How ASO managed to save the 2021 Dakar Rally

Ensuring the 2021 Dakar Rally goes ahead in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic has been anything but straightforward. Organiser ASO explains how it managed to work within the strict confines of host country Saudi Arabia's coronavirus measures.

The closure of land, sea and air borders of Saudi Arabia just 13 days before the start of the second Dakar in the Arabian Peninsula set off all the alarms at organiser Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO). But, in the face of the restrictions imposed by Saudi Arabia to limit the spread of COVID-19, ASO managed to charter 18 flights to guarantee the presence of the competitors for the event.

In the middle of the Christmas holidays and with thousands of competitors, mechanics and other members of the Dakar bivouac worried about the cancellation of their flights to Jeddah, David Castera and his team – with the general coordinator, Thomas Cerf-Mayer, at the head – went to work to ensure no competitor would be left grounded because of the last minute measures of the Gulf kingdom.

In addition to their economic muscle and top-level contacts with the government of the country hosting the 43rd edition of the Dakar, ASO also had to be inventive. A total of 18 charter aircraft were used to transport the participants and teams to Jeddah with special permits from Saudi Arabia on a total of 21 flights.

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These replaced the commercial flights that a third of the total number of competitors (509 before technical and administrative checks on January 1 and 2) and attendants had booked on their own. ASO had planned 10 flights from Madrid, Barcelona, Lisbon, Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Munich and Prague to transfer the remaining two thirds of the rally.

"These days they are thanking us even before the start, people came to think that there was no way to do this Dakar and now that they are here they are very happy," Castera told Motorsport.com a few days before the start of the rally.

"If we are here it is because the Saudis wanted it. I saw the news very late, around 10:15pm on Sunday December 20. I immediately called my bosses and they told me that first thing the next morning we would be talking to our Saudi contacts.

"From the first moment they told us that the country was closed, but that if we could get the competitors there, there would be no problem. It was complicated, we had to find people to work in the middle of Christmas. We did a great job, but the night from Sunday to Monday was terrible".

Leading up to Christmas ASO managed to add another eight charter planes in just three days that departed from Dubai, Paris and Prague. The all had to comply with the sanitary measures, being limited to 80 percent capacity and with a limited amount of cargo to avoid having to refuel.

One third of the competitors, crew and other members of the bivouac (around 700 people) were transferred there from 47 different countries. The case of the British contingent was special, as thanks to the Bahrain Raid Xtreme team managed by Prodrive, who used a private plane, ASO was able to bring in the rest of the British members who had been left behind.

"Luckily, when the second confinement arrived we decided to charter and we already had 10 [planes], with more than half the competitors in them," Castera explained. "The most complicated part was the initial transport to the charter, because there are 47 nationalities here. All those who are not here, it's because of COVID issues [including Ivan Jakes, fourth in bikes in the 2013 edition] and not because of transport, which was our goal."

When asked if he feared at any point that the Dakar would not be held or postponed, Castera stressed that the future of the raid depended on it continuing as planned. "The night of Sunday 20th to Monday 21st I thought 10,000 things, but as soon as we spoke with the Saudis I was reassured," Castera added.

"I'm always positive and I knew we could do it. There was no other option, because if there had not been this Dakar, it would have been very, very complicated for the teams after a year with almost no competition. A lot of teams would have fallen. It was also to save the rally-raid economy for the future."

KTM team manager Jordi Viladoms was one of many competitors who praised ASO for its swift action. "The truth is that we are all here and things are going in the right direction and ASO is to be congratulated, because with all the impediments and problems with the COVID-19 at an international level, bringing everyone here is almost a miracle”, the Spanish former motorbike racer told Motorsport.com. "We are very grateful that they have been able to do so."

ASO's Christmas miracle will allow the 43rd edition of the Dakar to start on Saturday January 2, with an 11km prologue stage before the first stage proper on Sunday January 3.

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