Dakar Bike Evolution (a potted history)
The Dakar started back in 1979 with a bunch of Frenchmen riding a hotch-potch collection of modified trail bikes across the Sahara. A young man named Cyril Neveu won, riding his own privately-entered Yamaha XT500 the 5500km from Paris to Dakar (in Senegal) in 16 days. He’d customised his XT by way of welding a whole new top section onto the fuel tank to make a hefty 32-litre vessel, so he could make the required 500km between refuels.
Other modifications were to strengthen the frame (and subframe), upgrade the suspension and customise the seat to allow for the fabrication of racks to carry spares and survival equipment. This made for a fairly hefty rig pushing around 180-200 kilos with all of the 35bhp that the low-powered trailies mustered... Getting to the finish back then was indeed victory in itself. To get there first was just icing on the cake.
Of course given the extensive media coverage of the early races, it didn’t take long for the factories to take an interest. Within seven years (and at the head of what was a runaway arms-race) BMW had taken over with serious works-backed kit. Gaston Rahier’s 1986 winning bike was a cool 1043cc boxer twin making 75bhp and weighing a hefty 230 kilos once the gallumphing 60 litre fuel tank was brimmed.
It was no longer an achievement just to arrive in Dakar, now you had to cross the finish line at 110mph, maybe a little sideways, smoking a Camel (or Lucky Strike or Marlboro). Of course big bikes and big speeds upped the danger quota a good few notches, but regardless of the death and destruction it caused, the big bike era would last right up until the end of the 1990s.
The big bike era for the Dakar ended with the end of the century, marked tragically by the death of the UK’s foremost desert racer, John Deacon, killed while racing the BMW R900RR in the Pharaoh’s Rally of 2001.
Subsequent to that came the re-emergence of the big singles (which had already proven more nimble and so quicker point-to-point than the outgoing twins). BMW led the early years, the late Richard Sainct being the man to beat on his BMW F650RR - a 700cc 75bhp 168 kilo beast. These were lighter and less thirsty machines too, necessitating only 45 litres of fuel compared to the 60+ of the litre bikes.
A decade later KTM had taken control of the rally as most other manufacturers pulled-out, but on paper their ultimate African Dakar racer looks remarkably similar to the much earlier BMW. The KTM 660RR of 2008 produced 65bhp with a 162 kilo weight and 48 litre fuel capacity.
It took a new continent - forced by civil unrest in the African desert regions - to bring another change to the Dakar bike. For 2010, the second year in South America, the Elite class featured a 450cc limit. Primarily designed to reduce speeds (and improve safety) whilst tempting back the other manufacturers, smaller bikes allowed the creation of more technically challenging courses. The 450 rule brought back BMW/Husqvarna, Gas Gas, Sherco, Yamaha, Beta and Honda (among others).
And having buried the big bikes once and for all, the 450 rule also brings us back to a more wieldy machine. The TE449-based Husky racer of 2011 for example, weighed in at 137 kilos with a fuel capacity of 30 litres - enough to make the maximum 250km between refuels today. In fact such are the changes in the Dakar as it now is - with more enduro-like terrain, more fuel stops and more teams - that the factory racers can now be based upon motocrossers!