After a decade in South America, the Dakar Rally – the world’s best-known rally raid – is returning to the dunes for its 42nd edition with an all-new setting in Saudi Arabia. The first Middle Eastern Dakar will have also have fresh star power in the form of two-time Formula 1 world champion and Le Mans 24 Hour winner Fernando Alonso, who makes his debut in a Hilux pickup entered by Toyota Gazoo Racing (pictured above).
“The challenge of the Dakar is undoubtedly the biggest I have faced in my sporting career,” Alonso told the Reuters news agency when his entry was announced. “But taking on things that look impossible on paper and trying to make them possible in six or seven months of preparation is a thrilling challenge.”
Alonso’s Hilux features independent suspensions, mid-mounted engine and all-wheel drive, with the 5-liter naturally aspirated V8 engine sitting just behind the front wheels. His co-driver will be five-time Dakar motorcycle winner and fellow Spaniard Marc Coma. While the 38-year-old Alonso’s trademark aggression could serve him well in the desert, he will have to temper it for the grueling course that features more than 4,600 miles, of which around 3,100 miles will be run on special (ie timed) stages.
Starting in the Red Sea port of Jeddah on Sunday, Jan. 5, the route will visit the mountains and the far northwest of Saudi Arabia to the city of Neom, near the Gulf of Aqaba and the border with Egypt. From there the competitors head east, then south into the Empty Quarter and Wadi Al-Dawasir and looping around to the finish in Qiddiya City on the outskirts of Riyadh, on Jan. 17.
Part of the allure of the Dakar is the number and variety of vehicles taking part, with more than 400 entries among five classes. Cars, bikes, trucks, quads and UTVs (four-wheel drive, off-road utility vehicles) all have their own set of specialists, although there are a few all-rounders such as Stéphane Peterhansel who’ve successfully crossed disciplines).
Names to watch for this year include reigning Bikes champion Toby Price and his KTM teammates Sam Sunderland and Matthias Walkner, both of whom are former winners. On four wheels, Alonso’s Toyota teammate Nasser Al-Attiyah is out to defend his Cars title against the likes of Carlos Sainz Sr. in his X-Raid Mini (below), while the Kamaz Master team looms as the favorite in the truck class.
Daily highlights will again air on NBC Sports Network, starting with back-to-back recaps of the first two stages airing Monday at 5 p.m. ET. Here is the full telecast schedule (all times Eastern and subject to change; always check local listings):
|Monday, January 6||Stage 1: Jeddah to Al Wajh||5-5:30pm|
|Monday, January 6||Stage 2: Al Wajh to Neom||5:30-6pm|
|Tuesday, January 7||Stage 3: Neom||6-6:30pm|
|Wednesday, January 8||Stage 4: Neom to Al Ula||6-6:30pm|
|Thursday, January 9||Stage 5: Al Ula to Ha’il||6-6:30pm|
|Friday, January 10||Stage 6: Ha’il to Riyadh||9:30-10pm|
|Saturday, January 11||Stage 7: Riyadh||11-11:30pm|
|Sunday, January 12||Stage 8: Riyadh to Wadi Al-Dawasir||6:30-7pm|
|Monday, January 13||Stage 9: Wadi Al-Dawasir||6:30-7pm|
|Tuesday, January 14||Stage 10: Wadi Al-Dawasir to Haradh||5:30-6pm|
|Wednesday, January 15||Stage 11: Haradh to Shubaytah||6:30-7pm|
|Thursday, January 16||Stage 12: Shubaytah to Haradh||6:30-7pm|
|Friday, January 17||Stage 13: Haradh to Qiddiya||6-6:30pm|