A guide to the Dakar Rally 2023
The Dakar Rally gets underway in a few days’ time, marking the start of the 2023 motorsport season, although the first part of the event is on New Year’s Eve.
It is an off-road endurance event that is taking place between the 31st of December and the 15th of January in Saudi Arabia and will be competed on 14 stages taking place across the Kingdom, with a rest day between 8 and 9 on January 9th.
The first event of the rally will be the prologue, a short 11km stage to decide the starting order for the opening stage when the competitors leave the Sea Camp and stay within the area due to the short nature of the special event.
In reverse order, the top ten car drivers and top fifteen bikers will get to pick their starting positions for the next stage.
Stage 1 is another race from the sea camp back to the sea camp, but instead of over 11km, it will be over 603km with 368 of that being the special part of the stage.
This opening day will play into the hands of the well-rounded competitors with sandy tracks coming after stony sections with loads of gravel.
For rookies, the final part of the stage will push them to their limits as their dune-surfing abilities will be tested, but in comparison to other stages, this one isn’t particularly challenging.
Stage 2 sees the competitors leaving the Sea Camp and heading to Alula, which so far hasn’t failed to deliver something out of the ordinary. The majority of this course is made up of closed tracks so the handling skills of the competitors will be tested, with those who do well will be heavily rewarded.
The route is 590km long and the special stage is 431km long.
Stage 3 sees the competitors travel from Alula to Hail on a route that David Castera has described as “perhaps the most beautiful fifty kilometres in the rally”.
This stage is 669km long, with the special stage being 447km long.
This event has the potential to shake up the standings in every category, as the drivers and riders battle against sightseeing in order to keep their time strong.
It’s a round trip for round four as it’s a trip from Ha’il to Ha’il in a stage lasting 573km, with a special stage of 425km.
This is a tricky course as competitors face a mountain of sand in the first 100km of the special stage. Tricky navigation on the sandy tracks will lead the competitors back to Ha’il and will require laser-like focus will be needed all around.
646km with a special stage of 375km await the competitors that make it to stage 5 as they make complete a second loop around Ha’il.
Competitors can both gain and lose a lot of time at this stage as their dune-juping proficiency is tested to its limits in this slalom-type section.
The experienced competitors will be hoping their knowledge will help them master the soft sand without giving away too much time.
Stage 6 sees the competitors leave Ha’il and head towards Al Duawdimi in a stage that will last 877km, with the special stage lasting 466km.
They will travel from coast to coast in the longest stage of the event, with competitors reaching triple digits of speed on the fast tracks in the first half of the course.
But the dunes will soon put an end to the fast speeds as the competitors clock nearly 2500 special kilometres so far.
It’s a round trip in Al Duawdimi for stage 7 which will contain a special course of 473km included in the 641km journey.
The varied terrain of pebbles and dunes creates a gruelling course allowing a strong opportunity for the experience competitors to gain some serious time ahead of their competition.
Competitors who have raced in the previous three editions of this race in Saudi Arabia will be familiar with Riyad, their arrival point after their 722km journey of which 407km is a special stage.
The first must face the valleys in the heart of the mountains before tackling the wide-open desert and will finish their first week with the final two hundred kilometres on fast tracks before the competitors have a well-deserved break.
Stage 9 will see the competitors travel from Riyadh to Haradh, over 710km of a stage, including 439km of a special. They are going to need to be straight back in focus to overcome the wadis and canyons in the opening parts of the stage.
They will have to be on top of their handlings and navigation skills to avoid going off in the specials, with a chain of dunes marking the completion of the stage.
As the race enters the bowels of the empty quarter, a special stage of only 114km takes place here. Most of the day will be a long liaison as they head from Haradh to Shaybah a total of 623km.
Stage 11 sees the competitors travel from Shaybah to the Empty Quarter Marathon, with the stage being competed over 426km, 275km of which is special.
It is described as a love letter to rally raids as the competitors will clock up 4000km of special stages moments after starting the stage, taking this race into extreme endurance territory. This stage can easily break some vehicles and with no assistance from trucks or mechanics, keeping their vehicle in one piece will be incredibly important.
Stage 12 is another short one, only 375km in length, 185 of which is special as the competitors travel from the Empty quarter marathon back to Shaybah.
This stage will test the focus and tactical abilities of the competitors, who will have to balance the fine line between pushing their vehicles too hard and not losing too much time to their rivals.
A dune fest second half of the marathon stage awaits the competitors as the leaderboard really starts shaping up.
Stage 13 sees the competitors race from Shaybah to Al-Hofuf. This stage will give them a final opportunity to surf the chains of dunes, while also giving podium hopefuls the final real chance to move up a few places on the leaderboard.
The reliability of the vehicles will be tested and this could make a huge difference as the event heads towards its conclusion after this 669km trip, with 154km of a special stage.
A trip from Al-Hofuf to Dammam will bring the 2023 Dakar Rally to a conclusion. 414km with a 136km special stage will give the competitors a final opportunity to learn the final places on the unusually fast beach.
It’s all about finishing here as a seafront podium awaits those who have earned it.
But who is taking part in this year’s Dakar Rally, well there are 634 drivers, co-drivers and riders entering the race, with a further 188 drivers entering the classic.
Of the Dakar Rally entrants, there are 150 rookies made up of 86 riders, drivers and co-drivers and 131 legends made up of 73 riders, drivers and co-drivers.
Entries come from 68 nationalities including the support crews, with 54 women in the race with 20 in the classic. And in this year’s event, there are five female-only crews.
125 motorbikes, 19 quads, 72 cars and 56 joins join 47 T3 and 46 T4 vehicles in a field of 455, which also includes 76 classic cars and 13 classic trucks.
194 of the competitors come from France, more than any other, with Spain the only other county in triple figures with 119. The Netherlands follow in third with 90.
As we can’t possibly go through every single entry, here are a few key names in each starting with the motorbikes in the RallyGP class.
Sam Sunderland will race with the number 1 plate for the Red Bull GasGas Factory Racing team after being crowned Champion last year. He also won the 2017 event, while finishing third in 2019 and 2021.
Pablo Quintanilla finished second last time in the Dakar Rally and will be looking to go one better this year with the Monster Energy Honda Team.
In the final stage last year, he went to battle with Sunderland and while he was fastest at almost every checkpoint, taking nearly seven minutes of his appointments, it wasn’t enough to take the victory.
Mattias Walkner from Austria is racing this year for the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team after finishing third in the Dakar Rally last year.
He has finished on the podium in four of the last six editions of the rally and in 2018 he would become the first Austrian to win the Dakar Rally in the bikes class.
Another rider to keep an eye out on in the Solo rider’s category is James Hillier, a familiar name to those fans of British Superbikes and Road Racing.
This will be his first attempt at the rally, as his bid to compete last year was pushed back a year. With the 7th fastest lap ever around the Isle of Man TT circuit, Hillier isn’t feared to pick up the speed on a tricky course.
Moving onto the quad class and the standout name here is defending Champion Alexandre Giroud, who also went on to win the World Rally-Raid Championship last year as well.
His win came 25 years after his father became the first rider to finish the Dakar Rally and will be looking to become only the second rider to make it back-to-back victories in the quad class.
Francisco Moreno from Argentina will be another rider to keep an eye on as he finished second last time out on debut.
He got a hero’s welcome back to his birthplace after the event and while his goal of just finishing the race remains for this year, he could be a real threat for the overall win.
Moving from two wheels to four now and the standout name within the cars class has to be Sebastian Loeb with his co-driver Fabian Lurquin.
Loeb is 9 times World Rally Champion and has 80 rally wins to his name and finished second in the Dakar Rally last year.
But when it comes to the Dakar Rally itself, there is a name bigger than Loeb and that’s Nasser Al-Attiyah, four-time champion of the Dakar Rally and he is the reigning Champion.
Alongside his co-driver Mathieu Baumel in their Toyota Gazoo Racing car, they will be hoping to move to second on the all-time list for most Dakar Rally wins.
Another name that you will probably be familiar with taking part in the rally is Carlos Sainz Sr., father of Ferrari’s F1 driver.
He is a two-time World Rally Champion and is looking for his fourth Dakar Rally win alongside his co-driver Lucas Cross.
Francisco López Contardo and his co-pilot Juan Pablo Latrach Vinagre are looking for their third win in a row, competing in the light prototypes category like they did last year.
They have been focusing full-time on the Dakar Rally and could be a real threat at the top of the leaderboard come the middle of January.