The 2019 Dakar Rally will be the shortest in the event’s history, taking place in just Peru, but five-time winner Marc Coma doesn’t think that’s a bad thing at all.
The 2019 Dakar Rally is just around the corner, which means that news about one of motorsports’ best-loved events is coming thick and fast.
Carlos Sainz has announced he’ll be part of the X-raid MINI JCW team alongside Stéphane Peterhansel and Cyril Despres, while Sébastien Loeb will be fighting hard as a PH Sport privateer, driving a Peugeot 3008 DKR.
But some things never change. Russia’s Kamaz trucks will be aiming to reign supreme, as usual, across the sands of the 2019 event. The KTM bikers will be looking to once again defeat the mighty Honda.
The Dakar has always been more than just a gruelling and dangerous rally raid, though. Organising a race that crosses multiple countries and terrain is no easy feat. The fact that it even goes ahead every year is a logistical triumph in itself.
But change is on the horizon. Since 2009 the rally has taken place in two or three South American countries, but the 2019 event will take place in just one country for the very first time – Peru. This raises questions about the Dakar’s future.
To get to grips with the future of the Dakar, we spoke to a man who knows the event better than almost anyone. A five-time winner, who’s also been the race’s sporting director for the past three years, Marc Coma is a Dakar expert. He understands the challenges for both competitors and organisers alike intimately.
We tracked him down to his hometown of Avià, near Barcelona, to ask him about the 2019 Dakar and his plans for the future.
Coma has 16 year’s worth of Dakar experience. He took part in the event while it was still held in Africa, and then followed it to South America. He’s also been part of the Dakar backroom since 2015. So what does he think about the event’s plans for 2019?
“We’re facing a quite different Dakar to the one we are used to, with a very intense and demanding route,” he explains. “Just 10 stages, it’ll be the shortest Dakar Rally in history. Everything will be compressed into a single country.”
But Coma is adamant that the event, hosted by Peru, will still be one of the toughest ever Dakars.
“For starters, there will be fewer liaisons and they will be shorter as well,” explains the Spaniard. “The stages will once again have the classic Dakar spirit. Peru stands out for its sea of dunes. Two thirds of the route will be in the deserts, and the most important one will be Atacama.”
The Dakar began to explore these Peruvian deserts in 2012 and 2013. It’s a terrain that harks back to the event’s original home in Africa.
“I personally believe that it’s a good thing to have the sand as the big challenge of the race,” says Coma. “Africa was special because of its vast deserts. And only Peru in South America has been able to emulate those magical stages.”
Over the years, safety has been the organisers’ first priority – and their biggest challenge. But Coma says that the Dakar has, this year, solved one of the major problems it has faced since moving to South America in 2009.
“The rally will be safer because the participants won’t have to endure Bolivia’s high altitudes,” explains Coma. “It was very hard to manage the race at 3,500 metres above sea level. The situation was very risky, for the competitors and for the vehicles.”
“It was quite difficult to design the stage at such an altitude because the race was during the rainy season. It was very complicated to find feasible tracks for a caravan of 300 vehicles”.
“Technology has also changed a lot since the days when we were racing in Morocco, Mauritania or Senegal,” he adds.
“South America has many challenges and in many cases it takes us beyond the limit. We’ve been forced to evolve. You not only have to be very fit but also have the right machines. On top of that, the poor quality of the petrol doesn’t really help.”
Two weeks is just too much time
Having had to consider the Dakar’s challenges, as an organiser, has changed Marc Coma’s perception of traditional marathon rally raids. He now thinks they should be shorter and more intense, just like the 2019 Dakar.
“Races like the Silk Way Rally and Dakar are too big,” he says. “They’re very difficult to control and to manage. Two weeks is just too much time; it’s too complicated. These type of raids are history.”
“I am in favour of seven to nine stages at most. We should look for intense locations without liaisons.”
But setting up the Dakar in just one country hasn’t been an easy task either. It was difficult finding the right routes across Peru’s deserts.
“It is not easy to design a route through the dunes,” he admits. “One of the big pitfalls we encounter in the Peruvian desert is that we often come across archaeological remains.”
“That greatly limited our work. Behind the scenes, the logistics in the Dakar are titanic. Organising the race is a huge challenge. To secure the areas where the race takes place is a real odyssey. The institutions want above all to preserve their cultural identity.”
After the 2018 Dakar Rally, when Coma’s contract with ASO – the company that organises the Dakar – had expired, the Spanish rally raid legend decided he needed a change: “My work was already done. After three years as sporting director I felt it was time to do something else.”
“It has been wonderful to see the Dakar behind the scenes,” continues Coma. “To organise this event is something out of the ordinary. But now I need to rest. After my career as a rider and driver I couldn’t relax because immediately I began to work for ASO. More than 200 days a year away from my family was too much.”
After his departure from ASO, Coma received several big offers, including the chance to become Honda’s team manager for the Dakar and leading KTM in Spain. The Catalan has worked with the Austrian team for the majority of his career.
“I’m not going to go into details about my future,” Coma says. “Right now, I’m preparing myself to take on new challenges. No, I don’t have a beer belly. I keep playing sports. My biggest hobby is cycling. After the 2019 Dakar, I’ll be able to say more.”