On the Ground at the Dakar Rally, the Toughest Motorsport Race on Earth

Dakar Ralley in Pisco, Peru
The 9th stage of the 2019 Dakar Rally outside of Pisco, Peru. Toby Price, 31, an Australian rider for Red Bull KTM, pictured far left. Courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool

In January, hundreds of competitors traveled to Peru for the Dakar Rally, widely considered one of the toughest motorsport events in the world, given its length and treacherous off-road terrain.

Since the race, which changes location each year, began in 1979, 19 motorcyclists have died; as a result, riders must now write their blood types on their helmets, in the event of a bad spill. This year, about 70 percent of the 3,100-mile rally took place on sand dunes, such as these about 40 miles outside the city of Pisco.

It was here that Fabien Duhamel wanted to photograph the motorcyclists as they began the penultimate stage in a rare mass start. He got into a prime position before dawn, but knew he would still need a bit of luck.

“Shooting in the desert is always a challenge,” he says. “There’s no road and an athlete may come near your position, then be completely hidden, just the top of a helmet dashing between two dunes.”

While this year’s route was significantly shorter than in previous years—the 2018 edition covered nearly 5,900 miles—the sandy course made things difficult.

“Each kilometer in the sand pretty much equals three kilometers on hardpack,” says Toby Price, 31, an Australian rider for Red Bull KTM (seen here at the far left). “It’s hard to control the motorcycle in those conditions. You never know what’s going to be over the next dune or how compact or solid the sand is going to be.”

Further complicating matters: A few weeks before the race, Price, the 2016 champ, broke his right wrist while in training. But he refused to sit and watch from home. “The Dakar Rally is an event you can’t miss,” he says. “I had to line up and try and make it work.”

Throughout each stage, his wrist felt as though it were on fire, forcing him to operate the throttle with his opposite hand at times. But at the end of the 11-day ordeal, he still managed to claim the overall title.

“It was an unreal feeling, especially under the circumstances,” he adds. “Racing the Dakar Rally is always difficult, but you can never count yourself out. Anything can happen.”