Can the Dakar Rally return to its African home?

One of the greatest and most gruelling motor sport has been the iconic Paris-Dakar Rally but following troubles along the route, the Rally is now staged exclusively in Saudi Arabia – although the title brand has been retained. Gus Anyim assesses what this loss has meant to the continent and if the rally can be […] The post Can the Dakar Rally return to its African home? appeared first on New African Magazine.

Can the Dakar Rally return to its African home?
One of the greatest and most gruelling motor sport has been the iconic Paris-Dakar Rally but following troubles along the route, the Rally is now staged exclusively in Saudi Arabia – although the title brand has been retained. Gus Anyim assesses what this loss has meant to the continent and if the rally can be re-incorporated into its natural African habitat. On 19th January, the final competitor crossed the sand dunes of Saudi Arabia to finish the 46th Dakar rally. 2024 marks the fifth year of the race since it was moved from its original home in Africa to the Middle East. The event, originally called Paris-Dakar was one of the toughest and most adventurous rally in the world. It comprised a whole gamut of vehicles, trucks, motorbikes and cars racing from Paris across the Sahara and finishing in Dakar, Senegal. The heavily modified vehicles which had to battle some of the worst driving conditions anywhere including bone-shaking and suspension destroying routes, dangerous sand dunes, high daytime temperatures and freezing winds at night was the last word in adventure, grit and determination. It was also highly photogenic and attracted millions of TV viewers and radio listeners across the world. Scores of journalists and support vehicles followed the race across the forbidding terrain. Frenchman Thierry Sabine founded the event in 1977 having lost his way whilst racing in a Cote-Cote rally (Nice-France to Abidjan-Côte d’Ivoire).  The earliest route taking participants from a start in Paris, to the Southern coast of France before crossing into Algeria in Northern Africa. Over time, organisers chose different crossing points from Europe, while traversing through countries within North-Western Africa. Eventually the rally settled on a route across Morocco, Mauritania, Western Sahara and finally Dakar (Senegal). The 1992 edition was very special – the organisers decided to extend the route all the way to Cape Town. This would open up vastly varying landscapes as the rally made it was way south, from deserts to tropical rain forests, to savannah grasslands, through mountains and finally to Cape Town. It was held to mark the change from the country’s Apartheid state to true democracy with the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. The event drew unprecedented global attention to Africa as journalist, including New African editor Anver Versi filling daily reports from the various countries they visited and illustrated the peoples and lifestyles they met on the way. Everything changed in 2008 when the rally was cancelled following the killing of four French tourists in Mauritania during a period when anti-Western sentiments were rising. The stark contrast between the huge sums spent on what many Africans considered a ‘rich-person’s silly sport’ and grinding poverty in many of the countries the rally traversed was also causing a general negative view of the event. Nevertheless, the brand has become so famous and the event drew such large TV audiences and provided superb advertising for various car makers, that the organisers moved the event to Chile Peru and Argentina in South America from 2010 until 2020 when the event was moved to Saudi Arabia. Although the rally was now confined to the desert kingdom, with a gruelling route running from desert terrain from Al Ula in the West of the country to Yanbu in the East, it has retained its brand as the Dakar Rally. Interestingly, although Africa has lost the iconic rally, Senegal featured in a new form of motor sport – Extreme E in which electric SUVs race in locations chosen to raise awareness for aspects of the climate change and to provide social and environmental support for those locations. Senegal was the location for the first event in 2021 to draw attention to the country’s salt-heavy Lac Rose, often the finishing point of the original Paris-Dakar rally. With Formula One champions such as Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg sponsoring their own teams, the event has been hugely successful. Despite the controversy surrounding such events, particularly the Paris-Dakar, there is no doubt that their absence has left a widely-felt vacuum. They brought a sense of adventure and excitement to the annual calendar, drew the world’s attention to a positive side of the continent and allowed locals to have ‘front-row’ seats at global spectacles. Commercial benefits Before Paris-Dakar, another rally on the other side of the continent – the East African Safari run over three countries (Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania) over the Easter holidays had held pride of place with international drivers and teams competing in what was then the most gruelling race in the world. It later became the Safari Rally confined to Kenya when the country’s neighbours withdrew their participation and it lost some of its kudos but it continues to be held annually and to draw a great deal of local attention – and participation as teams and drivers. In addition, there was the Cote D’ivoire rally, the Kilimanjaro 1000 and so on. The question is has Africa lost out on the benefits of the multiplier effect – the direct and indirect gains from hosting events such as the Olympics, the World Cup and international rallies? For example, the 2024 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia received 4,000 hours of news and broadcasting across 190 countries and 70 channels. 560 accredited media representatives provided coverage for the event, ith seven million followers engaging with Dakar’s social media platforms. The 2023 publicity was valued at $114m with the economic multiplier from supporting the event generating significantly more. Millions of sponsorship dollars have also followed the event, which now boasts Saudi Aramco and Motul as main partners. Peru, host to the 2019 rally, put the economic impact at over $130m with $300m of media value for the country. The commercial value of the current Dakar rally in Saudi Arabia likely exceeds this. Rather than a direct comparison to the African series. Perhaps the current Dakar rally (Saudi Arabia) offers a view of the event’s potential to attract and nurture investment. Africa’s rich history of racing Although the official Dakar Rally may have permanently relocated to the deserts of Saudi Arabia. Extreme E could yet return to Senegal. But for rally purists, Africa hs never lost its rugged charm or irresistible challenge. Two organised Dakar races, The Africa Eco Race and the Real Way to Dakar, remain true to the original series. Beginning in Monaco and Paris (France) respectively, both races take adrenaline fuelled competitors through Morocco, Mauritania, Western Sahara and Senegal. The bigger of the two is the Africa Eco Race, generating global coverage in 153 countries, on 101 channels with coverage across five continents. Impressive numbers whilst not the biggest rally event on the continent. In its 2021 race calendar the FIA, motorsport’s governing body, reinstated Kenya – the Safari Rally, to the World Rally Championship (WRC). It followed a 19-year absence due to adverse findings by the FIA on issues of financial support and safety. The WRC commands a TV audience of 841m (2022), 6.87m social media followers and 473m video views. The reach was also reflected in the findings of Kenya’s Tourism and Research Institute, which assessed the impact of the rally. A net economic benefit to the country of Khs 15.780 billion ($98m)  was recorded, whilst supporting 24,758 jobs. The African Rally Championship, a further series governed by the FIA, offers additional rally action across Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Rwanda and Burundi. Speciality meets like the East African Safari Classic Rally still continues to delight race fans. Revived in 2003, and with homage to the original 1953 race, this Kenyan classic car rally experienced a resurgence in popularity, demonstrating a healthy appetite for motorsport in Africa. Future prospects The opportunity to host any international sporting event comes at a cost. Commercial considerations of race organisers often outweigh nostalgia and tradition. Formats need to be refreshed, and competing hosts emerge. The Dakar rally is no different. As promoters across F1 (South Korea) to WRC (Cyprus) can attest – without a willing government prepared to underwrite the cost of hosting, the bid is likely to fail. African governments may point to the remnants of overspend (“white elephants”) from the 2010 South African World Cup, though taken in isolation it perhaps misses the point on how holistically investment should be considered. As an early pioneer, the Africa Eco Race wove community projects into their identity, with tree planting and solar power infrastructure in Nouakchott (Mauritania). Extreme E, under its ‘race for the planet ’ slogan, went further with the planting of 60 hectares of mangrove tress planned, alongside educational programmes in Senegal. Investments in legacy projects and community infrastructure can be vital for inspiring a new generation. Factors that a facilitative body such as the African Union Sports Council should consider. A choice is looming for the official race. Break the association with Dakar, and Africa, altogether or take meaningful steps to re-incorporate Africa into the event. Either route could provide the stimulus for Africa to receive a new motorsports driven boost – one that includes a more ambitious and far-reaching set of legacy projects. The willingness of governments to reignite Africa as an off-road racing destination will play a pivotal role. An opportunity beckons. The post Can the Dakar Rally return to its African home? appeared first on New African Magazine.