This time of year makes most people are thinking of new year resolutions or hiding from the cold, but for me January means the Dakar Rally. Right now most gearheads are working on winter projects or preparing their machines for next year’s racing season, but in Lima, Peru, hundreds of trucks, bikes, quads, buggies, and cars are out of their shipping containers and being prepped for the most fantastic motorsports event in the world.
Officially beginning on January 6, 2018 and carrying on for 10,000km until January 20th, Dakar is marking its 40th anniversary and the 10th year the rally has taken place in South America. The event is so massive and sprawling that it’s a feat in itself to simply follow the action, so let me provide a cheat sheet for the uninitiated.

p1Photo: Dakar/ASO
What Is Dakar?

The event is best known for extremes. Originally a race from Paris, France to Dakar, Senegal, (Africa) this year’s event spans Peru, Argentina, and Bolivia. The rally moved to South America when security concerns caused the cancellation of the 2008 event. Competitors still battle varied terrains and weather, encountering the cold rains (and possibly snow) of higher altitudes, the vast expanses of shifting sand dunes, desert heat, mountain roads, and sometimes flooded river crossings (find the official route details  here and a video overview here).
In fact, last year’s event had rain so bad that two stages had to be cancelled so that emergency crews and military units involved in the race could aid local rescue efforts. Dakar officials even sent their own helicopters as well. Streams turned into churning rivers that swallowed vehicles.
The event is so grueling that top teams field at least four official entries, then provide bikes and support to as many as a dozen other riders. Their job is to race their own race, but should one of the official factory riders suffer a mechanical failure, they must stop and give parts off their bike to keep the remaining factory riders in the hunt. If the gravity of this event is still escaping you, the official teaser for the 2018 event might give a perspective that words can’t.

The 2018 rally is broken into 14 daily stages, with one rest day on Friday, January 12. Stages are broken into “special” and “liaison” stages. A special stage means competitors are racing for time, moving from waypoint to waypoint. Liaison stages are simply when teams are moving to or from the special stage. This means that road laws are followed on liaison and machines are still in competition, but not for time. So, things like breaking down and failing to make the start line of a special, or not making it to the bivouac at the end of the day, or replacing major components on a liaison will all incur penalties.
Back at the bivouac each night the machines are worked on by crews while riders prepare their roadbooks for the next day. There will be one Marathon stage, however, where no work can be done overnight. This may seem tough, but the Malle Moto class (called “Original by Motul” this year) features riders performing the entire event unassisted, using only what tools and spares they have in a small container that is shipped from stage to stage by truck. Riders do all mechanical work and route planning and navigating, while still finding time to eat, sleep, and update their followers and sponsors. Last year’s Malle Moto winner was Estonian Toomas Triisa, who finished 30th overall. More on this category later.

p2Malle Moto riders must perform all work themselves, using only what equipment they can fit in a single container. Here, rider Oliver Pain poses next to his race box. Photo: Dakar/ASO.
Who to Watch

Let’s talk about the story so far before we get into the who’s who. The bikes category has been an all-KTM affair for over a decade now, but Honda has gotten extremely serious about dethroning the Austrian juggernaut. But last year’s event was a debacle for the Japanese manufacturer, with Honda riders looking strong until a catastrophic error by team management landed their top riders with a one-hour penalty for refueling in an illegal area.

11KTM’s Sam Sunderland is last year’s winner. Photo: Dakar/ASO.

Specific refueling areas are designated for environmental and safety reasons, but it didn’t appear Honda was trying to pull a fast one; they refueled in a small town, in full view of dozens of passing competitors. Still, such an infraction could have disqualified a rider from the entire event, and some felt the penalty was too lenient.
In the end KTM swept the podium yet again, with Sam Sunderland taking the win by 32 minutes over Mattias Walker. 3rd place went to Gerard Farres, also on a KTM. It must be noted though that 5th place Honda rider Joan Barreda Bort was only 43 minutes adrift from Sunderland, including his one-hour penalty. Also of note is Red Bull KTM Factory rider Toby Price, who wowed everyone with his performance by winning in 2016 (his second Dakar) and leading many stages in 2017 before spectacularly shattering his femur, leaving him out of the race and with one of the most horrifying x-rays I have ever seen. He is back for 2018 and has not forgotten how to go fast. For a few more important names, see the “Also of Note” section below.
What to Watch
In a nutshell, 2018 will be an attempt at redemption for all of Honda as well as KTM’s Toby Price, with the biggest obstacle likely to not be terrain or weather, but navigation. Huge amounts of time were lost and gained by savvy navigating in the more difficult stages last year. Riders find their way using an old-fashioned road book, a series of pace notes on a roll-chart that, combined with odometer and stopwatches, tells them what obstacles to expect ahead.

p4Navigating by roadbook is a skill that must be mastered if you want to stay on course in the Dakar. Riders prepare their roadbooks with colored markers each night. Photo: Dakar/ASO.

If a rider misses an important note they can become hopelessly lost, or worse yet find themselves heading into a ravine at 90mph. Speed limits must also be followed in certain areas, and fortunately the Iritrack onboard sat-nav system gives riders an audible warning for these types of dangers. It also sends their location to race control. Leaving the course or missing a checkpoint will incur penalties. If a rider stops for too long, the Iritrack can send an emergency signal to race control so a search can begin. While this is good insurance, other racers are often the first ones to arrive at a crash scene and must render what aid they can, hoping race officials will give them back the time they spent stopped (which is normally the case).

Also of Note

Now, even though we’ve talked about last year’s top finishers, it’s fair to say that at least a dozen riders on the official entry list of 138 have a shot at winning. Instead of flooding you with names, here are some of the better stories to follow:
Pablo Quintanilla is a native Chilean and therefore a fan favorite. He is also one of the fastest Husqvarna mounted riders in the field this year. Adrien Metge has broken into the top-ten before and might upset things on his Sherco. Laia Sanz is the fastest female of note, having broken into the top 15 finishers previously. This will be her 8th Dakar, having competed both as a supported independent rider and a factory rider several times. Riding again on a factory KTM, she earns her spot by being fast, and not by being fast for a woman. Much respect.

p5KTM’s Laia Sanz will make her 8th Dakar appearance this year. Photo: Dakar/ASO.

If you’re feeling national pride during this international event, California native Ricky Brabec will be back on a factory Honda for you to cheer on. He already has a 9th place finish (2016) and a stage win to his credit, along with wins in Baja. For a young rider he seems to be extremely smart in going just fast enough; consistency is key.

p6American ace Ricky Brabec is back on a Factory Honda for Dakar 2018.

In the Malle Moto class (called “Original by Motul” this year), we will again see fan-favorite Lyndon Poskitt attempt the class win. Finishing 39th overall last year and 2nd in Malle Moto, his participation in the Dakar Heroes videos made him instantly endearing to both local fans and those watching the world over. If he can top his instructional video on how to take a poo while racing, he will be enshrined in Dakar history for eternity.

p7Lyndon Poskitt will take on Dakar in the Malle Moto class again this year, racing unassisted while trying to film it all from the inside. Photo: Lyndon Poskitt Racing.

Lyndon has already released a documentary of his 2017 race that is perfect for whetting your Dakar appetite and showing just what it takes to race unassisted for two weeks. Lyndon has actually been on the road for years now with his project Races 2  Places, where he has ridden on 5 continents, meeting his container of race parts and converting his bike right before the start of rallies. There are already seven seasons of R2P for your binge-watching pleasure.
The Dakar is not just about riders though. Indian manufacturer Hero will return for the second time with their 450 Rallye and a two-rider team. In a strategic partnership with Speedbrain (who managed both Honda and Husqvarna’s factory teams at one point), Hero assured itself a strong beginning with a best result of 10th in their first attempt.

p8Hero is back for 2018./ Photo: Hero Motorsports

Sadly, Chinese manufacturer Zongshen will not be back in 2018. Taking the courageous step of developing their own 450cc machine, the inexperienced team suffered electrical failures and a lost rider in the first two stages. After that, the team put their effort behind privateer Thierry Bethys of France, but a fire from a damaged fuel fitting in stage 4 ended his Dakar in dramatic fashion. Since these failures were all due to outsourced parts and not the engine of frame itself, it was hoped they would be back to try and improve their luck. Perhaps 2019?

How to Watch

Following the action here in America is a feat in itself. While NBCSports is the official US partner covering the event, only certain cable providers have the proper version. Worse yet, the broadcast is delayed. For most people, your best bet is to look for live feeds and daily updates on Red Bull TV. Although they focus on Red Bull sponsored teams, that includes practically everyone of note. The main drawback is their focus is mainly on the car class, but there will still be plenty of information, video, and stills of the bikes.

p9Keeping up with Dakar action is never easy. Photo: Dakar/ASO.

Each night, the Dakar Rally’s official Youtube Channel will have a 3-4-minute recap of the day’s stage. Last year they also did a segment called “Dakar Heroes,” which took GoPro footage from privateer racers and gave you a very personal account of what it’s like to take on the toughest race in the world.
Alternately, truly dedicated fans can attempt to find live foreign-language broadcasts on a number of networks in Europe and South America; just look for the list of official broadcasters at the top of the official Dakar page.
And, for the bravest souls, the ultimate way to follow Dakar is by following the “Dakar f5irehose thread” on advrider.com. This forum earned the name because pressing F5 on a Windows computer will refresh the screen. People are posting tidbits of information so fast that a veritable firehose of updates, banter, and live feed alerts pop up all day at unparalleled rates.

This is the place to look for alerts that some unknown television station in Bolivia is live-streaming the race in Spanish and where to watch. Updates come in from mechanics and personnel at the event. The Honda/KTM banter will reach fever pitch. In fact, the thread is so massive that a separate thread is created for sharing pictures and video, as people’s computers bog down trying to reload so many images constantly. The only other place to be so immersed in the Dakar rally is at the rally itself.
There is also a resources thread on advrider.com. It looks complicated at first, but each post in the thread has specific information, such as links to local and international TV feeds, how to use the trackingdakar.nl website for live timing (the official timing on the Dakar website is spotty), and even the meaning of all the symbols on a riders’ roadbook. Now you see why advrider calls their coverage a firehose.

As Americans, we have access to amazing landscapes and boundless opportunity, but when it comes to motorsports we basically have NASCAR, Supercross, and the Indy 500. The Dakar is difficult to follow, but because of the absolute audacity of an event this big, it’s worth it. Just think, I’ve only given you a basic rundown of the names and happenings in the bikes class; there are still quads, side-by-sides, and both the cars and truck classes. There is simply nothing bigger in the world of motorsports than Dakar.

GLOSSARY OF TERMS:

ASO: Amaury Sport Organization; the organizers of the rally.
Bivouac: The pits and garages where teams, officials, media, and racers stay overnight. The Bivouac moves with the event and hundreds of vehicles must be loaded and unloaded so the new bivouac can be set up before racers arrive.
CP: checkpoint. Waypoints that teams must pass through.
Fesh Fesh: sand so fine it has a consistency similar to baby powder. There is no way to tell its depth when you hit it and it also plays havoc on air filters and rider vision.
GC: General classification; the overall standings for the rally so far.
Liaison Stage (LS): competitors are not being timed but must follow a liaison route to and from the special stage. There is a maximum time allowed on an LS, with penalties added if they are exceeded. However, the stages are not particularly demanding compared to the Special Stages.
Loop Stage: a stage that begins and ends at the same bivouac, regardless of the distance.
Marathon Stage: two days of racing where support vehicles and crews cannot work on the machines. Competitors can work on their machines or help each other out, but no outside assistance is allowed. There can sometimes be what is called a Super Marathon Stage, where race bikes are impounded overnight and no one can perform work on them.
Neutral Zone: if there is more than one Special Stage, the Liaison Stage(s) in between are called neutral or neutralization zones.
Piste/off-Piste: the French word for “track.” Going off-piste means leaving the road, including unpaved roads.
Special Stage (SS): the actual timed portion of each day’s route. This is where competitors are truly racing for time.
Wadi: Arabic for a dry riverbed. Left over from when the Dakar Rally was held in Africa