While the Dakar Rally no longer limits itself to a North African route, the event remains a major attraction for the best racers in motor sports, writes Michael Halton

The 33rd Edition of the Dakar Rally took place in South America last week, making it the third time the race has been held on the continent. There were 430 vehicles taking part, with representatives from over 50 different countries.

The Dakar Rally was first run in 1979, starting in Paris, running through Algiers before finishing in Dakar. Frenchman Thierry Sabine came up with the idea after becoming enthralled by the scenery of the region while lost in the Libyan Desert during the 1977 Abidjan-Nice Rally. The initial staging had 182 competitors and Cyril Neveu was the Dakar’s first winner on a Yamaha 500XT.

The Dakar Rally has gone from strength to strength since its initial staging and the motto that Sabien used to describe the Rally is still as apt today as when it was first run: “A challenge for those who go, a dream for those who stay behind.”  Tragically, Sabien died in a helicopter crash during the 1987 staging of the Rally and his father Gilbert took over the organisation of the race.

The event continued to explore the African continent and in 1992, the competitors raced from Paris to Cape Town. This spirit of adventure continued in the following years with the 2000 and 2003 rallies finishing at the base of the Pyramids in Egypt.

The Dakar Rally has always aimed to challenge the skills of the world’s drivers through some of the toughest terrain on the planet. The move to South America in 2009 has continued this great tradition, from the climb into the foothills of the Andes to the fesh-fesh of the desert and from the white sand dunes of the Fiambala to the crossing of a salar. This year’s rally was undoubtedly as tough as any previous Dakar with new and exciting challenges for the competitors, which was in keeping with the spirit of the world’s toughest endurance race.

There are four main categories in the competition: bikes, cars, trucks and quads with a winner declared in each section. The Rally is divided up into a number of stages and each stage is made up of road sections leading up to the start of the timed specials. In each special stage, the drivers must pass within 200m of a number of WPMs (Way Points Masked) or face time penalties.

This task was made more difficult this year as the GPS system fitted on their vehicles had to be within 800m of the WPM before it could guide them in, compared with 3km in other years. This change increased the importance of navigation in relation to driving and made this year’s Dakar even more demanding on the participants.

Any mention of the Dakar would be incomplete without a word on nine-time winner Stéphane Peterhansel, who won the car and bike categories three times and six times respectively, and continues to compete today. The only man to have more specials wins is Russian Vladimir Chagin, who has won over 60 specials in the truck category and is known as the “Tsar of the Desert”.

The Dakar has attracted participants from a multitude of sports and careers, with some enjoying remarkable success, such as Luc Alphand, who was a World Cup-winning skier before becoming Dakar Rally champion in 2006. Formula One driver and six-time winner of the 24 hours of Le Mans, Jacky Ickx, won the 1983 Dakar and has 29 specials wins to his name. In addition, the first Frenchman in space, Jean-Loup Chrétien, was an entrant in 1984.

The Dakar remains the world’s premier automotive test of speed, racing and navigational skill, but above all else endurance. The race continues to attract the toughest competitors on the planet who wish to test themselves, not only against each other, but also against the event itself.