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:
11 Stages in and It’s Still Anybody’s Race
The road from Neom to AlUla led away from the sea into the vast network of pointed and crumbling mountains. Unpaved in several spots, the path forced caravans to slow way down, soak up the surroundings and understand better this place they unwittingly explored all of Hump Day. The terra firma in Saudi Arabia has evolved so often, albeit subtly, since we first set off on this adventure, the option of planets to compare to is running thin, so it’s necessary to resort to fiction. A scene you’d expect from the set of The Martian. As if an incredible sandstorm blew into the region and devastated everything around it, leaving only heaping piles of beachy granules, everywhere, submerging all that might have once been vibrant, colorful and full of life underneath it. This isn’t abnormal. In recent years, remote sensing technology, including satellite imaging and drone flights, have revealed traces of large settlements in areas like the Amazon, and more aptly, the Sahara – places generally deemed as inhospitable for this scale of community.
The theory is early societies formed homes in the oases thriving there until exhausting their resources and moving on. The desert, waiting at the edge of civilization, found the abandoned metropolises unguarded and consumed them. Engulfed by the empty wastelands and forgotten. Studies have shown that the Arabia has itself experienced several epochs of heavy rainfall, which would have created woodlands and savannas, so it’s not impossible the now barren dust bowl in the Ula region – much like the Sahara – could be hiding stories of early man, submerged under rolling dunes, plateaus and crumbling sierras. Empty at first glance. But in this part of the Arabian Peninsula something brilliant developed as the monsoons changed course. Behind the lingering veil of dust, as if Dr. Seuss designed a desert, it might look a bit like here – rock formations thrust towards the sky like fists. Some, wind-beaten and batter, droop or lean in as a sign of defeat. About 33 kilometers into the special, the rugged hills looked like a stack of Dutch pancakes. Thin, varied in heights and sizes with imperfected shapes and edges. At sunrise or sunset, everything is drenched in marmalade becoming a dark citrus shade.
It was the perfect setting to open the stage. Although all of the premier riders looked lightning fast, they each were careful not to puncture a tire in the few rough patches, to include a number of small mountain passes. Ricky Brabec (#1, MONSTER ENERGY HONDA) looked strong quite early, with his teammates Jose “Nacho” Cornejo Florimo (#4) and Kevin Benavides (#47) helping to set a fast pace. Opening the stage, Cornejo seemed poised to take another stage, and anchor himself to an ideal outcome, but a crash at km 252 set him back by tens of minutes. Dazed, he had emerged altogether unscathed, or so he thought. Although he continued his effort and finished strong, Florimo has since been examined by the medical team and determined unfit to race. Hanging onto the first step of the podium and having created a large gap between him and the group initially, it is a tremendous let down for the young Chilean. In short time, his skills have developed such – in his riding and his interpretation of the paper scroll – that he was almost a sure bet for the Winner’s Circle. Now, he may have unwillingly stepped aside for his comrades in black and red, but don’t make any mistakes, next year he will be back, and a force to be reckoned with.
When it was all said and done, the 2020 victor, Brabec, is crowned king of stage 10. The American took the reins at km 126 and never looked back despite having to carve the path after overtaking Cornejo. It’s his third win of the year (including the prologue) and his sixth overall! And while KTM Factory loses ground, privateer with BAS DAKAR KTM is moving up, Skyler Howes, sitting in fourth place today, climbs to 5th in the provisional standings. Matthias Walkner (#52, RED BULL KTM) has slunk out of contention as KTM comrade Daniel Sanders (#21) sets back to a 30-plus-minute distance. Better but not best, the final chance to hang the orange banner is Sam Sunderland’s (#5) responsibility. But his grasp has weakened with over eight minutes against him. Kevin Benavides isn’t the sure conqueror of the 2021 Dakar as the difference between he and Ricky is a mere 51 second. Joan Barreda (#88, MONSTER ENERGY HONDA) is running in fourth place while riders for Yamaha, Sherco, Husqvarna and even Slovnaft Rally Team are still pushing the front-runners.
Atop the General Standings pyramid, Manuel Andujar (#154, 7240 TEAM) isn’t backing down. In fact, he’s more aggressive than ever with 21 minutes determining 1st and 2nd for the moment, Alexandre Giroud (#152, TEAM GIROUD) at the rear. Further still is Giovanni Enrico (#159, ENRICO RACING TEAM) behind 27’04” and Argentine-American Pablo Copetti (#163, MX DEVESA BY BERTA) jumping back a whopping two hours and 59 minutes from the bar! But hey, again, two days can make a difference. As Nicolás Cavigliasso had said: “A special can turn into a nightmare in a matter of seconds.” A nightmare for one; a blessing for another. Maybe that’s how things will pan out for the Autos? A grueling dance off has left many drivers, and their cars, battered and bruised, with the best of them still standing in the middle of the field, calling to their enemies, “come and get it…” Stéphane Peterhansel (#302, X-RAID MINI JCW TEAM) in 1st overall and Nasser Al-Attiyah (#301, TOYOTA HILUX) have been playing leap from all the across the Ula district. Perhaps what blinded them to the serious effort put in by Saudi native Yazeed Al Rajhi and co-pilot Dirk Von Zitzewitz who eventually landed just where they wanted to: in everyone’s way.
“We went fast, and Dirk also did a great job. However, with 30 km to go, we had a flat tire. We decided to push on, reasoning that we were almost there. The tire ended up torn to pieces, but we finished with it. It was risky, but we wanted to win. We thought that stopping would cost us 1’20”, whereas easing up a little might only cost us 45.” – Yazeed Al Rajhi #303, OVERDRIVE TOYOTA
The trucks have put on a show of sorts as well but seem to have settled on their rightful rulers of the Camiones. Martin Macík, Frantisek, Tomasek and David Svanda (#503 BIG SHOCK RACING), one is the loneliest number [add melody], so they decided to take two stages in row, instead. No small task, the Czech driver fended off KAMAZ’s Dmitry Sotnikov, Ruslan Akhmadeev, Ilgiz Akhmetzianov (#507) as well as Ayrat Mardeev, Dmitriy Svistunov and Akhmet Galiautdinov (#509) to put 1’40’ over camas the lead truck, who since the beginning has claimed ten podium finish in as many trials. Not to jump to conclusions, but with a 47-minute head start overall, it’ll be hard for anyone to take down the powerhouse in merely two more heats. All things considered, from a group of 44, only seven Juggernauts have been forced to withdrawal throughout the entire event, and this close to the finish line it’s unlikely we’ll more drop off before the ultimate finale – not without being drug off the racecourse. We’d like to see someone try… Especially off of these steep slopes, covered in rubble as if giant hands came down from the sky and crushed great mountain ranges into the pile of rocks and sand waiting precariously for a strong gust of wind to knock them over. Summiting them is similar to hiking a dune: for every two steps forward, you slip one step back.
“The first part was hard, but after that we had fun. We made a few navigation errors, but we also led the way for our rivals because the starting intervals were very short today.” Martin Macík #503, BIG SHOCK RACING
US local, Austin Jones and his Brazilian partner, Gustavo Gugelmin (#408, MONSTER ENERGY CAN-AM) must understand that feeling, as they might be in the upper echelon on the scoreboard but have been bouncing in and out of the prime seeds for the last two weeks. SS11 is their last hope to make up time on the top UTV. But nothing is decided yet! Third to American champ Casey Currie last year, #401 Francisco López Contardo and navigator Juan Pablo Latrach Vinagre (SOUTH RACING CAN-AM) have positioned themselves 10 minutes ahead of another Jones and Gugelmin, while 2020’s first runner-up, Sergei Kariakin and Anton Vlasiuk (#400, SNAG RACING TEAM) took the SS10 title with a 29’ gap between them and the #408 car. However, it’s still not enough to put Kariakin in line at the podium or even in the first set of ten today. Michal Goczal and Szymon Gospodarczyk (#424, ENERGYLANDIA RALLY TEAM), too, put up a hell of a fight and hold onto 3rd in stage and 4th overall, but they’re over a full hour from catching the leader, so the coming, (epic) battle will now be between Lopez and Jones for the top spot. For the third-to-last, and arguably the penultimate deciding stage, it might seem like the win is a sure thing. But this is Dakar, as they say, and anything can happen during the final challenge on Special Stage 11. And Jones has been doing a great job of staying relevant in this race. He’s barely been out of the Top Three spots, and when he slips, he follows up with an even more impressive performance.
Historically located on the “Incense Route,” this region hosts the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in the country called Hegra (among other names) – a walled-in city protecting mudbrick and stone houses built more than 2,000 years ago by the Nabataeans who have left their mark long after they disappeared. Culture is what separates us from the monkeys. It represents our art, our diets, the environments we live in and our beliefs. This can even dictate our laws, procedures, our way of life in general. So, it shouldn’t be shocking age-old traditions are hard to change. To be steadfast has been their key to success, and survival. To many, their culture is their identity. Which is why customs, and their freedoms, are fought for with such fervor and intensity and relentlessness. To change or invalidate them is to do the same to the people who, together, make up these groups. This is part of the marvel that is Dakar – the spectacularly colorful people from all walks of life, all over the world. At any one time, there are at least a dozen languages buzzing around the bivouac. Many attendees speak more than one, allowing for even better communication with their neighbors. Dakar connects everyone, and all those willing to be exposed to these differences come out of the more than two week-long event a better version of themselves. More compassionate, if nothing else. Maybe that’s why, when you’re an outsider looking in, the Dakar can seem like a family reunion. A gathering of friends reporting in dirt parking lot, often thousands of miles away from home, for the same purpose. They might not even all like each other, but there’s no shortage of respect. And respect can be the only thing you need on the racecourse.
Ø Liaison > 241 km – Special Stage > 342 km; Neom > AlUla | 44% Sand; 42% Dirt; 12% Tarmac; 1% Stones 1% Chott
Ø There are not enough superlatives to describe the landscapes in the first part of this stage. The hilly areas that make up most of the rest of the course are just as breathtaking. However, the sandy tracks will provide an opening for navigation savvy participants to blast their way through the valleys.
Ø Welcome to a different world. Over hundreds of thousands of years, geological processes fashion rocks into gargantuan sculptures with shapes that can be familiar or, on the contrary, rather psychedelic: a mushroom here, a mammoth there, over there a tulip, a pyramid or a Greek colony… In this surrealist landscape, the competitors’ main concern was navigating. Not everyone enjoyed this exercise, including Sam Sunderland, who came close to losing his podium spot. If he managed to keep, it was only thanks to the setback suffered by Nacho Cornejo, whose hopes of victory were dashed just as the rally came within a hundred kilometers or so of the millennia-old Nabataean funerary monuments for which AlUla is famous.
Ø No-one expected this to turn into a game of survival. The four Honda riders surrounding Sam Sunderland in the top 5 of the general standings had no need to set an infernal pace to keep a lid on the race. In fact, no-one can accuse them of being reckless in today’s stage… But Nacho Cornejo ended up crashing 252 km into the special anyway. The Chilean was evacuated from the race 90 kilometers down the road, at the finish of the special that Ricky Brabec won at the same time as he rocketed up to second place overall (see Performance of the day). It is hard to look past the reigning champion and his teammate Kevin Benavides, now leading the rally by 1′04″, in the fight for the title.
Ø in the car category, the latest duel between Stéphane Peterhansel and Nasser Al Attiyah did not lead to major changes, as the 49″ lost by the Mini driver barely made a dent in his lead ahead of an even more vicious battle tomorrow. Yazeed Al-Rajhi pounced on the opportunity to take another stage win as a consolation prize for not being able to challenge for the title.
Ø Pablo Copetti left the opposition in the dust in the quad category, but he remains in fourth place overall with clear daylight between him and leader Manuel Andújar. “Chaleco” López was also unfazed by Sergei Kariakin’s victory in the lightweight vehicle category, but he would do well to keep a close eye on fellow Can-Am driver Austin Jones at 10′13″.
Ø 24 hours after claiming his maiden stage, Martin Macík made it two in a row with a new triumph over the Kamaz drivers, but without loosening their iron grip on the general standings.
Ø No-one except his countryman Yasir Seaidan even came close to Yazeed Al-Rajhi in today’s special. The Saudi, who had an erratic start to the rally, took control of the race at km 90 and cruised to his second stage win in the 43rd Dakar.
Ø Nasser Al-Attiyah only managed to make up 49′ on the Frenchman, who still enjoys a margin of more than 17 minutes in the general standings.
Ø It is no coincidence that Ricky Brabec is the defending champion! The American reached the rest day stuck in the doldrums, almost 20 minutes behind the leader, but his reaction has been swift and spectacular. He won the first part of the marathon stage and has since finished every stage on the podium. The Honda rider continued to make up time as his main rivals, including Xavier De Soultrait, Toby Price and Nacho Cornejo, made fatal mistakes. Barbec’s win in stage 10, combined with Kevin Benavides’ mediocre performance in the same special, bring the American within one minute of his stablemate in the general standings. Tomorrow, Brabec will face the challenge of opening the longest stage in this year’s edition… but he already acquitted himself brilliantly today by opening the way after overtaking Benavides.
Ø Nacho Cornejo’s supporters in Chile were probably already preparing to celebrate. Their hero seemed poised to win the Dakar at the young age of 26 and was heading into the final stages with a margin of 11 minutes and a calm, collected approach that pre-empted unnecessary risks. Even after his crash, the folks in Iquique must have breathed a sigh of relief when they saw their boy jump right back on his bike. However, it all went downhill from there. First, the effects of the crash slowed Cornejo down to the point that he surrendered the lead and faced a vicious high stakes battle in the last two stages. Shortly after, the Honda rider was forced to withdraw from the race due to a concussion that required close surveillance and in-depth examinations. Leaving his fifth Dakar in a helicopter is probably not what he was expecting.
Ø Although Sergei Kariakin finished as runner-up to Casey Currie last year, the Russian had not won a stage in the Dakar stage since 2019. Today’s victory made Kariakin the seventh stage winner of this year’s edition in the lightweight vehicle category. The 2021 edition was a bumper crop for records, including the first woman to win a stage since 2005, Cristina Gutiérrez, and the youngest ever Dakar stage winner, 18-year-old Seth Quintero. Not to mention Kris Meeke, who like the Red Bull Off-road Team duo is also making his lightweight vehicle debut. Three rookie stage winners make this the most open category of the rally… and who knows what the last two stages will bring!
Ø Pablo Copetti fended off Ítalo Pedemonte’s onslaught to claim his second stage win this year. Although it does not change much in the general standings, where Copetti is no longer a contender for the title, this victory slightly increased his margin on Pedemonte for fourth place overall.
Ø A rattled Nacho Cornejo has undergone a medical examination after soldiering on to the finish following his crash at km 252. The Chilean, who started today’s stage in the overall lead, has been left with no choice but to withdraw from the race and leave his teammates Ricky Brabec and Kevin Benavides to duke it out for the win.
1st Place Bikes, Ricky Brabec #1, MONSTER ENERGY HONDA: “I’m sure Nacho has a lot of pressure. Leading the Dakar is not easy. I don’t think there’s a lot of pressure from the team, but for a personal goal I think he has a lot of pressure. He’s a young kid, he’s been riding well all week, he’s been surprising everybody. He’s the best navigator at this rally. We all know we all wanna win. Winning is the best thing there is in life. There’s no real team orders.”
1st Overall Cars, Stéphane Peterhansel #302, X-RAID MINI JCW TEAM: “The navigation is designed to throw the drivers off track, so it wasn’t easy. We didn’t get lost, but we hesitated a lot. We lost very little time to Nasser and that’s what really matters. The tension goes up as soon as you start to hesitate, so that’s when you need to stay as calm as possible. The pressure never goes away, from the moment you wake up until you go to bed. When you do well in a stage, you know it would be a real pity to see all that effort go down the drain! Being in the lead is the best position, but it’s also where you’ve got the most to lose.”
2nd Place Cars, Nasser Al-Attiyah #301, TOYOTA HILUX: “Navigating wasn’t easy, but I’m rather happy the stage went without a hitch. I think tomorrow will decide the Dakar. It’s going to be a tricky stage, but we’ll do our best. There’s no strategy, we’ll just keep driving fast. Of course, Stéphane is under the most pressure because he’s the leader, but I’m also under pressure: if I can’t make it, I’ll finish second.”
4th Overall Quads, Pablo Copetti #163, MX DEVESA BY BERTA: “It was a fast, long stage. I was fifth until the halfway point and then, when I caught the others, I put the pedal to the metal. I’m delighted to take my second Dakar stage win.”
2nd Place Bikes, Joan Barreda Bort #88, MONSTER ENERGY HONDA: “I started in third place and the dust made it quite hard to overtake the others. I could barely see where I was going… In the end, it was a good day for me, especially after crashing yesterday. I had a good feeling with my bike, it was a good stage for me.”
Lightweight & SSV, Kristen Matlock #409, POLARIS RZR FACTORY RACING: “I’m so excited just to be this far along in our journey through Dakar. Today was actually really fun. It was high-speed, not very many rocks for a change and absolutely no sand dunes, but tomorrow, Stage 11 and then onto 12, they are solely sand dunes (they say). So, I’m going to get back into my groove and get ready to hit the dunes.”