Fuel Inspirational Tuesdays - The enduring legacy of the early Paris - Dakar Rally

Fuel Inspirational Tuesdays - The enduring legacy of the early Paris - Dakar Rally

Fuel’s new Rally line (coming soon!) was inspired by the pioneering Paris - Dakar Rally. Here we break down its rich history - and why we were inspired by the riders whose main goal was to get Off The Main Road and have some adventures!

The Paris - Dakar Rally is the ultimate manifestation of adventure riding. It was spawned from one man’s vision of what life should be about: taking risks, pushing yourself to the limit, and inspiring others to follow in your tracks (literally). Thierry Sabine, the Rally’s founder, urged an entire generation of riders to throw their helmets into the race and discover new terrains and landscapes. 

The adventure began in 1977. Sabine found himself lost on his motorcycle in the Libyan desert during the Abidjan-Nice rally. After being “rescued from the sands”, he made a vow to himself - and others - that he would share his experiences with whomever was willing to join him. The Paris - Dakar went from a vision to reality quickly, and on December 26, 1978, the first of its kind set off from Place du Trocadéro, Paris, heading towards Algiers, before crossing Agadez and ultimately leading to Dakar.

Blending the call of adventure with the thrill of competition, the Paris - Dakar Rally’s formative years were about more than just winning. A sense of togetherness in the face of a huge challenge pushed the riders harder. And Sabine’s own words for what the rally signified became immortalised forever: “A challenge for those who go. A dream for those who stay behind.”

Paris - Dakar Rally, the early years, 1978 - 1997

1978 - 1979

182 vehicles started at the inaugural rally in Paris, with 74 surviving the 10,000-kilometre (6,200 mi) trip to the Senegalese capital of Dakar, by way of the pistes of Algeria, Niger, Mali, Upper Volta. The first motorcycle winner was a man named Cyril Neveu (Yamaha) - an unknown at the time, but a rider who would go on to claim a number of sporting achievements. Although his feat was impressive, the first finish times and rankings weren’t as important as self-discovery, adventure, and exceeding one’s own limitations! 

Thierry Sabine


The launch of the Dakar rally was met with immediate fascination and excitement. The following year, in 1980, the biggest names in the industry, such as Yamaha, Volkswagen, Lada and BMW, each hired a team. The number of competitors went from 170 to 216, and the inclusion of trucks marked a first of its kind for this type of event. Cyril Neveu won for the second time in a row on a private Yamaha, securing his name as a Paris - Dakar Rally legend. 


1981 was a heart-stopping event. More people chose to ride than the year before, and all kinds of vehicles were represented (4x4 vehicles, buggies, side-cars), even the totally unexpected, like Thierry de Montcorgé’s Rolls Royce and Jacky Ickx and Claude Brasseur’s Citroën CX. The victory was Hubert Auriol’s, a landmark triumph that set the wheels in motion for his legacy as one of motorcycle racing’s greatest. 


Once again, the rally began at Place de la Concorde. The event drew 382 competitors - more than double the amount of riders in the first edition. Cyril Neveu continued to impress and clinched the title as a member of the Honda team, the first success (but not the last!) for the Japanese maker. 


For the first time, the rally crossed the Ténéré desert. This undiscovered ocean of sand was a prized feat for both riders and spectators! Unfortunately, though, the dream became a nightmare for some competitors. A terrible sandstorm impaired visibility massively, and 40 drivers lost their way along the course. All was not lost though: a guide flew to their rescue and everyone was found safe within four days. 


To “enhance the dreams of those who stay behind”, Thierry Sabine extended the rally’s borders. He re-routed the race through the Ivory Coast, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Mauritania, taking a leap of faith into unknown landscapes. 427 joined the ride, with Gaston Rahier crossing the finish line first in the motorcycle category.


The race started in the city of Versailles for the first time. Another addition was the presence of Chantal Nobel - a star of the television series “Chateauvallon” -  as a competitor! The competition was vigorous, but Gaston Rahier seized the opportunity and won his second Dakar rally.


Referred to as The Black Year, the rally suffered a devastating loss. Its founder, Thierry Sabine, French singer Daniel Balavoine, journalist Nathaly Odent, helicopter pilot François Xavier-Bagnoud, and radio technician Jean-Paul Le Fur all died in a helicopter crash. Sadness gripped the competition, but it went ahead with Sabine’s father, Gilbert, at the helm. Sabine’s ashes were scattered across the desert to mark the life and legacy of a true motorcycle racing pioneer. 


The rally survived the loss of Thierry Sabine and Gilbert took full control! The Dakar only continued to grow. The 1987 edition of the rally saw a battle rage between Hubert Auriol, Cyril Neveu and Gaston Rahier. Hubert Auriol came close to victory but took a terrible fall and broke both of his ankles. He was forced to forfeit and Cyril Neveu slid into the winning position. That made five for Cyril!


This year was record-breaking! The number of participants exceeded the 600 mark. Exactly 603 vehicles departed in total: 183 motorcycles, 311 cars, and 109 trucks. Such a momentous occasion also happened to fall on the 10th anniversary of the Paris - Dakar. The race was arduous, and nearly 100 competitors prematurely exited the rally because the Algerian stage, El Oued, was too difficult. 


Libya was added to the route! And, the number of competitors who reached the finish line surpassed all records. 209 out of 473 survived the tough terrain to become Paris - Dakar graduates. 


Welcome to the ‘90s! It wasn’t the best start for a new decade, however. The number of competitors was down to 465 participants. In Libya the year before, riders (re)discovered a desert that was majestic and beautiful, but also littered with traps. Some motorcyclists felt overpowered by the desert’s immensity and did not return for a second year. 


For motorcycles, Stéphane Peterhansel was the most memorable guy in the desert. He won his first title and served up a victory to the Yamaha team. Another memorable moment of 1991 was a visit from the Libyan president at the time, Colonel Gaddafi! 


The route for the rally changed: the point of departure became the Château de Vincennes, and the finish line Cape Town. The Paris - Dakar race was thus transformed into a Paris-Cape Town rally that offered drivers breathtaking scenery and different terrain. This change of route plunged the competitors into difficult situations, such as sandstorms, war-torn Chad, and a cresting river in Namibia, but they persevered. A major innovation also made this edition special: the advent of GPS!


The rally returned to its original route to finish in Dakar. The number of riders was at a dangerous low of just 154, with concerns that the rally might not survive for many more years. The route was just as tough as previous editions, and one-third of competitors became stuck in the sand, unable to cross the finish line. Hubert Auriol, however, made it and won on his bike for a third time!


Little by little, the rally was getting its mojo back. Gilbert Sabine and his team stepped down and handed the reins over to the Amaury Sport Organization. The route, designed by Fenouil, the “boss” of the Dakar then, was the group’s first innovation. The race was actually touted as Paris - Dakar - Paris, with everyone ending up in the French capital! 


For the first time in the history of the rally, the race did not depart from France, but instead from Granada in Spain. It was also shortened to run for just 15 days to ease some pressure on riders and drivers.


Same route, more competitors! 


1997 is widely viewed as the end of the rally’s early history, and where the competitive nature of the race really began to take centre stage. For the first time, the race began in Dakar with a Dakar - Dakar loop, a return to Niger, and a route through the mythic Ténéré desert. On the eve of its 20th anniversary, the Paris - Dakar Rally was life blood to all those who came, and something to strive for for those who stayed at home!