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2018 Dakar: What we saw, what we learned

Photo: KTM

On Saturday, the 2018 Dakar rally wrapped up in Cordoba, Argentina, with Austrian rider Matthias Walkner winning the motorcycle category for the KTM factory team. 

This was the 40th anniversary of the Dakar, and the 10th race to run in South America.

As always, it was an action-packed two weeks, full of highs and lows. Here’s a quick peek at several of the event’s top stories; for a look at the final standings for this year’s rally click here.

Return of “real” Dakar

In the past few years, racers and onlookers have complained that Dakar has turned into a World Rally Championship-style event, with stages focused on raw speed, not navigation. This year, race director Marc Coma put the focus back on reading the roadbook — and the competitors didn’t listen to his warning about the changes.

The result was several of the fastest riders putting themselves out of the title hunt when they got lost. The most impressive example was Stage 10, where at least six front-runners ended up losing almost an hour due to wilderness wanderings; a bad navigation choice by one rider led the whole group astray, as they tried to catch up. Matthias Walkner won because he focused on racing the roadbook, not beating his fellow racers.

A look at the top riders in the final stages showed a lot of other familiar faces, riders like Juan Pedrero Garcia (Sherco) and Gerard Farres (Himoinsa); these racers have years of experience in navigation, and even if they don’t have the blazing speed of the frontrunners of recent years, their cautious approach paid off in the long run.

The extended dune riding sections in the rally’s opening stages in Peru were also a strong return to old-school Dakar racing. Again, this is part of the rally’s return to technically challenging sections, and many riders were lost or simply worn out after battling the endless fields of sand, just like the old days of the African races. It was telling that many of the newer faces were shocked at the increased difficulty in these stages.

Joan Barreda in the dunes. Photo: Honda
The rise and fall, and fall, and fall of Joan Barreda

Pity poor Joan Barreda. The favoured star of the Honda factory team, he’s likely the fastest guy at Dakar, with other competitors in awe of his speed. Alas, his navigation skills aren’t as well-formed. He’s perhaps the most entertaining rider at Dakar, because he’ll invariably get wayyyy off-course (he did that twice this year), and then spends the next couple stages riding like mad to catch up. What’s crazy is, he usually pulls it off, and gets himself back into contention. What’s sad is, he usually screws up his comeback by crashing somewhere in the process; this year, he had at least three serious crack-ups before withdrawing in Stage 11, and despite his raw talent, the Honda factory team has to be considering other options for next year.

Toby Price takes it home  for the win on Stage 11. Photo: Red Bull Content Pool.
Toby Price: Man, or Superman?

Toby Price, the Australian hillbilly-turned-racer, returned in style this year. Price handily won the 2016 event, after finishing on the podium in third as a rookie in 2015. After his dominant victory, he was reckoned to be the future star of the rally, but then, in 2017, he broke his femur in a crash.

Throughout the rest of the year, he wasn’t able to race any motorcycles; doctors were still monkeying around with pins in his leg as recently as October. And in the opening stages of this year’s event, Price definitely looked to be a couple of steps back from his previous self, although he was steadily moving up the rankings as the race progressed.

Then, in Stage 10, after being suckered into getting lost with the pack of frontrunners, Price came back with a vengeance, winning Stage 11. With Stage 12 canceled, Price led the pack during Stage 13, and pulled off a feat very few are capable of. As the first rider released, he opened the field all day, with nobody else’s tire tracks to follow, and he also posted the day’s fastest times.

With that talent on display, Dakar fans started to wonder: Is Toby Price even human? Is he The Next Alien? The true elite riders at Dakar, champions who can win a stage while opening navigation, get that extraterrestrial nickname, but since Cyril Despres retired, nobody’s really proven worthy. Now it looks like Price might be that guy. If he comes back in top condition next year, he’s likely the favourite after his display in the final stages this year.

Adrien Van Beveren shows he doesn’t need a helicopter. Photo: Adrien Van Beveren/Facebook
Yamaha: The Heartbreak Kids

This was a heartbreaking year for Yamaha, particularly for Adrien Van Beveren, who was putting together an almost-flawless race up until the end of Stage 10’s timed special. Van Beveren wasn’t suckered into the navigation error that most front-runners made, and was about to finish the special with a huge lead in the standings … and then he crashed hard. He broke his shoulder and some ribs, and bruised a lung, and still tried to get to the end of the stage. It wasn’t possible: his front wheel was bent out of shape. So, after putting together its strongest effort in years, Yamaha finished off the podium, as Xavier de Soultrait, its other strong rider this year, also crashed out; Franco Caimi also binned it, leaving watercarrier Rodney Faggotter as the only Yamaha factory rider to finish, in 16th overall.

The lesson? Even if you’re a careful navigator and a fast rider, that isn’t enough to win Dakar. You need to have good luck, too, and it was just a bad break for Van Beveren to smash his front wheel into a rock he likely couldn’t see in the dust. Here’s hoping for a speedy recovery, and a return to competitive racing soon.

Sam Sunderland won last year but withdrew this year in Stage 4. Photo: Flavian Duhamel/Red Bull Content Pool
KTM: The machine rolls on

Why did KTM’s factory team win the championship again this year? Because it had depth. KTM had Matthias Walkner and Toby Price and Sam Sunderland and Antoine Meo — all riders capable of winning a stage, or the whole rally (Walkner, Price and Sunderland are all Dakar champs now, and Meo has won other FIM championships and Dakar stages). Plus, KTM has Stefan Svitko, arguably the top privateer, riding its bikes, along with several other top teams, including the GasGas factory squad, which rides rebranded KTMs. Most serious Malle Moto riders are on KTM as well. Laia Sanz, always a fan favourite and the top female rider, also rides KTM, and she also almost cracked the top-10 this year, finishing 12th overall.

Along with aggressive talent recruitment and widespread availability of its bikes (competitors can buy a KTM rally bike quite easily), one of KTM’s other keys to success is a parts truck, which sells bits for broken bikes throughout the race. Riders must pay to access the truck’s supplies, even before shelling out the money to pay for the parts, but the ability to buy parts as needed through the race is a huge benefit to riders. As long as KTM is the only factory providing this service, expect Team Orange to be the bike of choice for most riders into the future.

Malle Moto goes mainstream

The Malle Moto class has long been a sideshow at Dakar, with its competitors relegated to obscurity as backmarkers. But thanks to Lyndon Poskitt’s excellent YouTube series displaying his adventures in Malle Moto, it’s become much more prominent. So prominent that in 2018, Olivier Pain decided to race Malle Moto.

Malle Moto is tough, because all racers must wrench on their own motorcycles; no outside mechanical help is allowed, which makes things tough for a former factory rider like Pain — or so you’d think. Turns out, Pain was more than up to the task, as he handily won the class, even with a 15-minute penalty for swapping his engine, and came in 28th overall. That’s likely disappointing for Poskitt, who came in 33rd overall and probably would have liked to win the class this year after last year’s close second-place in Malle Moto. But the question is: could Pain’s win be bad for Poskitt, but good for Dakar?

There are two ways of looking at this. The first is the curmudgeonly viewpoint that Malle Moto is really only for the competitor on a shoestring budget, and that bringing talent like Pain into the class will kill the fun for Average Joes.

The other way of looking at is to realize that Malle Moto is still a very expensive vacation, and if a race series actually promotes riders who do their own wrenching, it’s a good thing for motorcycling in general, and Dakar in particular.

After Pain’s win, there’s another interesting possibility that nobody’s talking about yet: the possibility of a factory Malle Moto rider. Would KTM, Honda or Yamaha pay for a rider to complete the Malle Moto class? Maybe not, but this could be a great chance for a smaller factory team like Sherco, Hero or Gas Gas to showcase its bikes.

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