Dakar’s Mercurial Affection Finds Itself New, Unsuspecting Target
The Dakar Rally is tempestuous. Like a wild fling, it’s alluring, captivating, so good when it’s good that when it’s bad, you pretend it’s not so bad. One day, Dakar offers hope – dazzling you with its magnificent features only to slap you in the face the next day over minor mistakes. In the Bike class alone, there has been much less the volleying of premium positions between pro riders, than it has been splitting a piñata and all the competitors scrambling to pick up the best candy. At the Prologue, 2020 Champion Ricky Brabec (#1 Monster Energy Honda) took First, to his dismay. Leading out SS1 with virgin soil offering zero hints, he subsequently dropped through the cracks while Toby Price (#3 Red Bull KTM) slid past to victory. Unsurprisingly, the same fate befell Price, as he too disappeared from the premiere standings and Joan Barreda Bort (#88 Monster Energy Honda) hustled to the Winner’s Circle in SS2. Then, as if someone hit the reset button, Special Stage Three circled back and repeated the pecking order from Stage One: 1st Price, 2nd Kevin Benavides (#47 Monster Energy Honda) and 3rd Matthias Walkner (#52 Red Bull KTM). Because why not? But this wasn’t the curve ball. In 4th, instead of the usual factory suspects, sat privateer from the US Skyler Howes (#9 BAS Dakar KTM) who’d stunned everyone last year when he made it to the stage in Al-Qiddiya holding the 9th seat. But! That’s. Not. All. He currently finds himself inadvertently leading the contest overall in motorbikes, 33 seconds in front of Benavides. Not bad for a grassroots racer from Utah. And although the pressure’s on to maintain his grip on the edge of the podium, Howes is keeping his cool. Who doesn’t love an underdog story? And it’s hard to think of anyone who’d deserve a Cinderella Story quite like Skyler.
“I came into the rally with no expectations. Just to ride every day the best I can, and today went really well. I felt right at home. And I… [laughing in disbelief] guess I’m leading the Dakar Rally, which is pretty insane, to be honest. I’m just from small-town Utah, so it’s pretty cool. I’m just having a good time riding my dirt bike, and if the result comes, I’m super stoked either way. I’m just going to keep it rolling every day, the best I can, and hopefully by the end of the Dakar, something good comes from it.” Skyler Howes #9, BAS Dakar KTM Racing Team
America needed a pick me up after fan favorite Andrew Short (#7 Monster Energy Yamaha) who had suffered mechanical issues in the second special – water in his gas tank to be precise – was forced to drop out. And there’s no comfort in watching their hero, Brabec, fight to close the 24-minute gap, now about 12 minutes, from the front-runner. What he’s achieved so far already is impressive, but his fans are anxiously holding their breath in anticipation. Quads too have been shaking things up. But much like the Car class, their highest ranks have only been shared amongst a few pilots with Alexandre Giroud (#152 Team Giroud) and Pablo Copetti (#163 MX Devesa By Berta) splitting most of the conquests between themselves. However, the epic battle between elite teams has kept all eyes on the autos. X-Raid Mini JCW teammates Stephane Peterhansel (#302) and Carlos Sainz (#300) have been in a sort of “lover’s” triangle, vying for a moment of Dakar’s attention the instant they were welcomed onto the racecourse. Ironically, the rivals were so distracted by a constant exchange of blows to notice a third, stealthier adversary, Nasser Al-Attiyah, sneak up to their beloved and throw an arm around – taking his prize not once, but twice with the help of co-driver Matthieu Baumel (#301 Toyota Gazoo). And while they managed to win the SS2 and SS3, the rally’s other interests, like Sebastian Loeb (#305 Bahrain Raid Xtreme), Yazeed Al Rajhi (#303 Overdrive Toyota), Jakub Przygonski (#307 Orlen Team Overdrive) and Brian Baragwanath (#339 Car Century Racing) have been dancing around the scoreboard, not capable of maintaining a rhythm. And how could they? Dakar’s terrain has been changing like a mood swing.
“Today it was a really complete stage. At the beginning it was trial-like in the rocks, with the big rocks. On the first trial section, we got a puncture, so after that I took it a little more safely in the rocks. After that, there were sometimes canyons, sandy canyons, nice dunes also and a fast plateau… It was a really good mix. The result is not perfect because of the puncture, but I’m really happy with the job done by Edouard Boulanger, my co-pilot. In the complicated places, he did a really good job. I’m happy with the car, and I’m happy with the co-pilot, so it’s good for the next day.” Stephane Peterhansel #302, X-Raid Mini JCW Team
Competitors took off just after 4 o’clock this morning before the sun had its chance to greet them. Dawn in the Saudi Arabian desert is the perfect fodder for bards and novelists. Venturing not too far, as light begins to wipe away the darkness, the scene, now visible as riders enter their third special, is otherworldly. To witness it can change your life. And your aspirations. But you can’t describe this event to someone and expect them to really understand it. However poetic, words won’t do. A phrase can’t offer a feeling…Exhilaration. Or that lingering ache which comes from lack of sleep, a hodgepodge diet and constant motion – manifesting itself once the adrenaline of watching camas crest the edge of a dune in your direction finally wears off. The pain never arrives if delivered lyrically. Being there, wherever that is, makes the Dakar tangible, and changes everything about its character. Even with years of attendance, athletes like Mathieu Serradori (#308 SRT Racing) can be intimidated by the massive dunes, with tall, sharp cliffs waiting for one wrong move. Or Aron Domzala (#406 Monster Energy Can-Am) in the Lightweight category who stated in an interview that these landscapes were troubling. The numerous rocky sections didn’t make things any simpler causing punctures for several teams, to include Domzala. Not alone in his opinion, Al-Attiyah felt the navigation was significantly tricky in some places. And the staggering number of vehicles who zigzagged in search of their waypoints are proof of his point.
Fortunately, the Polaris RZR Factory drivers, affectionately dubbed “Team America,” felt much better with the terra forma in this “gateway to the Empty Quarter” – a name suitable it’s the bizarre, barren backcountry. Only one puncture for Wayne Matlock and Sam Hayes (#420), who are still in the running. While Kristen Matlock and Max Eddy Jr. (#409) are now finishing the remaining challenges in the non-competitive Experience class since withdrawing due to unresolved mechanical issues. As the path opened up into a great expanse, something which the Matlocks are rather at home with, a gremlin caught up to #420 around PK170 and the battery suddenly died. A few cars passed, with no jumper cables to be found, the pair, desperate for a solution, came up with the clever idea to take the battery out of their impact gun, strip the wires out of the wiring harness from the car and jump start their RZR. Ultimately a success, they lost a fair amount of time and dropped down the ladder, although not so far they wouldn’t be able to climb their way back up the rungs. Meanwhile, fellow countryman, Arizona resident Austin Jones with navigator Gustavo Gugelmin (#408 Monster Energy Can-Am) has put on quite a show in 2021. Despite the fierce competition, they dominate the pack of Lightweight Vehicles and SSVs, planted firmly on the third step of the podium, for now.
Trucks had no easier time this stage. Only three official days in, and six teams of 41 have reluctantly exited the Dakar – some barely. Disaster struck Dutch contenders Maurik Van Den Heuvel, Wilko Van Oort and Martijn Van Rooij (#519 Dakarspeed) when their race ship tumbled during a steep ascent, only to smash the roof when landing. There was no hope upon impact. Even the winners suffered their share of technical difficulties. Although, this didn’t stop Siarhei Viazovich, Pavel Haranin and Anton Zaparoshchanka (#502) from duking it out with overall leaders of nearly 17 minutes in Kamaz – Master vessel #507, Dmitry Sotnikov, Ruslan Akhmadeev and Ilgiz Akhmetzianov. There’s still no sure conqueror in this group, but with 9 stages left, it’s anyone’s guess what lay ahead.
Every new stage seems to travel further and further from earth. If SS1 and SS2 took us to Mars, then today, we entered uncharted territory altogether. The stage was “complete” according to a Iot of rally veterans. It offered a smorgasbord of goodies for teams to sample, but most on the menu – like ebony shale rock covering any evidence of where dirt could’ve been, or gigantic piles of sand sliced on their backsides or what resembles molten lava flowing down to sea level frozen in time for thousands of years – will be bittersweet. Like a combination of Moab and Mars. Crazy rock formations which spring up from the sand seen from a distance. Tons of sharp ledges and disappearing canyons. Looking out toward the skyline, at what looks to be a small hill, without a keen eye, the several canyons in between are hidden in plain sight. Not thing about the Dakar Rally stays the same for long. It is an emotional creature, and its passion is hard to resist. But if you learn to predict its moods, and stay prepared for the upswings, and the down, you might find yourself in a healthy relationship with the ruler of Motorsports.
Ø Liaison > 226 km – Special > 403 km; Wadi Ad-Dawasir to Wadi Ad-Dawasir
Ø The gateway to the Empty Quarter provides the backdrop to this stage —pure, unadulterated desert. Competitors will get a hefty serving of dunes, albeit spread far and wide and in small chains. The special intersperses technical sections with faster parts. This high-stakes loop will give the fastest competitors their first opportunity to make a real difference. 78% sand, 12% dirt, 10% dunes and 100% hustle.
Ø Altitude has very little effect on the temperature in Saudi Arabia. The riders and crews competed for most of the 403-km special at approximately 1,000 meters above sea level, but the vast plateau that stretched out to the horizon did not provoke vertigo like the mountains can. However, the wind that continues to gust over the region particularly transformed the dunes dotted about the first part of the route into steep steps that caught out a number of competitors. As it blew over the desert, it also removed any traces that may have pointed to the existence of tracks, sowing the seeds of doubt in the minds of many navigators, including the co-pilot of Carlos Sainz, who went round in circles a little too much on the Wadi-to-Wadi loop.
Ø Until a competitor crosses the finishing line, anything can happen and today Bernhard Ten Brinke gave an unfortunate illustration of exactly that. Lying in fourth position at the penultimate time check point, the Dutchman had less than 50 km to cover when an accident completely crushed his hopes. After rolling and damaging his Hilux, Ten Brinke initially hoped to gain help from another competitor, before eventually resigning himself to waiting for his assistance team. The hours lost on his return to Wadi will deprive him of any hopes of a final podium place, which he could legitimately have aimed for… had he driven a perfect race!
Ø Not so long ago, Ondřej Klymčiw and Petr Vlček took part in the Dakar on motorbikes and obtained their best respective results in 2017 (12th) and 2020 (38th / 4th in the Original by Motul category). This year, they are sharing the cockpit of a Škoda from the early 1980s, which is proving to be particularly at ease on the sandy tracks of Saudi Arabia.
Ø With his third special stage success of the year, including the prologue loop near Jeddah, Nasser Al-Attiyah now boasts a total of 38 victories. With such a score, he again moves ahead of his rival Carlos Sainz in the Dakar history books, this time for the number of stage wins in the car category, though it remains to be seen whether he will exceed his number of titles. This morning, the Qatari was faced with the tough task of opening the way, but he skillfully avoided the navigational pitfalls. Despite his three victories this year, Al-Attiyah is still a certain distance behind Stéphane Peterhansel who has 47, three less than the record holder in the category, Ari Vatanen (50 stage triumphs).
6th Place Bikes, Xavier de Soultrait #12, HT RALLY RAID HUSQVARNA RACING: About comrade Skyler Howes, “Again, it was a good day. We are quite good friends now, all the top riders, and I rode with some of them. We enjoyed it a lot because this year the Dakar is very nice to ride. The tracks are not dangerous. Sometimes it’s slow, sometimes it’s fast. It’s not boring at all and we can enjoy riding our bikes at the maximum. Again, it was a lot of work this year, because I needed to find a solution to ride again and I am very happy to have this result with this new Husqvarna.”
1st Place Lightweight Vehicles & SSV, Francisco “Chaleco” López #401, South Racing Can-Am: “It was a complete stage, with sand, lots of rocks and navigation – the stage was very complete. It was very difficult for the first thirty kilometers and I punctured one tire. For the finish to the stage, with the navigation, Juan Pablo, my co-pilot did very well. I’m very happy to be here at the end of stage three. I think it’s very competitive, this category is very tough.”
2nd Place Quads, Giovanni Enrico #159, Enrico Racing Team: “The stage was like yesterday. It was similar terrain, and the dunes were very fun. There were some dangerous places because the wind had hit a lot of the dunes so the slopes on the other sides of the dunes were very steep and dangerous. I had to be careful with that. But it was a good stage, very fun, and we’re ready for tomorrow, another one.”
TOP TEN STAGE RESULTS
1. #3 Toby Price (AUS), RED BULL LTM FACTORY TEAM
2. #47 Kevin Benavides (ARG), MONSTER ENERGY HONDA TEAM 2021
3. #52 Matthias Walkner (AUT), RED BULL KTM FACTORY TEAM
4. #9 Skyler Howes (USA), BAS DAKAR KTM RACING TEAM
5. #5 Sam Sunderland (GBR), RED BULL KTM FACTORY TEAM
6. #12 Xavier de Soultrait (FRA), HT RALLY RAID HUSQVARNA RACING
7. #6 Franco Caimi (ARG), MONSTER ENERGY YAMAHA RALLY TEAM
8. #21 Daniel Sanders (AUS), KTM FACTORY TEAM
9. #19 Rui Goncalves (PRT), SHERCO FACTORY
10. #4 Jose Ignacia Cornejo Florimo (CHL), MONSTER ENERGY HONDA TEAM 2021
1. #150 Nicolas Cavigliasso (ARG), DRAG’ON RALLY TEAM
2. #159 Giovanni Enrico (CHL), ENRICO RACING TEAM
3. #154 Manuel Andujar (ARG), 7240 TEAM
4. #152 Alexandre Giroud (FRA), TEAM GIROUD
5. #163 Pablo Copetti (USA), MX DEVESA BY BERTA
6. #168 Italo Pedemonte (CHL), ENRICO RACING TEAM
7. #153 Tomas Kubiena (CZE), STORY RACING S.R.O.
8. #174 Toni Vingut (ESP), VISIT SANT ANTONI – IBIZA
9. #157 Romain Dutu (FRA), SMX RACING
10. #176 Laisvydas Kancius (LTU), STORY RACING S.R.O.
1. #301 Nasser Al-Attiyah (QAT); Mathieu Baumel (FRA), TOYOTA HILLUX
2. #332 Henk Lategan (ZAF); Brett Cummings (ZAF), TOYOTA GAZOO RACING
3. #302 Stephane Peterhansel (FRA); Edouard Boulanger (FRA), X-RAID MINI JCW TEAM
4. #316 Yasir Seaidan (SAU); Alexey Kuzmich (RUS), SRT RACING
5. #310 Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi (ARE); Xavier Panseri (FRA), ABU DHABI RACING
6. #305 Sebastian Loeb (FRA); Daniel Elena (MCO), BAHRAIN RAID XTREME
7. #312 Martin Prokop (CZE); Viktor Chytka (CZE), BENZINA ORLEN TEAM
8. #308 Mathieu Serradori (FRA); Fabian Lurquin (BEL), SRT RACING
9. #318 Wei Han (CHN); Min Liao (CHN), QUZHOU MOTORSPORT CITY TEAM
10. #314 Cyril Despres (FRA); Michael Horn (CHE), ABU DHABI RACING
1. #401 Francisco Lopez Contardo (CHL); Juan Pablo Latrach Vinagre (CHL), SOUTH RACING CAN-AM
2. #408 Austin Jones (USA); Gustavo Gugelmin (BRA), MONSTER ENERGY CAN-AM
3. #424 Michal Goczal (POL); Szymon Gospodarczyk (POL), ENERGYLANDIA RALLY TEAM
4. #422 Khalifa Al Attiyah (QAT); Paolo Ceci (ITA), SOUTH RACING CAN-AM
5. #411 Jeremie Warnia (FRA); Steven Griener (GBR), CST / POLARIS FRANCE
6. #410 Santiago Navarro (ESP); Marc Sola Terradellas (ESP), FN SPEED TEAM
7. #416 Kees Koolen (NLD); Jurgen Van Den Goorbergh (NLD), SOUTH RACING CAN-AM
8. #406 Aron Domzala (POL); Maciej Marton (POL), MONSTER ENERGY CAN-AM
9. #412 Saleh Alsaif (SAU); Oriol Vidal Montijano (ESP), FN SPEED – BLACK HORSE TEAM
10. #400 Sergei Kariakin (RUS); Anton Vlasiuk (RUS), SNAG RACING TEAM
1. #502 Siarhei Viazovich (BLR); Pavel Haranin (BLR); Anton Zaparoshchanka (BLR), MAZ-SPORTAUTO
2. #507 Dmitry Sotnikov (RUS); Ruslan Akhmadeev (RUS); Ilgiz Akhmetzianov (RUS), KAMAZ – MASTER
3. #501 Anton Shibalov (RUS); Dmitrii Nikitin (RUS); Ivan Tatarinov (RUS), KAMAZ-MASTER TEAM
4. #503 Martin Macik (CZE); Frantisek Tomasek (CZE); David Svanda (CZE), BIG SHOCK RACING
5. #500 Andrew Karginov (RUS); Andrey Mokeev (RUS); Igor Leonov (RUS), KAMAZ – MASTER
6. #505 Aliaksei Vishneuski (BLR); Maksim Novikau (BLR); Siarhei Sachuk (BLR), MAS-SPORTAUTO
7. #504 Ales Loprais (CZE); Petr Pokora (CZE); Khalid Alkendi (ARE), INSTAFOREX LOPRAIS PRAGA
8. #509 Airat Mardeev (RUS); Dmitriy Svistunov (RUS); Akhmet Galiautdinov (RUS), KAMAZ – MASTER
9. #517 Ignacio Casale (CHL); Alvaro Leon (CHL); David Hoffmann (CZE), TATRA BUGGYRA RACING
10. #518 Jaroslav Valtr (CZE); Jaroslav JR Valtr (CZE); Radim Kaplanek (CZE), VALTR RACING TEAM