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Stéphane Peterhansel: The Incredible Story of Mister Dakar


Stéphane Peterhansel delivered another masterclass, leading the 2021 race from the outset to score his fourteenth Dakar Rally victory in Jeddah on Friday.

And while he may have won just one stage en route while his closest rivals may still be wiping that Saudi Arabian desert sand out of their eyes, it certainly is worth noting that his latest win came in pretty much the same manner as how Peterhansel won his first Dakar, precisely 30 years ago today.

Born on 6 August 1965 in Échenoz-la-Méline, Haute-Saône France, like many of his ace Dakar rivals, Stéphane Peterhansel first showed a talent in another sport before tuning to race dirtbikes. While he’d ridden motocross bikes since he was eight, Mr. Dakar’s first competitive foray was on a skateboard. He won the French Downhill championship at fourteen and raced the European championship too.

Back in two wheels, Peterhansel quickly found success, initially in supercross before he found his feet riding enduro and winning the 1983 French championship. He went on to win the World Enduro Championship, when Yamaha France CEO Jean-Claude Olivier convinced Stéphane to race the 1988 Paris-Dakar.

“I’ve always loved competition and the feeling of freedom and the open road,” Peterhansel explains about his transition to desert racing. “Dakar is one of those legendary events, so I was attracted to it straight away. You have the high speed, the adrenaline and the landscape. I take a lot of pleasure in the whole race, but not just the racing: also the preparation and the whole atmosphere.”

Rookie Peterhansel immediately showed his potential for desert racing when he scored a maiden Dakar stage win on the thirteenth day of his first attempt. He went on to score a second Enduro World Championship that year, before dominating the Dakar on his second attempt. He took the opening stage and went on to win five more in Niger, Mali and finally in Senegal, but challenges en route only mustered fourth overall.

After leading early on, Stéphane was excluded in 1990, but returned to ride the brand-new Yamaha YZE750T, which better bottom end performance and three years’ Dakar experience he used to great effect to move into the lead early on. Despite only winning a single stage that year, Peterhansel delivered a consistent ride to clinch his first Dakar win and Yamaha’s first in 10 years on 17 January 1991 (above).

From there, there seemed no stopping Stéphane Peterhansel as he scored second Dakar victory after four stage wins en route to Cape Town on the upgraded 850cc Yamaha the following year. Before making it a hat trick after recovering from an early issue to win back in the Senegalese capital. Yamaha pulled out of the ’94 race after late regulation changes so Peter sat that year out.

But he returned in style as he beat Jordi Arcarons to win on the updated XTR860TR as he took four of the last five stages to win his fourth Dakar. A rare retirement followed in ’96 before he matched Cyril Neveu’s five-win record with arguably his most impressive two-wheeled performance as Peterhansel won seven stages en route to a two-and-a-half hour victory.

Peter then become the most successful motorcycle rider ever at the Dakar as he took three more stages en route to bike win number six (below). And he promptly hung up his boots and turned his attention to winning the Dakar on four wheels.

“I have a very clear memory of doing my first Dakar as a rider in 1988,” Stéphane points out. “I was somewhere in the Ténéré, in the Sahara, when Ari Vatanen came shooting past me in the Peugeot 205 and left me for dust. I thought to myself, ‘one day, I want to do that too.’ So when I say that driving on the Dakar was always a dream for me, it’s absolutely true.”

Stéphane teamed up with Jean-Paul Cottret to read the notes and drove a Dessoude Nissan to a ’rookie’ top ten with a seventh overall finish in 1999. Moving over to a Mega buggy in 2000, Peterhansel scored his first two stage victories with Cottret at his side as they came home a fine second overall. They returned to Nissan the following year, finishing 12th before winning another stage but retiring in 2012.

The duo then moved over to the all-conquering Mitsubishi team and delivered a sensational six stage wins en route to their first podium in third in 2013. Then that good old subdued Peterhansel approach returned in 2004 as the intrepid duo only won two stages en route to Mr. Dakar’s first car victory (below). They backed that up with another win off four stage wins in ’05 and won three sages on their way to fourth overall the following year.

2007 brought overall victory without a stage win and the race was cancelled in ’08 before Peterhansel and Cottret crashed out of the lead in the fight for victory in the first South American race in 2009. They moved across to BMW’s new Dakar effort with Mitsubishi boss Sven Quandt and won four stages on their way to fourth in 2010, a feat they repeated the next year albeit off just a single stage win.

The BMWs became Minis in 2012 as Peterhansel and Cottret promptly delivered another overall Dakar victory of three stage wins before taking a couple on their way to 2013 victory (below). That made Stéphane’s Peterhansel the most successful competitor in the history of the Dakar. Controversy followed in 2014 when the duo was leading in the final stage and they were ordered to allow teammate Nani Roma to pass for the win.

Peterhansel and Cottret then joined Peugeot, which returned to Dakar to pick up on its last win in 1990 with the 2008 DKR buggy in 2015. That year brought an 11th place finish, but Mr. Dakar duly led the team to his 12th Dakar win to make its six car and six bike wins after three more stage triumphs in 2016 (below). “It’s extraordinary,” Peter admitted. “Some of my wins count more than others, but that one’s definitely in the top three.”

He followed that up with a back-to-back win in 2017 after a race-long battle with teammate Sébastien Loeb, again after three stage wins. Peterhansel then won four stages en route to third with David Castera in the hot seat for 2018, before returning to Quandt’s X-Raid team to drive the new Mini buggy in 2019.

They retired after two stage wins in the Peru race. Paulo Fiuza then read Peter’s notes to third after four stage wins in the first Saudi Arabian Dakar in 2020, before Peterhansel teamed up with former biker and mapping expert Edouard Boulanger for 2021.

The duo took the lead on the second day and was never headed again as they won just one stage en route. While his rivals ran into tyre and navigation issues, Peterhansel and Boulanger just got on with the job to deliver Mr. Dakar’s incredible fourteenth victory (below) in almost the identical fashion to how he won his first epic Dakar victory on two wheels, precisely 30 years before.

“I’m over the moon with the win,” Peterhansel revealed after his landmark success on Friday. “The pressure was immense since we were leading the overall most of the way. You can only lose in that situation, but I have to say, we drove almost a perfect Dakar without any major errors. Once again that was the key to success and things were perfect between Edouard and me, — he could not have done a better job.”

His Dakar successes may dwarf Stéphane Peterhansel’s other racing successes, but they certainly are worth mentioning too. He won the 1992 Paris-Moscow-Beijing Rally and 1996 UAE Desert Challenge on two wheels and the 2002 and 2004 Tunisia Rallies, the 2003, ’05 and ’07 UAE Desert Challenges and the Morocco Rally in a car.

Mr. Dakar also raced in the 1998 24 Hours of Chamonix and against the best drivers in the world in the 2005 and 2006 Races of Champions. He has since won the 2015 China Silk Road Rally, the 2011 and the 2019 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, en route to winning the ’19 FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies.

Peter also raced the 2018 Rallye du Maroc with his wife Andrea shouting the notes in a Yamaha Light Car. Fans may remember Andrea by her maiden name Mayer. She is also a Dakar veteran, factory KTM rider and BMW driver and Peter’s Mitsubishi teammate. Her best results were a couple of fifth places — one each in the car and bike categories.

“Stéphane’s driving makes our dog vomit.” Anna joked about her experience alongside Mr. Dakar. “It was Stéphane’s idea — we got married in 2018 and I saw it as a kind of honeymoon. Stéphane is a river in everyday life, but he turns into a waterfall when driving.” Stéphane however insisted that he was always in charge through that matrimonial test. “Because I was at the wheel!”

Obviously a most pragmatic fellow, Stéphane Peterhansel actually has role models in life. “I’m a bit too old to have heroes!,” he admits. “But when I was younger the two people I used to look up to were Ayrton Senna and Colin McRae. I just loved their passion and the way that they went racing in such a committed way. This inspired me. But when you get older, you go your own way.”

Looking ahead, Stéphane still has a good few Dakars in him at ‘just’ 55 years old. “I still feel the pleasure of driving,” he admits. “If there is one thing I have learned, it’s that Dakar is a long-term prospect. There’s no point in worrying about the classification until the final day — but our main goal has always been to just to get there.”

That’s a sobering thought considering the various other rants following the 2021 race. And refreshing too. Perhaps there’s a message in that, but it chase clearly worked for Stéphane Peterhansel in the Dakar. Fourteen times in thirty years.