Was the 2014 Dakar Rally the toughest ever?

It's been said the 2014 Dakar Rally was one of the toughest of all time. Let's weigh up the facts.
Paulo Gonçalves - Honda - Dakar 2014 - Stage 5
Paulo Gonçalves quits Dakar in dramatic stage 5 © DPPI / Francois Flamand
By Pablo Bueno

Dakar 2014: The hardest ever?

After the 5th and 6th stages of the Dakar Rally 2014 some voices were raised claiming it was the hardest Dakar ever...True?

By Stage Six some 70 riders had quit the race having faced a marathon stage and two days’ rallying with no technical support. “This time, they’ve gone too far,” they said, claiming that the organisers had made the world’s toughest race too tough.

They may have had a point – as several factors combined to make this one of the toughest contests in the long history of the Dakar.

Dakar retirements graph 1979-2014
Percentage of retirements in the Dakar 1979-2014 © Redbull.com / Source:ASO

Unseasonably hot weather that saw the mercury pushing 50°C didn’t help. The layout of the stages also demanded a lot of the competitors: there were some of the longest stages since the Dakar moved to South America, and heavy rains in the days before the start in Rosario had reshaped the trails.

As the number of withdrawals mounted up – including high profile competitors like Sam Sunderland and Francisco Lopez – concerns about safety grew bigger. But is it the hardest ever?

Withdrawals

"If everybody finished the race, it wouldn't be the Dakar", says David Castera, sporting director of the toughest rally-raid in the world. Withdrawals, he explains, are part of the race.

According to the archives, the record for competitors quitting the race was set at the 2005 Barcelona-Dakar when 473 withdrew. The second highest was Paris-Algeria-Dakar in 1988 when 452 athletes didn't reach the finish line in Lake Rose. But there were more competitors taking part in both those rallies with 688 and 603 in all classes.

Longest recorded distances on the Dakar 1979-2014
Longest recorded distances on the Dakar 1979-2014 © Redbull.com / Source: ASO

More competitors, more withdrawals. But what about the rate at which they retired: does that better indicate how the Dakar challenged competitors? In the 1986 Paris-Algeria-Dakar out of 486 starters, only 100 vehicles reached the race end, a rate of 80% withdrawals.

In 2014, 216 vehicles have given up before finishing, 50% of the starting list and more than any other Dakar in South America, but far from the rate when they raced in Africa.

Stage length

Among all the criticisms, the majority have been directed at the length of the stages. Stage Five, the 911km marathon from Chilecito to Tucumán is the longest since 2006, but not a record. That was set on day two of the very first Paris-Dakar in 1979. The competitors rallied across Algeria from Algiers in the North to Tamanrasset in the South – some 2,370km. No mean feat for 1979.

Carlos Sainz-VW-Touareg-Dakar-2006
Carlos Sainz behind VW Touareg's wheel in 2006 © Pablo Bueno

The second longest stage in the history of the rally was Stage 16 in the 1986 Paris-Algeria-Dakar in which competitors had to drive right 1,656 km from Kiffa in Mauritania to Saint Louis in Senegal.

When you consider the total length of the Dakar, then 1986 takes the record again with a colossal 15,000 km – exactly 1,000km more than the second highest in 1985.

Ever since the Paris-Dakar in 2001, the route has been less than 10,000 km. If we only take timed special stages into account, then the 1990 Paris-Tripoli-Dakar is the leader with 8,564 km followed by the 1987 Paris-Algeria-Dakar with 8,315 km – almost the total length of the last 12 editions of the desert-classic.

The most tragedies

The Dakar is the Marmite of motorsport: you either love it or you hate it. When the Rally went from Europe to Africa, critics said it was no better than a group of rich playboys racing around poor villages and towns without a care for the local inhabitants. The counter argument ran that racers carried out numerous charity activities and the race shone a spotlight on countries that seldom made headlines in the rich West.

Thierry Sabine on the Dakar Rally in 1986
Thierry Sabine was killed during the 1986 edition © DPPI

The Dakar Rally has also been dogged by the threat of terrorism. Four stages were taken out of the Dakar-Cairo Rally in 2000 due to terrorist threats and when in 2008, the Lisbon-Dakar Rally had to be suspended due to threats from jihadist terrorists, the event left Africa behind for a Brave New World in South America.

1986: The hardest ever

To sum up, there’s no doubt that the toughest Dakar Rally of all time was the 1986 Paris-Algeria-Dakar edition. Just finishing the race was down to pure luck more than anything.

From the 486 who took the start in Versailles just 100 reached the end – that’s 21%. Those 100 finishers raced across a total of 15,000km (the longest ever) and 7,731km of timed special stages (the third longest). Of the 18 stages, five were more than 900km, including one at a massive 1,656km.

Dakar 1986 was also the most tragic, with a total of seven deaths, including the Rally's founder Thierry Sabine, who died in a helicopter accident.

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