Conquering The Dakar: Irish biker Oran O'Kelly on tackling the Everest of motorsport

Conquering The Dakar: Irish Biker Oran O'kelly On Tackling The Everest Of Motorsport
Oran O'Kelly competing in this year's Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia. Photo: Edo Bauer
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Muireann Duffy

Of all the attributes it takes to be successful in motorsport, being able to scrub a toilet wouldn’t exactly top the list.

However, for Oran O’Kelly, a stint of volunteering for the Audi team last year saw him doing just that, rolling up his sleeves and doing the unglamorous work that needs to be done, all so he could catch a glimpse of how one of the best teams in the business operate.


His commitment paid off last week when he joined a very elite group of Irish athletes to complete the famed Dakar Rally, placing 57th.

Set in the unrelenting desert terrain of Saudi Arabia, the latest instalment of the 46-year-old rally raid stretched 7,891km, across 12 stages, beginning in Alula on January 5th and ending in Yanbu on January 19th.

Dakar is a multi-vehicle race, with car, bike, quad, truck, and light-weight vehicle (SSV) categories, and of the 340 vehicles that started the race, just 182 completed the entire route this year.

Photo: Graphic News

Describing it as the “absolute pinnacle of off-road motorsport”, O’Kelly says it is the “ultimate test of athlete and machine”.

According to the official Dakar website, around 15 Irish athletes have participated in the event, a sure sign it’s not for the faint of heart.

The enormity of the challenge is part of its appeal for the 30-year-old, whose dreams of The Dakar have been life-long.

Following in the footsteps of his father, who also took part in long-distance rallying, and aided by a competitive instinct honed growing up with four brothers, O’Kelly says his dream became much more realistic when the race moved east four years ago.


The Dakar began as a race from Paris, France, to Dakar, Senegal, however, the route has changed on various occasions through its history, crossing the Atlantic to South America for a spell, before settling in its new home in the Middle East in 2020.

Having lived with his family in Dubai until he was a young teenager, Saudi Arabia was a location which was “somewhat familiar territory,” he says.

O'Kelly during the opening stage of the race. Photo: Edo Bauer

Explaining his journey to The Dakar was four years in the making, O’Kelly says: “It really took that long to build up the experience and the confidence to navigate my way through this event.


“How to qualify for it, to put myself in the best position to be as successful as possible at it, to really keep my ego in check, and to make sure I wasn’t doing it too soon or too late.”

Part of that process was the aforementioned spell volunteering with Audi, the team behind this year’s winner in the car category, Carlos Sainz.

“I was driving a campervan and cleaning toilets for the team, just to get as much intel and knowledge as possible to really go at it this year with as much in my head as I could.”

O’Kelly adds that he got to know Sainz during his time with Audi, and was in the thick of the Spaniard’s celebrations last week having crossed the finish line together on the final stage.


As a rookie, being able to take on the knowledge and experience of those around you is essential, particularly in such challenging condition. For this, Oran says he is indebted to his two Vendetta Racing UAE teammates, David McBride and David Mabbs.

“They took me under their wing about two years ago, and I’m massively standing on both of their shoulders,” he says.

“Being able to qualify for the event, let alone being able to get across the finish line, the knowledge they’ve handed down to me, and experience, has been completely invaluable.

“You couldn’t put a price on it. It’s been unbelievable to ride with them.”

Photo: Rallyzone

He adds: “When you look at it from the outside, it looks like a very individual, independent sport, but it’s an enormous team sport.

“To be able to rely on and have the confidence in the mechanics, in your teammates, in the rest of the support staff is so important.

“I don’t think I or any other biker would be able to do it solo.”

Even with the support of team behind you, The Dakar is a gruelling test, not just of driving and navigating ability, but also of mental and physical endurance.

O’Kelly says he lost 7.5kg over the two weeks of racing, explaining that fueling and fatigue play a huge factor for the racers, and that’s before you consider any issues their vehicle might throw their way.

“It’s such an intense experience,” O’Kelly says.

I can only compare it more to an expedition than a race.

“When we pack ourselves up for it, we’re camping in such remote areas, if you lose a spanner or a wrench, a nut or a bolt, there’s no going an finding one.

“If you haven’t got the spare you need, and an extra two or three spares just in case, your race can be ultimately over so quickly.”

But all of that was forgotten when he crossed the line, stopping the timer at 75 hours 7 minutes and 28 seconds.

He says representing Ireland added an extra shine to the achievement, especially given the support he received from Irish people and businesses in getting him to the starting line.

O'Kelly during the penultimate stage of the rally. Photo: Rallyzone

He pays special tribute to his main sponsor, Wexford-based O’Driscoll’s Irish Whiskey, particularly its managing director Michael Stafford, who he says “really stood by me when this was a wild dream”.

But was once enough? “Absolutely not,” Oran says, not when there’s room for improvement.

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“From a lot of the work and preparation that I did, the many challenges from this year, but I definitely have found elements that I need to go back to the drawing board – weaknesses in my preparation that have been well noted.

“Hopefully, if everything aligns, I can put together a package and a support team to make a second run at this.”

However, in the same breath, he stresses he won’t be signing up for anything just yet.

“I think I need to mentally, physically and emotionally switch off for a few days before I make any more big commitments or life-changing decisions.”

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