Red Bull KTM factory riders launched their bid for the final round of the 2016 FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship on Monday tackling a relatively short and fast stage in the desert of Morocco that saw Toby Price take line honors. Second was Kevin Benavides of Argentina and third place went to Price’s teammate Sam Sunderland. With only one minute separating the top three, and the first 15 riders all within a five-minute span, it is very much open after the first of five stages.

Austria’s Matthias Walkner, the third member of the factory team in Morocco, and who was last year’s world championship, was ninth, but only 3:24 minutes off the winning pace. Walkner is easing himself back into competition and gaining in confidence after a crash and a long injury pause during the 2016 Dakar Rally in January.

Toby Price was also the winner in Sunday’s 7-km super special on his KTM 450 RALLY and Sam Sunderland was third. The top 10 riders were able to choose their preferred starting positions for the first stage on Monday. Price and Sunderland opted to go out at 11-12, leaving the responsibility of opening the track and the first navigation challenges to the riders in front.

Faced with 240 km on the bikes, which included two timed specials of 70 and 50 km, Price said the opener, the so-called Seaside Stage, was more of a sprint.

Price: “Stage one was good and there was a couple of tricky bits and the dust made it a bit difficult when we caught some riders in front. But we got through well and I only made a couple of small errors with the navigation. But I think it was more to do with the dust and trying to keep my eyes on the road instead of looking at the road book.”

Things get serious tomorrow when riders face the first half of a marathon stage where they will overnight in the desert and are not permitted any mechanical support from their teams.

Price: “It’s going o be difficult and we’re going to make sure we look after the bike and the tires, and on day three we can charge a bit harder. We’ll just take it nice and easy and make sure we finish in one piece and start day three feeling healthy and with a good bike.”

Sunderland was also satisfied with his opening day, although he said it had been a tough one with lots of stony areas and speed zones. “Today was pretty good. I started in 12th and that was my decision after the prologue. I had Toby in front of me and I knew I would have a bit of clean air because he would be pushing hard. We both caught the Yamaha rider (de Soultrait) after only a few kilometers and I caught his dust a bit and made a small navigational error. When you have to stop for a speed zone it breaks your rhythm. It can be 3-4 km at 30 km/h, so that side of it was tough.”

Walkner said he got lost a couple of times in the opening stage but also confirmed he was managing to regain the rally speed. “I feel I’m improving my speed a lot. For sure it’s not like it was before my crash (Dakar) but I’m happy because I feel better with the bike. Now I have to be more focused on the navigation. We have two long days for the marathon stage and I will try to be careful, because if we have problems we have to fix it ourselves and this takes time and energy. I will try to stay focused and enjoy these two days.”

The Morocco Rally is over five stages and a distance of 1882 km of which 1317 km are under the clock. What is at stake is the world championship title, so there is a lot to play for. Going into the rally, Sunderland was second in the points, trailing the leader Pablo Quintanilla by 11 points. Price, the Dakar Rally champion in 2016 and who was hampered in one round through injury, is third in the points. The winner of the Morocco Rally stands to pick up another 25 points.

Laia Sanz, the fourth KTM factory rider in the squad is not contesting the Morocco Rally because she is competing at the coming ISDE International Six Day Enduro, which is being hosted by her home country Spain.

Stage Two on Tuesday called “From Ocean to Dunes” is 554 km, of which 291 are timed special.

Results/Standings OiLibya Rally 2016 after 1 of 5 stages
1. Toby Price (AUS), KTM, 1:36:16 h
2. Kevin Benavides (ARG), Honda, +1:06 min
3. Sam Sunderland (GBR), KTM, +1:34
4. Ricky Brabec (USA), Honda, +2:53
5. Paolo Goncalves (POR), Honda, +3:18
Other KTM
6. Matthias Walkner (AUT), +4:26