It’s that time again: the 2021 motorsport calendar kicks off with one of the most grueling events of the year as the Dakar Rally returns to action this coming weekend. Limited to Saudi Arabia only this year, the event kicks off with a special Prologue stage to set race order on Saturday, before traversing around the country for two weeks before ending right back where it started in Jeddah on January 15.
This year’s route features 12 varied and technical stages, including two loop stages at Wadi ad-Dawasir and Neom and a marathon stage from Ha’il to Sakaka. All but two days feature more than 300 kilometers of special stage competition, with the longest coming on the penultimate day of the rally with 511 timed kilometers from Al Ula to Yanbu. The final trek from Yanbu to Jeddah, meanwhile, is the shortest special stage of the event at just 225 kilometers.
The entry list may have fallen slightly from 351 teams in 2020 to 322 for 2021, undoubtedly due in part to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but most of the event’s biggest names are returning. Three of last year’s class champions—American Ricky Brabec on the motorcycle, Carlos Sainz in cars, and Andrey Karginov in trucks—will return to defend their titles. Ignacio Casale will vacate his quad title for a go in the trucks with Tatra, leaving defending SSV champion Casey Currie as the only missing name on the champions list. Fernando Alonso also won’t return to the event, owing to his return to Formula 1 with Renault.
Brabec becomes the first American to run the Dakar with the number 1 plate as he looks to go back to back with Monster Energy Honda, but he’ll face plenty of competition. From Red Bull KTM’s Toby Price and Sam Sunderland to fellow Americans Andrew Short and Skyler Howes, not to mention 2020 runner-up Pablo Quintanilla, Brabec’s road to a second straight win in the grueling event will be anything but easy.
Sainz scored his fourth Dakar victory in the car category in 2020, and his second in three years after a string of five DNFs in a row dating back to 2013. He and Mini teammate Stephane Peterhansel headline the always diverse entry list, where they’ll face off against the Toyota duo of Nasser Al-Attiyah and Giniel de Villiers, Sebastien Loeb (who returns after a year off) and Nani Roma of Bahrain Raid Xtreme, and Khalid Al Qassimi and Cyril Despres of Abu Dhabi Racing. The always eclectic group of drivers also includes WRC part-timers Yazeed Al Rahji and Martin Prokop, plus Pikes Peak International Hill Climb record holder and two-time Le Mans winner Romain Dumas in his fifth Dakar attempt. At 67 entries, the car class is the largest four-wheel entry of the event.
But just as they’ve exploded in desert racing in the United States, UTVs have found another stronghold at Dakar, and are only outnumbered by cars by nine entries. Now split into two categories, T3 for Light Proto regulations and T4 for SSV, each division features its own all-star cast. WRC veteran Kris Meeke will battle Red Bull’s American duo of Mitch Guthrie Jr. and Seth Quintero in T3, while Polaris’ factory trio of Wayne and Kristen Matlock and Craig Scanlon will make their Dakar debuts in hopes of keeping the T4 class title in American hands. The Can-Am contingent won’t give it up easy, though, with 2019 winner Chaleco Lopez picking up the slack for South Racing and Monster Energy backing a four-driver stable that includes fellow American AJ Jones.
Karginov leads a four-truck Kamaz entry in that class in hopes of a second straight win, while Casale’s move into the trucks opens the quad class up for 2020 third place finisher Rafal Sonik and 2019 winner Nicolas Cavigliasso to face off. Finally, the Dakar Classic division will make its debut with 26 entries, ranging from classic Land Rover and Mitsubishi SUVs to a Porsche 911 and a Unimog, all manufactured before 2000 or built new to pre-2000 specifications.
As in past years, coverage of the Dakar Rally will return to NBCSN throughout the event. Broadcasts will air during evenings beginning on Sunday, January 3 at 7:30PM ET. Check your local listings for specific air times, as the exact time slot will vary for each show.