Honda and the Dakar Rally:

Adventure without end

The "Dakar" has been one of the most fascinating motorsport events in the world for over 40 years. Honda has contributed a significant part of the history of the legendary desert rally. The victory of Ricky Brabec at the last edition and the current race-free time offer an opportunity for a retrospective.

Photos: Honda

It was 90 motorcycles, 80 cars and 12 trucks that attacked the first Paris-Dakar on 26 December 1978 from Place Trocadéro opposite the Eiffel Tower. The motorcycles of those daredevils and rally pioneers were based on simple single-cylinder enduros with a maximum displacement of 500 cubic meters and were prepared with off-road home remedies and self-built large tanks for long desert stages. No one had any idea that a race across remote regions of another continent would inspire entire generations of motorcyclists and make them dream of adventures in Africa. But that's exactly what was to happen: Dakar winners became heroes, their motorcycles became legends. Honda has successfully contributed to much of the rally history, which over the years should prove essential for the development of the increasingly popular enduro and adventure bikes and ultimately for the entire off-road scene.

1979 - Podium on debut

Honda private driver Philippe Vassard finished third in the first edition, which ran 10,000 km from Paris via Algeria, Niger, Mali and the then Obervolta to Dakar in Senegal; only behind him did the first automobile reach the finish line. Four other Honda enduros were in the top ten. The echo of the event with the aura of magnificent desert adventures and unbelievable rigours exceeded all expectations. Of course, this only further incited the ambition and professionalism of all those involved.

1981 - Little Happiness

Honda hired the winner of the first two Dakar races, the then 24-year-old Frenchman Cyril Neveu, for the 1981 Dakar. But during the prologue, which took place outside Neveu's hometown of Orléans, the drive chain of his XL500S ripped just 30 meters behind the starting line. Although the repair took only 25 minutes, Neveu was not supposed to win a single stage victory after this incident – he only finished the rally in 25th place. However, his team-mates Vassard, Desheulles and Rigoni proved the potential of the half-litre enduro, which ensured a successful team balance with a total of four stage wins.

Honda on Top (1982)

For the Dakar 1982, instead of the sports-loving French importer, the Honda Racing Corporation (HRC) took care of the preparation of the Dakar motorcycles. The displacement of the single-cylinder XL rally motorcycles has been increased to 550 cm3 and the power has been increased to 45 hp. In addition, the coupling was reinforced and the tank volume was extended to 42 liters. The biggest step forward, however, was a new chassis with monoshock dampers and ProLink deflection. The bike thus showed a significantly improved potential. Cyril Neveu scored the XL550R for Honda for the first Time this year, and teammate Philippe Vassard completed a confident double success in second place.

In the following years, however, the single-cylinder engines, which are well over 160 km/h, fell behind on the full-throttle stages in Africa against new two-cylinder cars that could reach speeds of up to 180 km/h. Compensating for this disadvantage due to the more agile driving behaviour proved impossible. As a result, the XL550R Hondas managed only one podium finish at the Dakar Rally in the following years– with Philippe Vassard's 3rd place in 1984.

1986 - Start of the NXR750 success story

Because only a new construction promised success, Honda developed the NXR750 for the Dakar in 1986. Under the 57-litre tank of the pure prototype bike was a V2 engine with OHC valve control, 779 cm3 displacement and 70 hp power. The NXR was superior to the competition, especially in terms of driveability and handling, although it weighed 250 kilograms with a full tank. The potential of the motorcycle allowed Cyril Neveu to cleverly divide the race and at the same time minimize the risk. After the longest Dakar distance in history with 15,000 kilometers, the Frenchman won for Honda. This should be the first of four Dakar victories in a row for the NXR. After Neveu's victory in 1987, Edi Orioli of Italy (1988) and Frenchman Gilles Lalay (1989) took the top spot with the now legendary NXR twin.

1989 - With the Africa Twin to Dakar

In 1988, the Honda Africa Twin (650 cm3, 49 hp) was launched and was enthusiastically accepted in the market. To prove that the two-cylinder enduro shared not only the appearance of the NXR, but also its strong performance and reliability, the French Honda importer launched a special initiative at the Dakar 1989. Under the slogan "50 Africa Twins Dakar" private individuals were offered the opportunity to participate in the rally on modified Africa Twins (with two additional 8 litre rear tanks and converted suspension). At least 18 of these private riders reached the finish line. This Africa Twin campaign was successfully continued over two more years. In 1991, the Italian Roberto Boano even reached 11th place in the overall standings on one of the moderately modified Africa Twins.

1995 - Two-stroke in the desert: the EXP-2

In 1995, Honda returned to present a new »Activated Radical Combustion» technology. Their goal was to reduce two-stroke emissions efficiently. The experimental Honda EXP-2 had a 402 cm3 two-stroke engine with injection, special combustion chamber and variable-controlled outlet valve. The highly innovative ARC engine was a rolling laboratory: with the throttle valve not open, the mixture was self-ignition; with a wide open throttle valve, the spark plug determined the combustion in the conventional way. The machine with this "part-time diesel engine" produced a staggering 54 hp at 7,000 tours and reached top speed in the vastness of the desert up to 169 km/h. The Frenchman Jean Brucy achieved the remarkable 5th place in the overall classification with the EXP-2, but after that this project was no longer pursued.

2013 - Honda Comeback

After a long break, Honda returned in 2013 with the goal of preparing the next generation of adventure bikes to be unveiled in 2016. But in the meantime (in which the official spelling of the spectacle was also widely changed from rally to rally) the sport had changed considerably. The bear-strong two-cylinders were banned in 2005, the event for 2009 was moved to South America and in 2011 the displacement was limited to 450 cm3. So the off-road CRF450X served as the basis for the Dakar comeback in 2013. The motor with Unicam control (here the inlet valves are operated directly from the camshaft, the outlet valves via an additional tilt lever) was compact and designed for pull-through from low speeds. The comeback caused Honda many problems – the Portuguese Hélder Rodrigues finished 7th as the best driver with the CRF450 Rally – but the course was set.

2014 - New CRF technology

Technically, the 2014 CRF450 Rally had little in common with its predecessor. The Unicam concept was replaced by a DOHC valve control (with two overhead camshafts), which gave the high-speed single over 60 hp. In addition, the chassis was modified, the rear frame was replaced by a carbon unit and the tank at the front was narrower. This improved handling and allowed more freedom of movement. In addition, a longer wheelbase provided more stability at the 175 km/h top speed reached by now. A traction control was also new: If there was too much slip on the rear wheel, the electronics reduced the power to avoid speed peaks and to spare the tyres. This was a noticeable advantage, especially on the new marathon stages – where the tyres had to survive two previous stage lengths and repairs could only be carried out by the riders with on-board tools. The motorcycle had also become a whopping 10 kg lighter with a full fuel of 170 kg. In the first participation in South America, star driver Joan Barreda shone with five stage victories, but lost excessive time in the overall standings due to a lot of bad luck. Once again, Hélder Rodrigues placed 5th as the best Honda driver.

2015 - Introduction of electronics

For the Dakar 2015, the CRF450 Rally has been improved again. From then on, advanced ride-by-wire technology completed the throttle actuation. As a result, the traction control reacted more sensitively and consumption was also reduced. Honda had an advantage over the competition in terms of engine performance on the high mountain stages in Bolivia, which further boosted the team members. Joan Barreda led the rally for several days, until the miles of flooded salt desert of Uyuni in Bolivia made a dent in his bill. Salt water penetrated the electronics of Barredas' motorcycle and the Spaniard had to be towed to the finish line. The dream of victory burst and the Dakar once again honoured her reputation as the toughest rally in the world. Honda team-mate Paulo Gon'alves finished second in the final standings.

The development of the CRF 450 Rally continued: After the introduction of semi-active chassis systems on road motorcycles, HRC adapted this technology to some of the four officially used CRF Rally motorcycles for Dakar 2016. Initially, the damping had to be pre-adjusted manually, later the technicians used suspension components that automatically adapted to the terrain. From Dakar 2018 onwards, the factory bikes were no longer used for electronic suspension, but this technology was again transferred to the Africa Twin – a good example of how technical know-how repeatedly contributes to further development in series production.

2019 - Goal within reach

That's racing. It could hardly be described differently that the Honda team repeatedly lacked that little luck to take home the overall victory despite an impressive speed. Although many stage victories were collected, the challenges of the Dakar proved too high and in the end the intended success was still nullified. In the 2019 edition, the victory for Ricky Brabec seemed within reach, much like Joan Barreda did in 2015. The California desert specialist was in the lead, but three days before the finish, the chance of victory in the fine "Fesh-Fesh" sand of Peru ended prematurely. Once again, fate was merciless.

2020 - Celebrated Victory

At the Dakar Rally 2020, racing luck finally turned. In the deserts of Saudi Arabia, 28-year-old American Ricky Brabec took the lead on the third day and defended his top position over the 7,800 km distance with astonishing coolness. After seven attempts at the most grueling rally in the world and adventures without end, all the pieces of the puzzle fit in the end for a confident overall victory. The Honda HRC team celebrated an inspiring success with the final refined CRF 450 Rally and was again on the top level of the podium, as it once did in 1982 at the Dakar Rally and in the glorious NXR years.

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Photos: Honda

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