The 2017 Dakar ended Saturday, with Sam Sunderland taking the motorcycle title for the KTM factory team. What can we learn from this year’s race? Photo: Lyndon Poskitt/Facebook
Power rankings: KTM still dominates, but the grip is weakening
KTM is the brand to beat at Dakar. Team Orange has won the overall motorcycle category at Dakar every year since 2001, and this year, swept the podium.
That’s impressive, but last year, KTM had five of the top 10 bikes, and 12 of the top 20. This year, it’s only had three of the top 10, and nine of the top 20. It’s taken a few years, but the other factory teams are all upping their game.
The most impressive powerplay was by Honda, which could have taken first and second overall if not for penalties (more on that later). It’s taken the team five years to get to this point, and now several of the top riders are on Honda machinery, not just Joan Barreda and Paulo Goncalves.
Part of the reason for KTM’s long dominance is that the factory team had the best riders, but the bikes were so good, everyone else wanted one too, so privateers bought KTM. But not anymore: Honda now has its own stable of factory riders, and the 2017 rally bike held up well; none of the top Honda riders were torpedoed due to mechanical issues. We’re finally starting to see parity in the top ranks, and that’s long overdue.
It’s not just Honda that’s stepped it up a notch. The Yamaha teams (both the official factory team and the Yamaha France team) proved they can run toward the front too. In particular, Adrien Van Beveren and Xavier de Soultrait appear to have all the skills needed to be stars. Hopefully that’s the case.
Winning skills: Brains over brawn
Last year, the last-minute route changes meant the Dakar went from a navigation-heavy rally to a World Rally Championship-style course, with raw speed triumphing over all other skills. Many complained afterwards and the organizers changed it up this year. Marc Coma promised the most difficult race since the rally moved to South America, and sure enough, many of the race’s “fast guys” had considerable trouble in the 2017 race, getting lost for huge periods of time. It made the race much more interesting, and when faster riders tried to make up for lost time, it cost them — just look at last year’s champion, Toby Price, who crashed out in Stage 3.
But it was going to take more than smart riding to win this year’s race, as Honda’s factory team proved. The team’s refueling penalty in Stage Four cost the race, and Honda never even appealed the penalty in time. Then, a few days later, Honda’s Ricky Brabec ended up leaving the race after asking for water, then being forced on a helicopter and sent home by the race organizers, when he was perfectly capable of continuing.
This is what happens when you don’t know the rules, or don’t understand how to work with them and around them. To be fair, Honda wasn’t the only team dinged by the refueling penalty, but it was arguably the biggest melt-down since the race moved to South America. It takes a smart team to win, not just smart riders. Everyone else needs to learn this if they want to defeat KTM.
Yamaha seems to be on the right road, in this respect. To attack the sand dunes and hopefully put a rider on the podium, the team actually outfitted Van Beveren with a paddle tire for the start of Stage 12, swapping it over to another rider’s bike at the end of the first special section. Van Beveren did indeed win the stage, although it wasn’t enough to pull into third place, but that’s the sort of mad improvisation that’s needed to win. Again, expect big things from the Yamaha team next year.
Riveting racing: The best stories are further down the ranks
For the past few years, the race for first place hasn’t been that close, and the top factory bikes are so well-supported and the riders so well-trained that it starts to look too easy. That isn’t the case down the ranks.
This year’s top feel-good story was South African Joey Evans, who finished third to last. That sounds unimpressive, but Evans was told in 2007, at age 32, he’d probably never walk again, after crashing while racing hare scrambles. Now, at age 42, he’s not only walking, but finishing Dakar, after a car ran over his bike in Stage 11. (Pix here, here, here, and here). Listen below:
Aside from Evans, the other people’s hero this year was Lyndon Poskitt. For years now, Poskitt has presented the Races to Places series, where he travels around the world and participates in rallies (find the series on Adventure Spec’s YouTube channel).
In 2017, he entered Dakar as a Malle Moto competitor: To qualify in this class, he had to finish the race unsupported. And not only did Poskitt finish, he ended up second in the Malle Moto class, and 39th overall, all while continuing to update his Facebook page and other social media, letting his global fan base know what was happening day to day. His viewers have watched his journey to Dakar for years, and this weekend, they got to see Poskitt achieve that goal.
It’s guys like this who are keeping the old spirit of Dakar alive; they’re getting the job done on a shoestring budget, sleeping rough and wrenching on their own bikes to make their dream come true. We don’t all know an offroad racer with extraterrestrial speed, but if you’ve been around motorcycles for a while, you probably know someone who could go to Dakar like Evans or Poskitt.
The riders on big money teams might dominate the standings, but it’s the working men and women who sacrifice everything just to participate who really establish the race’s worth. And, in turn, they’re showing thousands of fans worldwide that this goal, or any other, is within their grasp if they’re willing to give their all.
Hard choices: Rain vs. terrorism
Threats of terrorism forced the Dakar rally to move to South America, and it’s generally worked out well. However, the rains once again forced canceled stages this year and shortened others.
That in itself isn’t an issue; the problem is that shortening the route drastically reduces a rider’s chance to catch the front runners.
It doesn’t exactly turn it into a processional, but it removes a lot of the excitement over the race for first place. And the rain just keeps coming, year after year.
So, could the race move back to the traditional Paris-Dakar route?
Rally organizers seem to think not; the danger is too high. So maybe another route change is in order: perhaps Bolivia, which is the worst section for precipitation, should be cut from the rally, but it’s not likely that another South American country would step into the void.
Maybe the answer is to start the race in southern Africa and run north to Kenya, instead of the traditional north-to-south route. It would certainly appease a lot of long-time fans, but such a move would undo all the growth the rally has seen in South America; there are many talented South American riders now, and the rally is massively popular in the region. Maybe, despite the rain, the best choice is just to stay put.
Future stars: Who’s next?
Neither of the top two riders this year, Sutherland and Walkner, had finished the Dakar before, although they’d proven they were pretty fast in previous rallies. It makes us wonder, which riders look like the next generation’s stars?
Husqvarna’s Pablo Quintanilla is probably a safe bet for a podium finish in future years; he hadn’t finished off the podium at any 2016 race, winning the FIM rally championship, and it was surprising to see him have to leave the race.
But this year, it was probably Yamaha’s Xavier de Soultrait who was the top breakthrough story; only a last-minute mechanical breakdown nuked his results, dropping him to 87th overall. Watch his off-season racing: if he can win in the FIM circuit, he’s probably going to be a long-term threat at Dakar.
Another rider to keep an eye on is Todd Smith. He raced a KTM at Dakar, but he’s Honda-sponsored back home in Australia. Whether he rides a Honda next year at Dakar, or a KTM, we can’t guess, but he finished 18th this year in his first attempt at Dakar. A top-10 finish likely isn’t out of question with a little luck.
Finally, Joaquim Rodrigues, who finished 10th for Hero Speedbrain, will definitely be a threat. The Hero team wasn’t on the latest and greatest technology, and it was the first time Rodrigues raced Dakar. If Speedbrain brings a better bike next year, with Indian factory money behind it, Rodrigues could make a run for a top-five spot.