A unique route was concocted for this 22nd edition, with Dakar as the start and the Pyramids in Cairo as the finish line. When entering Niger, Hubert Auriol was alerted that by French authorities that the rally was being threatened by terrorists. The organiser decided to arrange a gigantic airlift between Niamey and Sabah in Libya. The race was put on hold for five days to orchestrate the aerial ballet of the Antonov 124s. With the help of these huge Russian cargo planes, an unprecedented challenge was met so that the race could resume.
On the first major African stage of the 2003 Dakar, in Tunisia between Tozeur and El Borma, the battle for the title was a Mitsubishi in-house affair between Masuoka and Peterhansel. Further back, the adversaries were hanging on, with Nissan, who coaxed Ari Vatanen out of retirement, and Volkswagen, which brought on Jutta Kleinschmidt for the beginning of its rally-raid involvement. And it was these two 4x4s that got caught out in the high water and were found stopped in a very deep ford. Far from victory this time, the Finn all the same managed to win four stages in the second half of the rally on dry terrain. At Sharm-El-Sheikh, Vatanen and Kleinschmidt finished 7th and 8th respectively in the general classification.