Why Are All the Drivers Getting Lost at the 2021 Dakar Rally?

"We’ve never had anything like it," said former champ Carlos Sainz

Dakar Rally 2021 in Saudi Arabia
Spanish driver Nani Roma and French co-driver Alex Winocq in Stage 5 of the Dakar Rally 2021 on January 7.
FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images

The Dakar Rally, one of the most famous off-road races in the world, was dreamt up by Frenchman Thierry Sabine in the late 1970s, but it was an Englishman who thrust the event into the international spotlight. In 1982, Mark Thatcher, son of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, entered the grueling endurance race — then called the Paris-Dakar Rally — and ended up lost in the desert for six days. 

Mark eventually detailed his misadventure in The Guardian, but if you weren’t alive at the time you may be aware of the incident thanks to its inclusion in the most recent season of The Crown on Netflix. The recent reappearance in pop culture is turning out to be oddly relevant, as history seems to be repeating itself during this year’s Dakar Rally.

That is, for some reason, everyone seems to be getting lost during the 2021 Dakar. But as Jalopnik details, the drivers in question aren’t getting lost for days in some epic, tabloid-ready, cinematic episode. They’re simply getting confused about the course and going off track, like a bunch of dads who are too stubborn to ask for directions. 

If you’re having trouble picturing it, here’s a clip of Carlos Sainz, a legendary driver and previous Dakar champion, having trouble figuring out where to go:

“I’ve been on 14 Dakars and I’ve never been lost two days and lost half an hour in each one, nor have I seen everyone lost,” Sainz said after stage five of 12, as reported by Motorsport.com.  “This isn’t the Dakar.” He added: “This is becoming more of a gymkhana than a rally,” a gymkhana being a timed race with obstacles where drivers are supposed to memorize the course. 

What’s changed between those previous rallies and this one? Jalopnik writes that “the roadbooks that outline what to expect from a stage have been withheld from drivers until fifteen minutes before the beginning of the stage,” and those roadbooks are now on electronic tablets rather than paper. But the outlet also notes that some drivers have been complaining about the tracks not being visible; they’ll drive up to a certain point and find tracks going off in multiple directions, with the driver and co-driver left to gamble on their next move.

This is partly due to the Dakar organizers freshening up the format, and partly the nuances of driving in Saudi Arabia, where the event is being held for the second year in a row despite international criticism.

We’re all for making the Dakar relevant again, even if there are some growing pains for the drivers. But hopefully the organizers can work out the kinks for 2022 — in the directions and the locale. 

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