CHENNAI : It’s one of the most iconic events on the motorsports calendar — the toughest rally in the world — but the Dakar Rally could be a different prospect. Reports have emerged that the organisers of the race are set to announce a deal with Saudi Arabia moving the race to the middle-eastern country.This is the second time the Dakar is shifting continents. When it was first introduced in 1978, the race ran from Paris to Dakar in Senegal.
While the race fluctuated between various points in Europe and Africa for the next 30 years, the 2009 event was shifted to South America after the 2008 edition was cancelled following security threats. It has remained there since, though the route has fluctuated. The 2008 Dakar encompassed Argentina and Chile while subsequent editions have covered the likes of Bolivia and Peru.
One racer who has mixed feelings about the likely shift is CS Santosh, the most successful Indian at the event. Santosh, the most experienced Indian at Dakar by some way with five outings, believes it will be difficult for Saudi Arabia to present the kind of multi-dimensional challenge that South America did. “The first time I did the Dakar, it ran through Bolivia, Chile and Argentina,” he says. “That route tested you in different ways — Argentina had vast stretches of land, Chile had the hot Atacama desert while Bolivia had you encounter cold, rain and high altitude. That made the Dakar really challenging. You had to adapt to different conditions in a short space of time. The Arabian desert will be beautiful and it will be tough, but it will not be as tough as it once was.”
Santosh, who finished 34th in the 2018 event and became the first Indian to finish the rally thrice, has fond memories of the Dakar. “We got to encounter three different cultures and all of them embraced motorsports. People would stand on the road at 3 am to get a glimpse of the cars and bikes,” he says.
But the shift could be a significant one for Indian motorsports. Santosh believes that Saudi Arabia will be financially and logistically easier to handle for Indian aspirants than a rally in South America, which could enable more racers from the country to participate in it. “For Indians, it’s closer to home,” he says. “I can just train in Dubai instead of going all the way to South America. It will be easier logistically and financially. I expect more participation from Indian racers because of this.”
While a Dakar held across Saudi Arabia might diminish the prestige of the event for many, it remains the biggest fixture on Santosh’s calendar. The Bengaluru rider is currently in Spain and has already started preparing for the event. “I will have six to eight months of preparations. I will start participating in races towards the latter half of the year,” he says.