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The rugged beauty of the Dakar Rally

Simon de Burton recounts the intrepid history of the Dakar Rally and how it has inspired Belstaff's SS18 collection

The Paris Dakar Rally

When it comes to testing the limits of man and machine, there are few events as relentless as the gruelling Dakar rally; an annual event in South America where cars, trucks, motorcycles and quad bikes race across more than 5,000 miles of mostly inhospitable terrain.

The now legendary competition was started in 1978 by the late Thierry Sabine – a pioneering 'rally raid' racer who was inspired to create it after getting lost the previous year in the 250,000 square miles that forms the Ténéré region of the south central Sahara while taking part in a race from Abidjan on the Ivory Coast to Nice.

The original route devised by Sabine ran from Paris, down through Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Niger and Mali before finishing in Dakar, the capital of Senegal – hence its original name being the 'Paris-Dakar Rally'.

Paris Dakar Rally

It continued in roughly the same format for 30 years until, in 2008, terrorist attacks in Mali led to the cancellation of that year's race and a move in 2009 to South America where it has since remained. This year's edition runs from Lima, Peru, through Bolivia and on to Argentina, with the finish in Cordoba 5,500 miles later.

When long-standing fans speak of the event, however, it is often the 'Paris-Dakar' days for which they hold the most affection.
In the first year, 182 vehicles set off from Paris on 26 December 1978, a number made up of 80 cars, 90 motorcycles and 12 trucks. Of those, a mere 74 crossed the finish line at Dakar 19 days later. All competitors raced head to head, rather than in today's separate categories. French motocross ace Cyril Neveu took the first of what would prove to be no fewer than five Paris-Dakar victories

What seems remarkable today, however, is that the competitors used virtually standard machinery for a race, which is now dominated by 'works' teams fielding highly modified cars, motorcycles and trucks that are built and raced on often huge budgets.

Paris Dakar Rally

Indeed, Neveu was riding a Yamaha XT500 that, save for the addition of a long-range fuel tank and a pair of natty leather saddlebags, was almost the same as when it left the showroom.

So momentous was his victory that, a few years later, Yamaha created a production bike called the XT600 'Ténéré' that looked very similar to Neveu's machine, while Honda celebrated its regular participation in the race with its 'Africa Twin' and XL600 'Paris-Dakar' specials, and BMW marked consecutive wins in 1984 and 85 by works rider Gaston Rahier with its own R80G/S Paris-Dakar edition.

And it is to those momentous years and to the evocative sights and earthy tones of north Africa, across which the Paris-Dakar was originally run, that Belstaff designers turned in search of inspiration for their SS18 collection, choosing sun-bleached pastels, rich copper and burnt orange for a colour palette that also includes the solid blues, reds and yellows often seen in the automotive graphics of the early 1980s.

Such retro colourways are applied to Belstaff classics such as the Roadmaster and Trialmaster which have been produced in both 'heritage' waxed cotton as well as a whole range of technical materials that are lightweight, waterproof, windproof, breathable and UV-protective – all of which would, undoubtedly, have appealed to every rider who lined up in the Place du Trocadero on Boxing Day 1978 for the start of the very first Paris-Dakar.

It was, as Sabine later said: 'A challenge for those who go. A dream for those who stay behind...'
And, although the location might have moved to another continent, the sentiment remains the same almost 40 years later.

Credit:Getty Images