The lasting legacy of the Mitsubishi Pajero in the Dakar Rally

Some may argue that the Paris Dakar Rally AKA the Dakar Rally may not be the most difficult adventure challenge that exists in the World today, but you’d be hard pressed to convince the motorsports community of anything different.

Born in 1978, the Paris Dakar Rally takes place each January and is designed to separate the strong from the weak – both the human side and the mechanical aspect. The organizers have sought to make the rally as demanding as it can be but still be possible for the strong and well-prepared. The route and the rally have evolved over the many years, the name sake is based on the original starting at the Place de La Concorde in Paris, France on New Year’s day and crossing the finish line on the Atlantic coast just outside of Dakar, Senegal.

A typical Dakar rally takes place over a two or three week period in early January, the days vary depending on the terrain however a daily average of 500 kilometres or more is typically covered. The kicker is the terrain – competitor’s vehicles traverse some of the most formidable real estate on the planet.

The pace of the rally has little sympathy for mistakes or breakdowns. Teams spend nights in encampments called bivouacs and must be on the start line the next morning without fail. The original route crossed every condition imaginable; the long dusty and rocky tracks of North Western Africa give way to relentless dunes of the Sahara Desert to the endless Sahel plains of countries due south. Crossing the Tropic of Cancer brings heat and more dust, the total distance could exceed 10,000 kilometres before the lights of Dakar came into view.

Evolution of the rally saw many changes over the years, until 2008 the rally started in Europe and wound up somewhere on the African continent until terrorism reared its ugly head and the rally was cancelled last minute. The Dakar was subsequently moved to the South American continent for a period and now has landed in Saudi Arabia. Each incarnation has brought a new flavour to the rally, but the original challenge has been lived on by way of adaptation to the ever-changing political, geographic and economic landscape. The Dakar has always attracted the adventurous, either people or companies willing to prove themselves in the ultimate modern-day testing grounds.

The popularity of the Dakar has reached a world-wide audience in the millions making it one of the most watched sporting events in history. This audience brought sponsorship and professional race teams to pit their efforts against each other making the rally one of the most competitive races ever.

Mitsubishi Motors’ involvement began early in the history of Dakar, the automaker saw the Dakar as an opportunity to sing the virtues of the mighty 4-wheel drive Pajero / Montero and test new technology in the most arduous of conditions. The Mitsubishi Pajero became the ‘Prince of the Desert’ amassing more rally wins than any other model or brand in history and making its way in the Guinness World Book of records.

The first official involvement by the Mitsubishi factory came in 1983 when they fielded a 4-vehicle team using the rugged new Pajero that was released in May 1982. Entering a team in the Dakar rally was a logical step to prove the capabilities of Mitsubishi’s innovative 4-wheel drive vehicle. The team brought home impressive first and second places in the unmodified production class in its debut in the hands of drivers Andrew Cowan and George Debrussy. They also won in the team prize competition.

From this point forward the stage was set for Mitsubishi’s storied history in the World’s most demanding off road event. The following year Cowan crossed the finish line in third place overall and once again won their class – modified Production.

1985 was a pivotal year for Mitsubishi and its Pajero. Further development refined the Pajero to race winning form, Frenchman Patrick Zaniroli secured the lead after the rest day and never looked back. It was the first win for the Japanese automaker. Andrew Cowan worked his Mitsubishi up into second place and the team crossed the line in first and second places ahead of a number of factory -entered teams. A scant few years was all it took to develop the Pajero into a race winning vehicle.

Some of the notable milestones in Dakar history were attributed to Mitsubishi’s efforts, in fact the competitor with the most wins ever – Stephane Peterhansel, climbed onto the top step of the podium in a Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution in 2004. It was his first Dakar – win on 4 wheels. The Frenchman went on to win a record total of 14 times both on motorcycles and in cars. Mitsubishi played a key role in a number of other competitor’s careers. The first competitor to win the Dakar on motorcycles and then in a car was Hubert Auriol who collected his first win on two wheels in 1981 then in a Mitsubishi in 1992 which signaled the start of Mitsubishi’s dominance of the Dakar Rally for the next 12 years. German Jutta Kleinschimdt became the first female to win the Dakar in 2001 that was the last ‘classique’, it started in Paris and wound up in Dakar. At the wheel of her Mitsubishi Pajero she drove a solid race finally being awarded the win under a cloud of controversy involving a few other competitors.

As Mitsubishi’s involvement expanded, the mighty Pajeros became the car of choice among the many privateer racers. At one point there was over 60 Mitsubishis entered in a single edition of the rally often winning the Production and modified Production classes.

Another milestone in the Dakar history books was in 1997 when Pajeros occupied the top four finisher spots in the overall standings. The following year Mitsubishi once again swept the top 4 places with the French pairing of Jean Pierre Fontenay and Gilles Picard leading the Pajero sweep.

The 2002 Dakar rally was one of the most memorable for the Mitsubishi team, over that year’s 9,257 kilometres between Arras in Northern France and Dakar the top nine places in other overall standings were occupied by the Pajero.

Such unprecedented dominance had never been seen and perhaps never will, with a record-setting 7 consecutive victories and 12 overall wins Mitsubishi proudly closed the curtain on its Dakar efforts. Constant technological development kept the Pajeros running up front and always one step ahead of its competition that development still plays an important role in the Mitsubishi cars driven today.

Between 1985 and 2007 Mitsubishi secured the much-coveted spot in the Guinness World book of records with its 12 wins. The number of victories in individual classes for either production cars or modified production cars is almost countless, needless to say the Mitsubishi trophy room is well stocked.

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