The Dakar Rally is one of the toughest competitive motorsport events in the world, testing both driver, navigator and their machines. Brutal landscapes that range from huge sand dunes that all look the same and stretch as far as the eye can see, to jagged rock-covered terrain which relentlessly punishes tyres and suspension components.
My recent visit to Prodrive provided an ideal opportunity to delve more into their Hunter program, but sadly all the competition variants were in various stages of disassembly ahead of the next round of the World Rally-Raid Championship. Thankfully, additional images have been provided by our very own Mark Riccioni, who covered the 2022 Dakar Rally, and Prodrive have kindly shared some of their own shots too.
The Dakar Rally is the brainchild of Thierry Sabine, who in 1977 was inspired to create the off-road marathon while lost out in the Libyan desert during a rally event. “A challenge for those who go. A dream for those who stay behind,” was the motto Sabine coined for the event.
A spirit of adventure and camaraderie has attracted thousands of entrants over the Dakar Rally’s 45-year history, and they competed not just against others, but to prove themselves worthy of the mammoth challenge.
Despite insurmountable odds, 578 vehicles entered the gruelling 6,500km race that ran for two weeks from January 1 this year. Sébastien Loeb and Nani Roma were at the helm of the Prodrive-run competitors, tackling the Dakar in what is officially known as the Prodrive Hunter T1+ and competing under the Bahrain Raid Xtreme (BRX) team banner.
Regulation updates for the 2021 season show the cars as they sit currently. A slew of changes, including larger 37-inch wheels and increased suspension travel for the four-wheel drive entrants were allowed, as this has closed the gap to the two-wheel drive entrants, making for closer racing.
These specification changes necessitated a whole host of other upgrades, with the drivetrain being reworked to cope and the design penned by Callum Design Studio (founded by renowned designer Ian Callum) altered to cover the larger wheel/tyre package, amongst other subtle alterations.
Twin Reiger dampers sit on each corner, allowing for 350mm of travel.
The barely-visible Ford 3.5L EcoBoost twin-turbo V6 outputs around 400hp with a restrictor and sits in a front-mid layout, well behind the front struts for optimal balance. The 480-litre fuel cell is positioned behind the cockpit so as not to upset the weight balance too much as its contents deplete.
With more focus on the environment coming into motorsport, Prodrive exclusively runs the Hunter on a biofuel developed in-house from agricultural waste and atmospheric carbon. Cumulatively, this helps the entrants emit 80% less greenhouse gasses over the course of the event and is completely backwards compatible with regular internal combustion engines, meaning it will eventually trickle down into other products, both competition and road-based.
Inside it’s all business. Controls for both driver and navigator are all within reach and specific to their respective roles. The majority of drivetrain-specific controls, such as engine, gearbox and differential settings are managed by the driver, with secondary functions handled by the navigator alongside route management.
Competing in the Dakar isn’t as simple as just turning up in your car or on your bike. Anything you need in the bivouac (overnight stops) has to be brought with you.
This requires trucks; large, capable trucks. These trucks are broken down into three types: Quick Assistance, Slow Assistance and Support. Dakar Rally rules state that only competitors and assistance staff can work on the vehicles while in the bivouac, and when either on liaison or during special stages only competitors can provide support. For those times, quick and slow assistance trucks entered into the T5.3 class are the only legal way to bring spare parts and tools to those in need.
Quick assistance trucks are entered as full competition vehicles, competing their own respective class. They carry limited spares and in the event of support being required, will most commonly drop off spares to the entrant in need and continue racing.
Slow assistance trucks also compete, but carry far more in terms of spares (along with trained mechanics) and will often remain behind to help with repairs. Very few teams have their own trucks, and as such smaller teams and independent entrants will sub-contract this support, with the cost of entry and running split evenly.
Prodrive’s support trucks may be far larger than the T5.3 trucks, and while they are capable of traversing difficult terrain they will generally follow more of a road-based route between bivouacs. Prodrive has three, and at that time of my visit they were all parked outside being prepared for the next outing. These 6×4 and 6×6 trucks carry the bulk of spares and act as headquarters in the bivouacs for race engineers, a workshop and even accomodation in the pop-up tents on the roof.
Everything you could need is carried in these behemoths in an extremely organised fashion, both to assist with finding parts and also to avoid them being scattered when travelling over rough terrain.
Smaller MAN 4×4 vans travel alongside the support trucks. These vans transport the team principal, engineers, analysts and mechanics, providing workspace as well as bunks to get some well-needed rest during transit.
The Prodrive Hunter T1+ is an impressive machine whichever way you look at it, but soon you won’t need to be a Dakar Rally competitor to drive one. A road-going version, billed as ‘The world’s first all-terrain hypercar,’ Prodrive has taken all of the knowledge and expertise from their racing program and added a degree of comfort to make high-speed blasts through the desert more enjoyable.
Slight concessions to the weight limit have been made to add in more of an interior, with sound deadening, a more powerful air conditioning system, comfortable seats and increased adjustability in the cockpit.
There are benefits to not having to conform to regulations; the Hunter’s engine is now derestricted and makes over 600hp, resulting in a 0-60mph time of under four seconds and a theoretical 186mph top speed, although this is electronically limited to 130mph due to the tyres.
While the car now sits around 100mm lower than the race version, suspension travel has increased to 400mm.
This first development model will, once the project is fully signed off, be taken into ownership by the Royal Family of Bahrain.
As you’d expect, these cars won’t be cheap, with a proposed base price of around £1.2 million. While this may seem like a huge amount, the race car underpinnings remind you that top-level motorsport always has and always will come with a premium price tag.
The BRX team are currently testing ahead of the next World Rally-Raid Championship rounds in Morocco ahead of entering the 2023 Dakar Rally, which for the fourth year starts in Saudi Arabia. Beginning on December 31 and running for 15 days, Prodrive will have their work cut out for them, facing stiff competition from Audi and Toyota works teams amongst others.
The biggest challenge, however, is not any of the other entrants but rather the desert itself. As the old adage says: In order to finish first, first you must finish.