The 43rd edition of the Dakar Rally is underway in Saudi Arabia. We’ll be sharing daily updates from our friends at WESTx1000. Stay tuned.
Begin Press Release:
A Marathon: the Fast Way to Weed Out the Weak from the Winners
The problem with a break is it cuts the adrenaline. The mind relaxes, revisiting old worries to dwell on causing a loss of focus on the race, and the week ahead. The body also cools, remembering what rest feels like and what it’s been missing all this time. So finally, when the normal amount of sleep is allowed, and the perpetual motion grinds to a halt, it almost weakens you. If you only know pain, then you accept it. If you know what the opposite is like, then you, consciously or unconsciously, strive for it – making pain all the more noticeable. As the race ventured into the following week, and with new terrain towards Sakaka waiting to be imprinted by treaded rubber stamps, rain welcomed everyone down the liaison. A quick reminder not to become too content at Dakar. The weather didn’t let up as pilots rolled across the DSS, unrelenting until the cold permeated the skin, and keeping the dunes ahead wet, moldable, precarious.
BAS DAKAR KTM rider Skyler Howes (#9) found the deep, sharp grooves – created by each pass of a vehicle – volatile, catching front wheels and throwing riders any which direction it chooses. Which is typically not the direction they’re intending to go. This area slowed many vessels down, yet Howes rode smart and fast where it counted, as did several contenders, to make up time; the performance brought him the 3rd seed in the special, just 2’19” behind the leader, and up to 7th in the General Classification. Understandably, today, more than ever, the competitors needed to take good care of their machines. Tonight, is the Marathon, meaning the athletes go to a separate bivouac from their crew, with no one allowed to work on their bike, car or truck besides themselves. This carries on until after the eight special where they’ll be trading Ha’il’s land of generosity for Neom, a city by the sea, and a place for innovation – intending to become a zero emissions zone several years and 500 billion dollars later.
Similar to Jeddah’s, but bigger, the dunes were featureless at the top and dipped down into wide craters with vegetation growing dead center and sprinkling the sides. Expectedly, chaos came early. Moderately tricky navigation and a sand cliff of Goliath proportion sent riders in circles as they tried their darndest to conquer the giant. Top riders, roughly the starting 15, sent it up the slope. While just about every bike thereafter drew figure-eights in the sand inching ever-so-much closer to the crest trying to avoid a collision. World Enduro Champion, and Dakar rookie, David Knight probably felt at home with these unforeseen technical challenges, admitting that the speed this year has been a bit faster than he’s used to. But anybody driving on at least four wheels chose to take their chances cutting trails around the massive obstacle. Even Ricky Brabec (#1, MONSTER ENERGY HONDA), despite today’s surprise conquest, found the initial section miserable (just like everyone else).
However, Brabec’s win is bittersweet, as it’s evident this iteration of Dakar, stage winners, more specifically stage openers, are almost sure to drop down the ranks with no fresh tracks in front to offer a tiny morsel of validation. No one to follow means the odds of a mistake are high, and higher still that they would be catastrophic. Staying out of the podium most of Week 1, Brabec knows he can’t risk anymore mishaps if the Honda Factory team wants another historic win. But perhaps they’ll just settle for a win. Monster Energy Honda teammate, Jose “Nacho” Ignacio Cornejo Florimo (#4) also found a good pace, placing just well enough in the seventh stage to pull his way up to First overall – a mere second ahead of Toby Price (#3, RED BULL KTM FACTORY) who isn’t his only rival. Sam Sunderland (#5 RED BULL KTM FACTORY) put in a strong finish as well, coming into third in the General only 2’11” off, while Xavier de Soultrait (#12, HT RALLY RAID HUSQVARNA) finished 2’34” back. Just over 2’30” separates the top 4 men. One can only expect SS8 is sure to be an epic battle – reportedly in the wet once more. Alternatively, a fixture at the front of the pack, Kevin Benavides (#47, MONSTER ENERGY HONDA) went from skirmishing for 1sr to a 10-minute deficit at about 50 kilometers to go in the special. His “huge mistake” may have cost him a title.
A heavy overcast sat on top of this section of the racecourse all day, dense and low like a marine layer. It casted a strange shadow upon earth causing the land to be a tad harder to read. Like Moab in many ways, what defines the terra firma of this region is its rock formations. In one spot, flat slabs of stone are stacked horizontally atop each other, like a layer cake exposing all levels when sliced into. While not far from there, the stacks are turned on their sides, weathered and rounded by the swift, relentless wind molding them over thousands of years. Like the entrants at the rally, time has worn away at the integrity of the structures. Filling the event with so many stunning twists of fate. Quads 2019 victor suffered a massive blow when his clutch broke merely 100km from the DSS. The Argentinian Nicolas Cavigliasso did everything he could before ultimately signaling intent to withdraw. This carved a clear path for his adversaries to fight for his overall leading position, which Manuel Andujar (#154, 7240 TEAM) took firm hold of by the time they reached the bivouac.
As the valleys along the liaison opened up, a few clay homes settled on select plots of land at the base of the rock formations. Not quite mountains but looming all the same – they gave each other space, and where there was space, there was sand. If you drained the Arabian Sea the floor may resemble what is in view along the highway. Perhaps a few freckles of sage, or bush quite like it, which blend in with the ground as the eye ventures further toward the horizon. On one of those same steep piles of rock sat a Shepard centered on the face of the cliff, while his black bodied, milky headed sheep climbed all around him. His brilliant white Bisht (Arabian men’s cloak) emits its own light against the noir of his surroundings. You couldn’t see the man clearly, but he was a beautiful sight all the same. Otherwise, for miles the scene was sparse. Just the short, jagged peaks with only sand poured around their bases. As the landscape began to change once more, entering another valley and approaching a range of “real” wadis, the sights to the rear could be mistaken for the American southwest. With the same mist that vails the various layers of crag, each one colored with its own shade. Driving through this countryside in this weather was a visceral experience – visually and audibly, the droplets creating rhythms against windshields and helmets. Air was heavy, and cool, made cold as the KPH would rise. Even the odor was different. Anyone who’s been in a storm, and has a sense of smell, knows this scent. It was uncomfortable, but calming all the same, melting away any memory of a rest day.
The clash of the Titans continued on their voyage to Sakaka, a northern town no more than three hours from the Iraqi border. These battle-worn regions know struggle, loss, and at times, triumph more than any of us trapped in the Dakar bubble. And although we consider our contest here a “fight,” circumstance has a lot to do with why these numbered vehicles have the chance to test their warrior instincts with far less risks to wager than their hosts may have, which hopefully offers some perspective (and gratitude). Yazeed Al Rajhi and his partner Dirk Von Zitzewitz (#303, OVERDRIVE TOYOTA) have been skimming the top of the pool the last few days before break. And with 100 kilometers to go, they floated up above the rest of the fish and swam to victory.
“It was a nice stage. We did our best, although we suffered two punctures. We still managed to push hard, and we were motivated because we were level with Carlos when we had a flat tire after 40 kilometers. Navigating wasn’t too hard for us. Now, I just want to do well every day, that’s our goal.” – Yazeed Al Rajhi #303, OVERDRIVE TOYOTA
However, Frenchman Sebastien Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena (#305, BAHRAIN RAID TEAM) endured a different fate. 30 kilometers from completion, they broke one of the BRX’s hubs, which put them in a devastating 42nd position in the special and overall, sealing their fate for the championship. The real fight has been between cars #300, #302 and #301, who have been trading places in the Winner’s Circle since day one. Few others have succeeded in breaking into the inner circle – Al Rajhi being a solid option to replace one of these three drivers should they falter. But Stephane Peterhansel and Edouard Boulanger (#302, X-RAID MINI JCW TEAM) has been putting the hammer down, resisting, as best they could, the unwavering attack from car #301 piloted by Nasser Al-Attiyah and his navigator Mathieu Baumel of TOYOTA HILUX. Carlos Sainz and Lucas Cruz (#300, X-RAID MINI JCW TEAM) too have given the men a run for their money, but he’s been a bit less consistent than his opponents.
Today could have meant a win for Saudi Arabia in two classes. Al Rajhi taking it in the Autos, and Saleh Alseif and Oriol Vidal Montijano (#412, FN SPEED – BLACK HORSE TEAM) originally crowned king across the Finish line. But Francisco “Chaleco” Lopez Contardov navigated by Juan Pablo Latrach Vinagrev (#401, SOUTH RACING CAN-AM) was awarded back 45 minutes which was spent helping a motorcyclist after a crash. The recount proved him the true victor of the special. Although she has a ways to go for contention, Cristina Gutierrez, along with partner Francois Cazalet, (#387, RED BULL OFF-ROAD TEAM USA) is making headway once again, showing just how competitive the women are in this race, finishing the stage in 5th. While the Americans are giving it their all to prove just how much their country deserves recognition in this most prestigious international event. The youngest stage winner in Dakar history, Seth Quintero (#383, RED BULL OFF-ROAD TEAM USA) maintains 2nd overall in the Lightweight Vehicle class, while comrade Austin Jones (#408, MONSTER ENERGY CAN-AM) holds 2nd as well in the General Standings for the SSV category. Even the premiere Polaris RZR Factory Racing team has a car steadily on the rise. Off to a bad start at first, Wayne Matlock and Sam Hayes (#420) have moved from the back of the pack to the Top 20. Not bad for their first-ever rally. And what a rally to cut their teeth with!
Trucks have probably been the most stable of the groups. There were the occasional visits from other teams in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd positions, but they have really been held down by the Juggernauts among giants, the KAMAZ-MASTER team. Three of their trucks have taken the podium hostage: #507 captained by Dmitry Sotnikov, Ruslan Akhmadeev and Ilgiz Akhmetzianov; #501 driven by Anton Shibalov, Dmitrii Nikitin and Ivan Tatarinov; and #509 with Airat Mardeev, Dmitriy Svistunov and Akhmet Galiaudinov at the helm. Maybe it’s too soon to tell (maybe), but it doesn’t seem like they’ll be giving those spots back without a brawl…Or a ransom. There are still five long stages to go, but those go by much quicker than anyone can expect. Will these teams keep up with their efforts? Will they become too confident with current positions? Or will the underdog come from nowhere to snatch the trophy from favorites? The anticipation has us holding our breath.
Ø Liaison > 271 km – Special Stage > 471 km; Ha’il > Sakaka | 41% Sand; 48% Dirt; 11% Dunes
Ø The marathon stage gets under way with a fearsome sequence of sand mountains and 100 km of up-and -down racing almost without interruption. Competitors will need to go gentle on their vehicles from the get-go to stop their engines from overheating. The first part comes to an end with a series of stony plateaus and a mix of winding and fast sections. The area set up for participants to work on their vehicles will be off-limits to everyone else.
Ø Stat of the Day: José Ignacio Cornejo leads the general standings by one second over Toby Price after exactly 2,741.69 km of racing since the start of the prologue in Jeddah. The rest of the top 5 in the motorbike category is also very tight, with Kevin Benavides still within striking distance at 7′49″. To put it into perspective, the fifth-placed driver in the car category, “Nani” Roma, trails Stéphane Peterhansel by 1h59.
Ø 231 vehicles (78 motorbikes, 14 quads, 56 cars, 49 lightweight vehicles and 34 trucks) out of the 286 cleared to start the race in Jeddah have survived a prologue and six stages and made it to the rest day. A further 26 vehicles have withdrawn from the race but remain eligible to continue the adventure under Dakar Experience rules without appearing in the general standings.
Ø “Chaleco” Lopez has been deducted the 45 minutes he spent helping a biker who crashed, which makes him the fastest driver in today’s stage and the winner of the special originally attributed to Saleh Alsaif.
Ø The competition is fierce in this category, as proved by the list of stage winners, which features six different victors in seven specials (including the prologue). “Chaleco” López is the only former champion on that list and the only driver to score a brace so far. After leading the rally for four days, a mechanical forced the Chilean to surrender the lead to Aron Domżała, who now holds a slender margin of 4′46″ over Austin Jones. While Can-Am is firmly in command of the race, Team RedBull’s OT3s have twice made history in the opening week: first with Cristina Gutiérrez, the first woman to win a Dakar special since Jutta Kleinschmidt in 2005, and then with Seth Quintero, who became the youngest stage winner in the history of the rally yesterday at the age of 18. Not only that, but the California Kid is also now third overall!
Ø Stephane Peterhansel missed an opportunity to deal an even bigger blow to Al-Attiyah in the General Standings because he hit a rock with 40 km to go and broke a rim. He spent a long time changing the wheel; it was quite hard, he thought.
Ø Baragwanath grinded to a halt near KM 33, and although he managed to continue on the course, he lost valuable time, which could cost him a top finish.
Ø Loeb was really hoping to triumph at the Dakar this year, but he is still 11 hours+ behind the leader. It’s a shame to not see him at the top step of the podium, yes, when he has a record amount of stage wins.
Ø Andrey Karginov went from ruling the 2020 Dakar with an iron fist to probably losing the 2021 edition on day one. The Russian’s crew lost over an hour and a half to a mechanical problem in the first stage, leaving him countin’ on a miracle to retain his title. However, KAMAZ showed the depth of its roster as Dmitry Sotnikov rose to the occasion and took over from teammate Karginov. Sotnikov has finished in the Top Two in every single stage in a display of consistency that has put him half an hour clear of the rest of the field at the top of the general standings. Following the withdrawal of Siarhei Viazovich, who finished third last year, Karginov may well end up wondering who needs enemies with friends like his, as Andrey Karginov tries to stage an epic comeback, Ayrat Mardeev seeks to follow up on his first stage win since 2018 on the road to Ha’il, and Anton Shibalov attempts to build on his four podium finishes in six stages and second place overall.
Ø Hubert Auriol “The African” won the Dakar three times, first on a motorbike (1981 and 1983) and then in a car (1992). And he served as race director for almost a decade. The organizers were shocked and saddened by the news that he had passed away.
2nd Overall Lightweight Vehicles, Seth Quintero #383, RED BULL OFF-ROAD TEAM USA: “Today’s stage was super long. We just went out there with a smooth pace knowing it’s the marathon stage. We ended up getting passed by a couple of cars behind us pretty early and then, after the fuel stop, we got back in front of them.”
2nd Place Lightweight Vehicles, Oriol Vidal Montijano #412, FN SPEED – BLACK HORSE TEAM: “It was a good stage for us We took it cautiously when we came up against difficulties, including a bunch of rocks, and we attacked as soon as the conditions got better…”
1st Place Quads, Manuel Andujar #154, 7240 TEAM: “It was a tough day with a long stage… I’m happy to be her and happy with my result. Navigating was tricky, so I took it easy to avoid getting lost.”
5th Overall Bikes, Kevin Benavides #47, MONSTER ENERGY HONDA TEAM 2021: “I got lost in the final 70 kilometers. I made a huge mistake and it cost me loads of time, 8 to 10 minutes. Now, it’s time to focus on the coming stages.”
4th Overall Bikes, Xavier de Soultrait #12, HT RALLY RAID HUSQVARNA RACING: “It’s incredible, the second week started exactly the same as the first one. Perhaps the first gaps will start to open up, if I can seize the opportunity. I hoped to catch the lead group quickly this morning and benefit from a mass blunder, but it didn’t happen. We’re still having fun. Today, I rode alongside my former teammate and great friend Franco Caimi, we had a blast. As part of my agreement with Husqvarna, I have to take care of the official KTM and Husqvarna motorbikes as well as Laia’s Gas-Gas, so I hope they won’t crash, and I won’t have to do too much mechanical work.”
1st Place Bikes, Ricky Brabec #1, MONSTER ENERGY HONDA TEAM 2021: “I’m not sure about getting back a whole lotta time. Toby’s still behind me. We’re going to try and stay focused and make it through tomorrow to get back to a mechanic. I don’t know if this Dakar is about strategy. I think the strategy is to not open. I think everyone that’s opening is just losing a little bit of time. There’s five days left and we’re going to try just to finish in the top 7 every day and see if we can make up a little bit of time.”
3rd Place Bikes, Skyler Howes #9, BAS DAKAR KTM RACING TEAM: “Stage today went pretty good. It was a little dicey this morning in the camel grass; they were really wet dunes. And when they’re wet, you catch edges and get sent straight up and down, and side to side, so it was a little sketchy. But when we got out of that, we went into the open desert, which looked just like Utah – right where I’m from – so, I was stoked to be there. It was a good stage, I got 3rd. It bumped me up to 7th in the general ranks, which was nice after my penalty.”
1. #1 Ricky Brabec (USA), HONDA ENERGY HONDA TEAM 2021
2. #4 Jose Ignacio Cornejo Florimo (CHL), MONSTER ENERGY HONDA TEAM 2021
3. #9 Skyler Howes (USA), BAS DAKAR KTM RACING TEAM
4. #5 Sam Sunderland (GBR), RED BULL KTM FACTORY TEAM
5. #21 Daniel Sanders (AUS), KTM FACTORY TEAM
6. #12 Xavier de Soultrait (FRA), HT RALLY RAID HUSQVARNA RACING
7. #3 Toby Price (AUS), RED BULL KTM FACTORY TEAM
8. #77 Luciano Benavides (ARG), ROCKSTAR ENERGY HUSQVARNA FACTORY RACING
9. #27 Joaquim Rodrigues (PRT), HERO MOTORSPORTS TEAM RALLY
10. #6 Franco Caimi (ARG), MONSTER ENERGY YAMAHA RALLY TEAM
1. #4 Jose Ignacio Cornejo Florimo (CHL), MONSTER ENERGY HONDA TEAM 2021
2. #3 Toby Price (AUS), RED BULL KTM FACTORY TEAM
3. #5 Sam Sunderland (GBR), RED BULL KTM FACTORY TEAM
4. #12 Xavier de Soultrait (FRA), HT RALLY RAID HUSQVARNA RACING
5. #47 Kevin Benavides (ARG), MONSTER ENERGY HONDA TEAM 2021