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 JWC 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 JWC 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.
• TOP TEN STAGE RESULTS
- #3 Toby Price (AUS), RED BULL LTM FACTORY TEAM
- #47 Kevin Benavides (ARG), MONSTER ENERGY HONDA TEAM 2021
- #52 Matthias Walkner (AUT), RED BULL KTM FACTORY TEAM
- #9 Skyler Howes (USA), BAS DAKAR KTM RACING TEAM
- #5 Sam Sunderland (GBR), RED BULL KTM FACTORY TEAM
- #12 Xavier de Soultrait (FRA), HT RALLY RAID HUSQVARNA RACING
- #6 Franco Caimi (ARG), MONSTER ENERGY YAMAHA RALLY TEAM
- #21 Daniel Sanders (AUS), KTM FACTORY TEAM
- #19 Rui Goncalves (PRT), SHERCO FACTORY
- #4 Jose Ignacia Cornejo Florimo (CHL), MONSTER ENERGY HONDA TEAM 2021