On Monday, the 2017 Dakar rally starts with a 454-km stage that begins in Paraguay’s capital city of Asunción.
This year’s rally will once again see riders criss-cross South America’s wide variety of terrain, through mountains and across salt flats and grassland, ending Jan. 14 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Here’s a quick look at what to expect from the motorcycles in this edition of the rally.
There’s a lot of prestige in a Dakar win, not only for the rider, but for the manufacturer behind them. And since 2001, KTM has been that manufacturer: First BMW, then Yamaha, and now Honda have all tried to dethrone KTM, but orange bikes have taken the overall motorcycle win for a very long time.
This year looks good for KTM on paper. The factory team has Toby Price (last year’s winner) on board, and Sam Sunderland is back this year (injury kept him away last year). FIM rally star Matthias Walkner has recovered from his injuries suffered in last year’s race, and will return in 2017, and Mexican rider Ivan Ramirez (star of SCORE’s Baja series) will also ride for KTM. Antoine Meo is out with an injury, but KTM’s hopes were not pinned on him, by a long shot.
Laia Sanz will likely win the female category for KTM, barring disaster.
Honda is also a man down before the race has even started; Kevin Benavides, the Argentinean who managed a fourth last year, was injured on his final day of training and will not be competing. Given his solid performance in his rookie season last year, Big Red probably had big hopes for Benavides. Now, they’ll have to rely on Joan Barreda, Paulo Goncalves, and Michael Metge.
Barreda is always fun to watch, but he’s earned his nickname “Bam Bam” for good reason. He’s a threat to win any stage, but he’s also a threat to nuke his Honda at any point, leaving Goncalves to pick up the pieces for the rest of the rally. Neither Gonk no Metge is likely to win the event overall, so despite years of participation, Honda may be no closer to victory than when they started, unless their 2017 bike lasts longer.
Yamaha is not a likely candidate for a win this year; Helder Rodrigues is the biggest star, and he’s smart enough to keep speeds down to outlast his competition. Trouble is, that isn’t enough to keep up with the aliens (Price and Barreda). The wild card for Yamaha will be Adrian Van Beveren, who managed 6th at last year’s rally, so if the bike and his luck hold up, he might be able to improve that in his second go-round.
We’re really going to be keeping an eye on Pablo Quintanilla this year; the Husqvarna factory rider is the current FIM rally raid champ, and has not finished off the podium at any event in 2016. He, and KTM-mounted privateer Stefan Svitko, may prove to be Price’s hardest competition.
Of course, no matter who looks good on paper, predicting Dakar is a big of a mug’s game. A strong case of the flu ripping through the rider’s camp, a mechanical meltdown, weird weather, or a navigation error can take a rider from hero to zero in 24 hours.
One team we’re really curious to track in 2017 is Zongshen’s factory squad. The Chinese motorcycling giant is sending five riders — two Frenchmen and three Chinese. From the press release we’ve seen, it sounds as if they’re racing a version of the Cyclone, which is sold in Canada under CSC’s badge. It’s not the first time someone’s tried to race Dakar on a China bike, but it’s the first time any Chinese manufacturer has taken it this seriously. This team isn’t going to win, but if they can finish the race, there’s no telling what the long-term impact will be.
According to the Dakar organization, there are 51 rookies in this year’s rally, so no matter what happens in the top ranks, the bottom is sure to produce lots of entertainment as rising stars charge forward and the unprepared fall out quickly.
The route itself is a big question mark in 2017. The last rally was a hodge-podge thrown together after Chile and Peru pulled out. This year, Paraguay joins as a host country, and from what the early peek at the route looked like, that means a good stretch of flat-out World Rally Championship-style riding — exactly what many competitors and fans complained about last year. People expect Dakar to be technically challenging, not a balls-to-the-wall blast down easy tracks.
But Marc Coma, who’s made the jump from perennial motorcycle racing champion to the rally organization team, says this year’s Dakar will be the toughest-ever event in South America. What that means will remain to be seen.
There are some very long stages this year, including 800-km days with 500-km specials. But in past years, organizers have sometimes tended towards putting riders through just plain stupid situations, making for good racing footage and spectacular marketing photos, but pointlessly trashing many bikes and ruining the rally for many riders who’ve literally given everything they own to be at Dakar.
Hopefully, Coma is not too far removed from his race paddock days to be able to discern between good racing and misery for the sake of misery. This year’s route appears to skirt many of the same salt flat areas as before, but if weather cooperates and Coma and Co. don’t do anything silly, that should be fine.
It’s possible no other factor, saving possibly a widespread case of the flu, can influence Dakar like the weather. This was particularly true in 2016, where the El Nino weather patterns meant organizers had to cancel or shorten stages.
For 2017, El Nino is over we haven’t heard any dire new warnings, but given the wilderness areas the rally travels through, don’t be shocked to see a few days of heavy rain make a big impact on Dakar once again.
Where to watch
Dakar’s official website says Sportsnet and RDS will both carry television coverage of the rally, and NBC Sports will cover it in the US. Of course, CMG will also have our usual daily updates. Dakar’s official YouTube channel is also updated daily, and if you’ve got the time to look for it and the know-how to access it, many other countries’ Dakar content is also available online, particularly if you understand French or Spanish.