From Jeddah to Riyadh and everywhere in between, this has been a visually spectacular year at the Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia. Fourteen days of dunes, fast straight tracks, rocky sections, and cliff backdrops. Titles have been contested and first-time entrants have been broken in. All of the contestants were hoping for glory in the vast desert landscape where mistakes are rarely forgiven, but few claimed it.
The dust settles on the world’s toughest rallying event and a variety of stories emerge from the Saudi desert. Nani Roma, the seasoned veteran who has won the Dakar on both a motorbike and in a car, showed us how far biofuels have come in recent years.
Mashael Alobaidan, on the other end of the spectrum in terms of experience, competed in her first Dakar. The challenge for her though – simply getting to the race in the first place, after facing numerous rejections and setbacks as a female driver. Ricky Brabec, the first American to win the Dakar on a motorbike in 2020, had hoped to claim back his title for team Monster Energy Honda. But as ever with the Dakar, things do not always go to plan.
As Nani Roma ploughs through the dunes outside of Riyadh in Stage 7, clouding the windscreen of his Prodrive Hunter T1, and blinding press photographers who have been flown in to cover this year’s event despite challenging Covid protocols, his mind is likely far from Dorset where the Hunter T1 was initially tested. The tank training ground in Bovington was thought to offer terrain comparable to that of Saudi Arabia, or at least as close as England could offer.
Nothing can truly prepare a driver or their vehicle for the Dakar Rally. Even after competing in the race for 26 years Roma is on uncertain terrain in the Saudi desert. “After all of this experience we know more about the race, but it still surprises us. It’s the desert and we can’t control anything”.
His first shot at the win was back in 1996 on the Granada to Dakar route, which passed through Morocco, Mauritania, Mali, and Guinea for a total of 6,179 km worth of stages. Roma was 23 in the Dakar’s heyday when “the rally went through Africa and across vast countries”.
Since then, a lot has changed. After concerns over safety and security in North Africa the rally was forced to move location back in 2008. At the last minute the event had to be cancelled for the first time in its 30-year history due to terrorist threats. The participating countries took a financial hit which Bernard Laporte, then the French sports minister, described as “disastrous”, but that year no one was hurt.
The title of the Dakar Rally has become somewhat of a misnomer in recent years, held in Saudi Arabia since 2020, a whole continent away from the former finishing line. The 8,375km route is varied, ranging from dunes to rocky sections across 12 gruelling stages, though not unlike the terrain back in Africa. Despite the new location, safety is still an issue. An explosion in Jeddah on 30 December left the French rally driver Philippe Boutron in a medically induced coma. French anti-terrorism investigators are looking into the cause of the explosion, and at one point considered calling off the race entirely.
Roma is amiable and calm before the 12 stages, he gives his interview like a seasoned professional, and is generous with his answers. As one of only three competitors in the history of the Dakar to have won in a car and on a motorbike, Roma is well placed to comment on the potential pitfalls of the rally.
His advice goes as follows: accept that in the desert everything is out of your control – “this is the magic of the sport”. Never has this been truer than during a global pandemic. The team had to accept the cards they were dealt last year when Roma’s co-driver tested positive for Covid-19 days before the team was due to set off for the start. They were forced to find a replacement at very short notice, only adding to the many uncertainties they would encounter during the Dakar Rally.
On the other end of the spectrum in terms of experience is Mashael Alobaidan, who is competing in the Dakar Rally for the first time. She is also the first Saudi woman to compete outside of the Middle East in rallying, and has faced a difficult route to participate in the sport. “I got the first licence for women rallying in Saudi Arabia”. This was only after providing several certificates and facing recalcitrant and bemused bureaucrats who told her there weren’t lessons for women who wanted to train as rally drivers.
Sponsorships were difficult to obtain, too. After learning to ride dirt bikes in California when she was studying for her master’s degree, she got turned on to rally driving. To compete in the 2021 Baja Spain Aragón, an event referred to as the mini-Dakar, she had to go all-in with her own funds and risk everything on one race. She was investing in herself and her future, but potentially, at great cost. Friends thought she was mad for not choosing an easier race, one which she might have won. Alobaidan was determined to compete against the best drivers in the world, and put in a solid effort on race day.
Her goal for the 2022 Dakar was simply to finish the race, an aim that is not as humble as it sounds, considering the number of injuries and breakdowns that have occurred over the rally’s chequered history. Touted as the future of the sport, and paving the way for women, being politicised like this is as tiring as facing the many refusals on her route to race day.
Her participation in Saudi Arabia has political implications and is a positive step towards gender equality in the sport, but perhaps it would be better to focus on her driving than on the buzz that surrounds it. After placing 19th on Stage 8 for the South Racing Middle East team she is certainly on target to achieve her goals.
A red figure tears down the long rocky flats outside Wadi ad-Dawasir, backdropped by sharp cliffs and dramatic landscapes. This is Ricky Brabec as he dashes to the finishing line of Stage 9 on his motorbike, throwing up dust and debris, hoping to reclaim his title as the first American to win the Dakar Rally back in 2020.
But this is an entirely different experience for Brabec. Unlike Roma in the Hunter T1 and Alobaidan, who is competing in an SSV, or side-by-side vehicle, Brabec is on a Honda CRF 450 Rally motorbike. He’s out there alone as he risks getting lost in this vast desert landscape. Experience is on his side, though. “It takes a couple of years to get used to the race and to really figure it out”, says Brabec. “Now we are in that era of finally knowing what it takes to win the race”.
This year, for the first time, the Dakar Rally will launch the season as the first part of the FIM Cross-Country Rally World Championship. In essence, it becomes a part of a larger schedule of events, rather than a standalone event.
“I’d like the Dakar to remain as its own race”, says Brabec. “If it’s part of the World Championship, it’s just another race in the calendar”. Like many, he laments the race losing its original ethos, the sense of adventure and exploration that came with navigating through different countries. Today the event is pitched as more of a competition than a roving cross-country challenge.
The bivouacs which follow the stages are sophisticated affairs that keep the drivers rested and fed, the machines well oiled, and the media satisfied with content. It’s a far cry from the 1980s when Mark Thatcher, son of Margaret, the British prime minister at the time, went missing in the Sahara for six days.
On the rest day halfway through the event everyone tries to relax but the reality for most of the competitors is interviews with media, tense conversations with mechanics, and a general atmosphere of unease in the bivouacs. “This year the rest day wasn’t even going to be a day of rest. It was going to be a 700km transfer day but that got changed at the last minute thankfully,” says Brabec.
The bivouacs are filled with the sound of frantic conversations about strategy and the performances the riders have given so far. “It’s running around trying to do laundry and getting up early. No fancy food. Just a day off of the bike. But I’d rather just stay on the bike and keep going”.
This year marks a turning point in the rally when green biofuels and electric vehicles are at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Brabec is cautious, though supportive. “I don’t know how well that’s going to work as far as being able to go the same distance through the sand in an electric vehicle,” he tells me.
“It’s a good idea, but I’m still strong with burning gas,” he adds. Clearly there is a lot of work to be done to get everyone on board with the idea. But this year it feels as though the general atmosphere around green vehicles is changing.
Nowhere is this more evident than with Audi, who 15 months ago decided they would compete in this most challenging of rallies with an electric car, the Audi RS Q e-tron. The pandemic slowed their progress and initially their intention was simply to finish the race in an electric car, to prove it could be done.
But after Carlos Sainz, the 59-year-old Spanish rally driver picked up a win on the shortened 255km Stage 3, Audi have set their sights much higher. The three-time Dakar champion is at the wheel of a technological oddity, using a range extender, an idea from a decade ago, to get the electric car across the large distances of each of the stages. The Audi runs on batteries with a petrol engine too, which keeps them charged. It certainly sounds unlike the other vehicles which snarl through the sand.
Nani Roma drives the Prodrive Hunter T1 which is powered by a second-generation biofuel made from agricultural waste. Second-generation biofuels, or advanced biofuels, are generally not made from food crops, unless they have already fulfilled their food purpose. Waste vegetable oil is an example of such a fuel.
Roma’s fuel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 80% compared to petrol, with no difference in performance. The wider implications of this are rather exciting. After testing the fuel in Wales, the manufacturer has claimed that it will be able to replace unleaded gasoline in everyday vehicles. It would be great to see technology pioneered at this year’s Dakar Rally migrating into our everyday lives. By Stage 9 the three Prodrive Hunter vehicles had saved a total of 20 tonnes of CO2 emissions by using biofuel.
All of the technology in the world is no substitute for experience and skill. “The last part of the Dakar Rally is the hardest, either when you are in front, or when you are behind,” says Roma. “When you are leading you hope for short stages, and when you are behind you want longer stretches to try to recover the time you have lost”. Knowing how to drive in such circumstances only comes from experience and intuition. Whether you are eating someone else’s dust on a fast straight track or alone out in front, nothing is set in stone until the finishing line.