Title Photo: Flavien Duhamel/Red Bull Content Pool
On January 6, the 2018 Dakar Rally will start in Lima, Peru.
Covering more than 9,000 kilometres over 14 days of racing, the Dakar is the toughest, most challenging motorcycle race in the world. Arguably, only the Isle of Man TT comes close to its magnificence. Yet, the Dakar is a sideshow even to the most intense motorcycle racing fans, partly because it doesn’t have good media coverage, partly because the motorcycles are far removed from street-legal models, partly because it happens in the middle of the winter, and partly because it happens in the middle of nowhere.
If you aren’t following Dakar, you should be; as usual, we’ll have consistent coverage of the rally on CMG, digging past the headlines to get the inside scoop. Here’s a preview to let you know who the major players are this year, and give you an idea of what to expect.
The big teams
KTM: A KTM-mounted rider has won the Dakar every single year since 2001, perhaps the most dominant winning streak in professional motorsports history. The brand’s never-ending winning streak means a lot of privateers are aboard KTMs, including most second-tier fast guys.
This year, 10 of the top 20 riders are aboard KTMs, including Sam Sunderland (factory rider), who won the event in 2017, and Toby Price (also on the factory team), who seemingly effortlessly won the rally in 2016. Matthias Walkner is also aboard a factory KTM, along with Antoine Meo. Any of these riders, along with privateers Stefan Svitko and Gerard Farres Guell, can win a stage or two, or maybe the whole thing.
Laia Sanz is also back on a KTM. Barring disaster, she’s by far the favourite to finish as top female competitor.
So, the orange guys (and girl) are the bikes to beat, as always. That’s not saying KTM is unstoppable, but it has more fast riders than anyone else, and a long, long history of not just top bikes, but a knowledge of the tactics required to win.
Husqvarna: The Husqvarna rally bike is pretty similar to the KTM, as it’s based on the same technology and built under the same ownership. Husky really has only one threat to win, and that’s Pablo Quintanilla. But Quintanilla is arguably the best rally rider in the world, just taking his second victory as FIM Cross-Country Rally champion. Trouble is, at Dakar, numbers mean a lot; having a lot of riders aboard the same bike means it’s easy to scavenge parts, and the manufacturer is often able to exert a little pressure on other racers to ensure teamwork keeps its favoured rider at the lead of the pack (or wherever else that’s beneficial—being in second, or even further back, can be very beneficial to overall strategy at Dakar). Quintanilla doesn’t have that network of riders behind him to help, although the Husky effort is certainly getting stronger every year.
Yamaha: Yamaha doesn’t typically have the fastest riders at Dakar, but often outlasts the Japanese competition (cough cough, Honda), partly through superior tactics. Factory ace Xavier de Soultrait was a breakout star at last year’s Dakar rally, but he isn’t likely a threat to win it all this year. Alessandro Botturi probably isn’t a championship threat this year either. At least one of those guys will be in the top 10, maybe even top five, but an overall win is unlikely.
What will be extremely interesting is to see how this year influences Yamaha’s privateer sales. For a long time, KTM has been the bike to buy for privateers, as it had the best track record at Dakar, and was available to anyone with the money to buy it (although the customer bike wasn’t quite as hot as the official factory team machines). Yamaha seems keen to get some of that business back, along with the prestige, with September’s high-profile announcement of race-ready WR450F Rally Replicas available for sale. A quick scan through the rankings doesn’t reveal a significant bump in privateers aboard Yamahas, but maybe that will change next year, if the bike proves its worth in the deserts this January.
Honda: The biggest question at Dakar the past five years has been “Will the Honda hold together for the whole race?” The other big question is “Will Honda’s riders be able to hold it together for the whole race?”
When Honda returned to Dakar in 2012, its factory team was plagued by mechanical meltdowns and inconsistent performance from its win-it-or-bin-it franchise player, Joan Barreda (who came by his nickname “Bang Bang” honestly). A few years of inconsistent results led to some stars moving to other teams (most notably, Sam Sunderland) when they realized they had better chances of winning elsewhere.
By 2017, Honda had seemed to figure the bike issues out, Barreda had calmed down a bit, and Paulo Goncalves, although aging, was still putting in a very solid performance. Then, the team suffered the ultimate meltown, with a massive setback in Stage 4. As we said in last year’s recap: “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.”
The Internet erupted in debate: Did Honda deserve the penalties? Was the team screwed over by the powerful Old Boys Club at Dakar? How could the team make a mistake of that magnitude?
When all was said and done, Honda won the most stages at last year’s Dakar, and likely would have been in close competition for the win, but that penalty torpedoed any hope of victory. So along with the usual questions about bike reliability and rider performance, there’s a third question this year: Can the team avoid doing something so stupid again?
The Best Part of Dakar: Malle Moto
Dakar’s Malle Moto class is simple: One rider, one bike, no support crew—just a couple boxes of spare parts and tools that the rally organizers haul from stop to stop; the rider repairs his/her bike each night while the factory riders retreat to their cushy RVs and have a team of hirelings fix their bikes.
It’s the ultimate motorcycling challenge, as not only does the competitor have to be a good enough rider to finish the rally, but also a top mechanic. Nobody in Malle Moto is competing for a top-20 overall position, due to the extreme difficulty of riding and wrenching your own way through the Dakar rally. As a result, not many Malle Moto riders were well-known. That’s started to change as the Internet makes it easier to learn about these heroics, and especially in the last couple years, as Lyndon Poskitt raised the profile of this class with his Races to Places YouTube series. Poskitt finished second in the class last year, and told the tale in his videos, with constant updates throughout the race to show what day-to-day like was like for a Malle Moto rider. This video is a good round-up of Poskitt’s adventures.
This year, Poskitt is back at Dakar, and he’s filming Races to Places again. This year, he’s actually got a media truck and crew to follow, which is pretty ironic, since he’ll still be doing his own wrenching. Last year, Poskitt got hassled by the famously unpleasant Dakar organizers over his on-bike filming equipment, which likely explains the media truck.
Hopefully, along with Poskitt’s story, we’ll learn more about some of the other characters in this class this year. They may not be frontrunners, but their tough DIY attitude is inspiring to anyone who’s ever spun a wrench for themselves.
This is the 10th edition of the Dakar in South America, and this year, the race heads through Bolivia, Argentina and Peru, which replaces Paraguay.
Peru’s return is a big deal. Not only is it positive to see a large country return to hosting the race, despite the issues that have dogged the event in recent years, but Peru is specifically very important because it has a lot of sand dunes, which are a key part of any Dakar course. The race was born in the Sahara desert, and the images of racers bombing through massive sand dunes will always be the most memorable part of the race’s glory years, before terrorist threats sent the race packing to South America.
This year, Dakar organizers plan on seven days of dashing through the dunes, according to the rally’s website. While you can take anything the organizers say with a grain of salt, especially when weather interferes, it does seem the rally is trying to get back its roots. That’s probably largely due to ex-champ Marc Coma, who now plays a massive role in route planning.
For a while now, Coma’s been saying the race needs to get tougher, while racers have complained that the stages are turning into World Rally Championship-style events, instead of the more technical stuff of old. This year, the race is supposed to have about 4,500 kilometres of special stages, and about 4,500 kilometres of liaison section this year, with five days at an altitude over 3,000 metres. Will that mean less WRC-style speed, and more endurance-style stages? Maybe, maybe not, but even restoring the navigation aspect that’s been slipping in recent years would definitely shake things up—and that’s always a good thing in the world of racing.