2021 Dakar Rally: New Route & New Rules!

2 months ago | Words: Andy Wigan | Photos: ASO, Red Bull Content Pool

You’ve gotta love this time of year, when the route for the upcoming Dakar Rally is revealed and things get a whole lot more real – for both the competitors and the massive TV audience the iconic annual event attracts. For the 2021 race, though, it’s not just the route that has generated talk. The announcement of bunch of significant rule changes (introduced primarily to slow everybody down and make things safer) has also sparked a fair bit of debate.

So, let’s take a look at the 2021 route – the 43rd running of the great race, staged for only the second installment in Saudi Arabia – and then summarise the rule changes that come into effect for 2021…


The 2021 Dakar Rally’s route – a route of 7646km that starts and finishes in Jeddah – will include a prologue, followed by 12 stages and more than 4700km of special stages between January 3 and 15.

Check out this cool video animation of the 2021 route…

And if you’re really keen, here’s the official route presentation by organisers last week, which offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes insight into how a Dakar course is set…

Or, in the poetic language of the organsiers, “The rich tapestry of landscapes in Saudi Arabia offers an almost infinite number of permutations to give the route of the Dakar a better flavour. Just as 2020 was a quest of discovery, the 2021 route will be a journey of exploration. Everything will be brand-new, including every single kilometre of the specials. Furthermore, the fastest sectors, where the difference comes down to raw power, have been trimmed.”


Despite the difficulties associated with the global health crisis, a strong field of competitors has answered the call, with 321 vehicles on the 2021 entry list. In addition to the 108 motorbikes, 21 quads, 124 cars and SSVs and 42 trucks expected at the start, 26 vehicles have been entered for a regularity competition in the new “Dakar Classic” category, open to cars and trucks built prior to 2000.

And the entry list for Moto.


According to ASO, the Dakar Rally’s organisers, “Rule changes for the 2021 Dakar build on previous efforts to guarantee a level playing field when it comes to navigation and to slow down the vehicles to make the race safer.”

But specifically, what rules changes have been introduced for 2021, and what do we reckon about them? Here’s a snapshot…

Roadbooks on tablets for elite competitors – The roadbook is handed out 10 minutes (for the cars) or 20 minutes (for the motorbikes) before the start of each special to put all riders, drivers and co-drivers on an even footing when it comes to navigation. After a test run in certain stages in 2020, this time round it will be the general rule. Furthermore, crews in the car, SSV and truck categories will get a digital version of the roadbook on a tablet in their cabins, which will eventually be extended to the remaining categories.
We Say: Good call. Creates a more level playing field for riders – whether they’re factory-backed or supporting themselves. Plus it’ll eliminate the alleged cheating by the large teams in recent years (some have been accused of cross-referencing route maps with Google Earth to reveal any ‘creative lines’ for their riders).

Oral warnings and slow zones – The roadbook already highlights danger zones, but from now on competitors will also receive aural warnings in the approach to hazard level 2 and 3 zones to keep them alert. Furthermore, certain especially tricky and hazardous sectors will be categorised as “slow zones” where the speed limit is adjusted.
We Say: Great idea, in principle. But we’re yet to see the detail about how this will be policed and, more importantly, what penalties will apply. We also wonder whether there will be unintended consequences of forcing riders to check their speed more often. You could argue that anything that takes your eyes off the terrain in front of you actually increases the risk of crashing.

Spare (the) tyres – In rally raids, tyre management usually plays a decisive role and determines just how hard the competitors can push their vehicles. Each motorbike will be granted a total of six rear tyres for the entire rally.
We Say: Big news! Obviously, this places a lot more emphasis on tyre durability and how riders are able to preserve their rubber. And it plays into the hands of two-time winner, Australia’s Toby Price, who is notoriously gentle on his race bike – clutch and tyres alike.

Airbag vests now mandatory – Airbag vests, which are already in use in several road categories and in MotoGP, can reduce the severity of injury in a serious crash. Following testing and approval in the Andalucía Rally, they have been made compulsory for the motorbike and quad categories. Riders have received a list of FIM-approved manufacturers. This safety equipment will be checked during technical scrutineering.
We Say: Great idea, but several riders remain opposed to their use for a few reasons. One, they severely limit airflow, which means greater rider fatigue. Two, there is disagreement over what sort of hit is required to trigger the airbag’s deployment. And three, there’s been very limited testing of the technology in rally situations.

Penalties for piston changes for motorbikes – Penalties for engine changes were introduced a few years ago to encourage bikers to ride carefully. From next year, time penalties will be applied starting from the second piston change even if the rest of the engine remains the same.
We Say: Again, a cost-effective way to help create a more level playing field. And again – for the same rationale as the limited tyres rule – good news for Toby Price.

No work at refuelling stations – In line with the overarching goal of encouraging competitors to take good care of their machines, bikers will no longer be allowed to work on their motorbikes at refuelling stations. The 15-minute stoppage will be reserved for refuelling and resting.
We Say: We get it, in principle. But is this rule a bridge too far? It’s one thing to encourage competitors to take good care of their machines, but it’s not entirely clear how not working on their bikes at fuel stops achieves this objectives. And will exemptions be made if it’s not safe to continue riding without fixing a problem with the bike?

The Dakar Experience continues – Last year, 22 vehicles crossed the finish line in Qiddiya as part of the “second-chance Dakar”, which gave them the opportunity to stay in the race despite withdrawing from the general classification. The aim is to enable novice amateurs to gain experience ahead of future starts. Elite lists have been drawn up for the SSV and truck categories in 2021 to exclude from this challenge top drivers who have a real shot at winning stages.
We Say: Well, if you’ve just ponied up $100K and a majority of your life for a year or two in preparation for a Dakar assault, this is welcome news. With so much is at steak, better a finish with an asterisk than no finish at all. Plus it paints a picture of organisers who are there to accommodate entrants, not break them (which, to be honest, is a reputation they’ve earned in recent years).

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