusive glimpse into the realities of rally racing across the globe, not just in Saudi Arabia.
“34 Degrees is my fun project,” Abraham admitted. “I love to share, I love good food . . . so you drive along the coast in Chile, go to the local fishermen, drive into the dunes with your ceviche, get prepared for lunch and then you’re gonna glamp overnight at one of those RVs with astronomers telling you about the stars. Taking the future vision message into that, you can also drive sustainability, you can drive those messages and actually have actionable experiences.”
For now, Dakar remains one of the motorsport calendar’s most exciting events, though one that can be almost impossible to follow closely without actually committing to spending weeks in Saudi Arabia. But every hard-fought stage, every narrow victory and every heartbreak only continues to build upon the legend of the original Paris-to-Dakar rallies, even as the technology of racing through the desert marches steadily into the future.
Click here for more photos from the 2023 Dakar Rally.