The 2023 Dakar Rally is making headlines as the toughest, longest, and hardest Dakar in recent years. But what exactly goes into racing across Saudi Arabia for 15 days straight? Let’s unpack this and obtain a better understanding of the intricacies of the sport.
The Dakar Rally is a rally-raid style event, which involves precision driving while navigating instructions the sanctioning body provides teams in the form of a Roadbook. The goal is to complete the route defined in the instructions as fast as possible while avoiding penalties. Roadbook instructions are rather complex.
It takes practice and experience to read and interpret the smattering of letters, numbers and symbols, all while moving through the terrain at speed. The Roadbook gives you important navigation information such as speed zones, Waypoints, turns, and so on. It also describes any hazards that teams need to be aware of. These warnings range in severity from “there’s a higher chance of crashing here” to “if you crash here, you could die.”
So far, all this sounds much like other forms of rallying. What makes this sport so unique is that some parts of the race traverse wide-open territory rather than clearly defined roads or trails. Another aspect which sets it apart is that teams don’t know where they’re going at all when they set off, relying on the Roadbook, a compass and rally computer (a device programmed with key Waypoint information. The navigators use the encrypted info to validate Waypoints along the route laid out in the Roadbook) to guide them. Each stage consists of several Waypoints – geocached invisible markers – defining the route.
Some of these points, such as the start, finish, and gas stops, are known to the support crew who are offered their own version of directions generally called the “Assistance Route.” While the majority are hidden unless collected, as intended, or “opened” – meaning they ran out of time, and for whatever reason, needed to reveal the Waypoint or even skip it to be able to carry on with the race. Basically, it’s like a massive engine-powered treasure hunt for grown-ups and teens who can choose a purpose-built UTV, car, truck, quad or motorcycle as their vessel for the search.
Even after collecting all these navigational tokens, there are still setbacks and advantages which can affect the results – sometimes changing the course of an athlete’s trajectory dramatically. This is why teams desperately try to avoid collecting penalties along the way. Too many penalties can take the fastest UTV from the top steps and send it out of the Top Ten. Usually, penalties are a product of missing Waypoints and exceeding the limits in the strictly regulated Speed Zones.
These are often established around villages, main streets or highways, sometimes coming (seemingly) from out of nowhere even in the middle of a wide-open off-track section. Even so, on those major empty expanses, competitors can be limited to 160 km/h, which is only about 100 mph.
That may seem slow compared to other types of racing, but imagine going 100 mph across open terrain, with no road or trail to follow and no idea what lies ahead. Theoretically, the competitor who completes the stage with the fastest time and with the least penalties is the stage winner. Often, the team that crosses the finish line first is not necessarily the day’s stage winner after penalties are applied.
However, this year, for the first time, the A.S.O. introduced an incentive to pilots who finish well each day. Traditionally, winning a stage is actually a disadvantage because those competitors will need to lead out the next special on virgin terrain, with no tracks to follow and keep a solid pace.
It has long been a strategy to avoid taking the first one, two, or three steps (which could still and often does afford the opportunity to be victorious overall), and the organizers’ solution was to offer points to stage winners as a means of balancing out potential lost time the following day.
Now that we understand the fundamentals of how rally-raid and the Dakar Rally work, we now need to understand the language. Rally is full of unique acronyms and terminology which are crucial to comprehending the sport – at least if you want to find your way around the bivouac like a pro.
Here are some of the terms used in rally-raid:
- RALLY-RAID: A predominantly off-road point-to-point race against time and a diverse selection of terrain set in stages. Within each stage is the special – the off-road challenge where a majority of the Waypoints are collected. The event is held over several days over great distances within a single or multiple regions, at times crossing country borders.
- BIVOUAC: The overnight stop between each stage of the rally. This is where your days will start and end and where you will call home for the duration of the event. It is the melting pot of the rally for competitors, mechanics, team staff, rally officials, medical staff, and the media. This is a moving self-contained city which transitions to new locations throughout the race as the teams progress through the racecourse. It is an awe-inspiring logistical feat to behold.
- PARC FERMÉ: A temporary holding area within the bivouac for the race vessels. Neither racers nor mechanics are allowed to touch vehicles once they are stored in the Parc Fermé. At the end of a day, competitors may be required to report to Parc Fermé so that race officials can inspect vehicles to make sure they still comply with the rules and regulations.
- ROADBOOK: A description of each stage’s route provided to the crews the evening before or the morning of that day’s race. It consists of a series of diagrams – made up of numbers, abbreviations, and symbols – which display the main features and distances characterizing the route. Traditionally, this has been on a paper scroll (for Bikes & Quads) or booklet (for cars, trucks, & UTVs), but at the 2023 Dakar Rally, all cars, trucks, and UTV’s were required to use digital Roadbooks. They are divided into three columns representing the distance, direction, and description. Each row is called a tulip and is numbered for easy reference.
- PROLOGUE: A short, timed stage run at the beginning of the competition determining the starting order for the first major stage. Results from this round do not affect the official scoring of the event.
- STAGE: Also known as an etape, this is the route for a single day of a rally. Normally, a stage consists of liaison and the SS.
- SS: Short for Special Stage, also known as Selective Sector. This is the timed section of the race where the actual competition takes place – although penalties during the liaison can still affect results. The race results are based on the total of the various SS times, minus penalties or plus incentive points. The fastest (or shortest) time from the day is the stage winner. The DSS (départ) and ASS (arrivé) reference mark the beginning and end of the special.
- LIAISON: An untimed section of the rally route, sometimes called a Transit. Since it is not always possible to start a timed race section at the bivouac, race vehicles must proceed from the bivouac site to the SS start point (DSS), then run the SS from there. Competitors then proceed from the SS endpoint (ASS) to the next bivouac. Liaison sections are also subject to more generous time limits with corresponding penalties, although these are not too demanding. They provide more than enough time for competitors to travel through unless they run into problems along the way.
- NEUTRAL ZONE: This refers to sections between special stages where a single stage is divided into more than one SS. Competitors are not timed in neutral zones. They travel under the same conditions as on liaisons, but they are not able to receive any support from their crews.
- MARATHON STAGE: This is a round where racers are in charge of their own destinies. No mechanics or outside assistance is allowed during a marathon stage, which lasts for two consecutive days. This is meant to level the playing field between privateers and large factory teams, as the grassroots racers do not have access to the same extensive support network as the branded athletes. Competitors are allowed to help each other, but you are only allowed to use what you can carry in or on your vehicle. This helps keep some of the old-school rally philosophy. Alternatively, the Malle Moto class just calls this a Tuesday.
- MALLE MOTO: A term derived from the French word for “trunk”, this category for motorcyclists harken back to the original program for the Dakar Rally. Not only are riders restricted to bringing to the event only what they can fit in an organizer provided box – save for some extra bits like camping equipment, clothes and tires – they are also expected to be their own support crew. No one may help them with any aspect of repairs or maintenance on the bikes. However, at Dakar, they are allowed to have one of the sponsored tire booths help them replace rubber on their wheels. Until this year, no American had ever finished the Dakar in this class. Now we have two: Morrison “Mo” Hart and Petr Angelo Vlcek.
- SENTINEL: The safety system fitted to each vehicle. An alarm indicates the presence of any other competitor within 300 meters. It also informs the crew of an overtaking car that the slower competitor is aware of their presence.
- UNIK: The GPS system that validates Waypoints. Each stage is pre-loaded on the Orga GPS device supplied to each vehicle. This device provides information and directions to competitors, and also tracks all data while racing. When you approach within a certain radius of a Waypoint, the Waypoint will “open.” An arrow will appear on the GPS device, guiding you to the Waypoint. Once validated upon arrival, you continue racing toward the next Waypoint.
- TRIPMASTER: A precision distance indicator used for navigation. The Tripmaster has a highly accurate odometer which is adjustable to correspond with your Roadbook instructions. Theoretically, you will only need to adjust the odometer if you have made a mistake or have gone off course. A typical example would be if you cannot make it over a sand dune in a straight line following a compass heading and must go around it instead. As a result, your Tripmaster distance will be different from the distance described in the Roadbook. Once you get to a point on the Roadbook that you know is correct, you can adjust or reset your Tripmaster odometer to the distance in the Roadbook. This is the responsibility of the navigator.
- HP / OP: Hors Piste, Off Piste or Off Track Hors is an off-road section of the course where there are no roads or tracks. You are essentially riding over open terrain with only a compass heading to follow.
- CAP: The CAP is the compass heading in degrees. Not all tulips will have CAP headings. CAP headings are mainly used to confirm exit headings when there are multiple roads, or to give you a direction when you are on an hors piste section of the track. Since there is no track, the compass heading becomes imperative to follow in order to find the next Waypoint.
- WAYPOINT (WP): A GPS zone defined by longitude and latitude coordinates. From the FIA 2020 and 2022 cross-country rally sporting regulations:
Waypoints are points that competitors are required to pass through/validate. All Waypoints are contained in the memory of the NAVGPS provided by the Organizer. You must pass through all Waypoints in chronological (ascending) order. The penalty for the non-validation of a Waypoint is stipulated by the regulations. The total number of Waypoints which may be missed during a leg is 40% of the total number of Waypoints of the leg concerned. If you have less than the required number of Waypoints, you are deemed to have retired from the leg and will be given the Leg Penalty for the leg concerned.
There are several types of waypoints:
- WPV (Waypoint visible): A Waypoint whose coordinates are included in the Roadbook. Moving to a visible Waypoint, all information is displayed on the GPS screen. To validate a WPV, a competitor must pass within 200 meters of it.
- WPE (Waypoint Eclipse): A Waypoint that becomes completely visible on the GPS once the preceding Waypoint has been validated, or within a radius of 1000 meters if the previous Waypoint was missed. To validate a WPE, a competitor must pass within 90 meters of it.
- WPS (Waypoint Security): A Waypoint used to guarantee the safety of competitors, indicated in the road book and whose coordinates are not revealed to the competitors. The GPS only directs the competitor towards this point once he has arrived within a radius of 1000 meters of the latter. To validate a WPS, the competitor must pass within 30 meters of it.
- WPC (Control Waypoint): A Waypoint to check that competitors are following the Roadbook. The GPS provides no navigation information but will record whether competitors pass within 300 meters of it.
- WPP (Precise Waypoint): This is like a control Waypoint, except that it only becomes visible on the GPS within 100 meters, and competitors must pass within 20 meters to validate it. Only the number and order of passage compared to other Waypoints appears in the Roadbook. This type of Waypoint is never used on off-road sections.
- WPM (Masked Waypoint): A Waypoint whose coordinates are not revealed to competitors. The GPS directs the competitor to this point only once within 800 meters of it. To validate a WPM, a competitor must pass within 90 meters of it.
- TIMECARD: An official document where the competitors record all their passages through the Time Controls along the entire rally route. Losing a timecard normally results in disqualification.
- TIME CONTROL: A checkpoint where competitors must arrive within a certain time. They are located at the entry and exit of every service park, as well as at the beginning and end of each special stage.
- PASSAGE CONTROL: A different type of checkpoint located along the route. Competitors must have their timecards stamped by a marshal to prove that they have passed along the designated route.
All that to say…
This is a lot to take in, yet it is only the tip of the iceberg. You can go down a deep rabbit hole into the rally vortex. There is much more to learn about how to read a Roadbook, how to accurately navigate seemingly impassable terrain, how to find your way in the desert when you are lost, and more.
Rally racing is one of the most addictive sports on the face of the planet. Once you have immersed yourself in it, there is no turning back. So, welcome to the Matrix. Will you enjoy the blissful ignorance of the blue pill or take that red pill to painful, high-octane, glorious rally-raid reality?