Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Dakar is not dead

The ASO, organizers of the Dakar Rally, are certainly up against it. Although the event is terrific and well-loved by the motorsport community, mainstream media tends to focus on the more negative aspects of the rally, including competitor deaths, civilian injuries and deaths, kidnappings and terrorist threats.

This year it all proved too much after alleged Al Qaeda operatives threatened the race directly. Whether there was any substance to the threats was deemed irrelevent by organizers who felt they had no choice but to cancel the whole thing.

Should a similar threat occur next year, we can only imagine the outcome will be the same. So what next for the Dakar Rally? Surely it's too big a risk to run the race through these areas of unrest?

Many have suggested an alternative part of the world for the rally, Patagonia being one suggestion and the Asian steppes another. It's hard to say if the event would retain the same spirit if it moved out of Africa. Most people would agree that the real character of the event emerges in the middle of the event with a series of marathon stages crossing thousands of miles of dunes. A rally raid without this iconic group of stages would surely never feel like a "real" Dakar. After all, the last time the race deviated from its basic Morocco-Senegal path was when it crossed the top of north Africa and ended in Sharm-El-Sheikh, Egypt, and the plentiful dune stages helped the event retain its character, despite a vastly different final few days.

Perhaps a raid that includes the heavily-duned Gobi or Taklamakan Deserts in China might be the answer? Dunes are also very prevalent in the Arabian Desert which is the second-largest non-polar desert in the world.

For me, however, the issue needs to be addressed from the perspective of finding the best way to continue to run the event in Africa. If we assume that for now Algeria and Mauritania are off-limits, many other options exist. The event has run through Libya in the past, so it should be feasible to start in Europe, spend a day on a boat to Tunisia, then run through Tunisia, Libya, Niger, Mali and into Senegal. Those last three listed countries are all moderate, reasonably stable states and offer plenty of terrain that is so synonymous with the Dakar Rally.

Another option that comes to mind is doing it in southern Africa, taking in the dune areas of Namibia, after travelling through Zambia and Tanzania before ending in Cape Town.

Whatever the ASO comes up with I hope that the Dakar Rally is able to continue and do so without losing the character and challenge that makes it such an important and special race.

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