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Dakar: The Follow-up

Photo: Flavien Duhamel/Red Bull Content Pool

The 2019 Dakar is in the books now, and once again, KTM took the motorcycle championship. For the 18th year in a row. And the factory team took first, second and third spots. Take a minute and let that sink in.

KTM’s sweep of the podium wasn’t easy this year, though. All three riders had to overcome some form of potentially race-ending adversity. Toby Price battled through severe pain from a recently-broken right wrist to take first overall, while Matthias Walkner severely injured his ankle mid-race (he can reportedly barely walk) to finish second. Sam Sunderland had a broken brake caliper mid-special early in the race, and then was slapped with a major penalty from ASO race officials a couple of days ago. But he didn’t give up, and pushed hard while he was appealing the organizer’s decision. That paid off, as he’s third on the podium.

The fastest female rider, Laia Sanz (11th overall), was also on a KTM. And, consider this: the Husqvarna factory team is also running exactly the same bike as the KTM, just with a different paint job, as they’re sister companies. Pablo Quintanilla and Andrew Short finished fourth and fifth respectively for Husky, so the top five riders were all on made-in-Austria machines.

(Props to Quintanilla, by the way, for pushing hard in the final stage, and finishing despite this mega crash below).

How does KTM do it? There are a few reasons for their success. First, the team’s bikes don’t blow up, while Honda and Yamaha both lost riders to mechanical failure this year.

Also, team management has an eye for top talent, starting with racers, and is good at building the behind-the-scenes team. They keep guys like Jordi Viladoms or Marc Coma around in other roles after they’re done racing, and this means the riders are surrounded by excellence throughout the duration of the entire race. The whole team knows what it takes to win, not just the riders, and it pays off. They all know how the ASO works, and how the race itself works.

When you have riders like Price destroying the field with a broken wrist, or Matthias Walkner (above) doing the same with a severely injured ankle, you know you’ve hired the right people. Photo: Marcelo Maragni/Red Bull Content Pool

Contrast this to KTM’s biggest rival, the Honda factory team (Husqvarna doesn’t really count as it’s the same bike). While there are a few respected ex-racers on board, particularly Johnny Campbell, none of those guys have had the Dakar success of the KTM support crew, and it shows, when Honda gets the details wrong.

Every year, there’s an epic meltdown when one of Big Red’s riders has his bike quit just as he’s putting in a solid performance — this year, it happened again to Ricky Brabec (his bike also quit last year towards the end of the race), potentially costing Honda its first win at Dakar in the 450 era. With Price and Walkner injured and Sunderland in trouble with the ASO, Brabec likely had a chance he’ll never see again.

Then, there’s the trouble with the rulebook. This year, Honda’s top rider after Brabec left was Kevin Benavides, until Benavides earned a huge three-hour penalty for having illegal navigation notes taped to his tank. Whether he broke the rules in ignorance, or whether race officials unfairly levied a penalty after they said they wouldn’t (which is what Benavides claims), it doesn’t ultimately matter. Honda’s team tried to play fast and loose with the rulebook and lost, again. Because remember, this isn’t the first time this has cost them a decent Dakar finish: only two years ago, in 2017, all of Honda’s frontrunners were slapped with a massive penalty when the team ordered them to refuel in an area they weren’t supposed to. It’s speculation, but had Brabec’s bike not quit, he very may well have earned the same three-hour penalty as Benavides, just when he was leading the whole race.

Although Paulo Goncalves has long been a consistent racer for Honda, the victory has eluded him, and he exited the race this year due to injury. It would be unsurprising if he retired. Photo: Honda

Then, there’s the trouble with Bam-Bam. Honda’s fastest rider, Joan Barreda aka “Bam-Bam,” once again failed to finish this year, due to poor race decisions. Barreda might be the fastest rider in the Dakar, but his long history of stupid decisions means Honda can probably better spend its money by hiring a different rider.

So Honda needs to get its act together, or it’s just going to turn into a development program for other factories, a team that riders join to get some experience and earn a big payday, but eventually leave to seek success on a properly run squad. To a certain extent, that’s already happening: Laia Sanz and Sam Sunderland both started with Honda, but were quick to jump to KTM, even though gossip says the paycheque is smaller there.

Honda does have good talent coming up the ranks, like Jose Ignacio Cornejo Florimo, pictured here. But these guys won’t stick around forever, if the team continues to self-destruct. Photo: Honda

If Big Red wants its Dakar effort to be more than a KTM farm team, then it needs to figure out how to get along with the ASO’s rulebook, and how to build a bike that can actually finish the rally when ridden hard. Frankly, with no factory KTM failures in recent Dakar memory, Honda’s history of high-profile breakdowns every single year is getting to be laughable.

The Yamaha team is the other main competition for KTM, and started off this year looking strong. However, it didn’t take long for Alexander de Soultrait to fade from the frontrunners’ pace; he’s fast, but not fast enough to be top-tier at end of race. He finished sixth, but was more than a half-hour off the podium.

Adrien Van Beveren was a podium threat until his engine lost its oil in Stage 9, then blew up the gearbox, a heart-breaking ending for the tough Frenchman, who had to fight back from serious injury in last year’s race.

Van Beveren’s race might have been saved if he’d had a water carrier to support him, but both of the team’s water carriers were knocked out early in the race, and chances are he’d have lost enough time that he wouldn’t have been in the top five anyway. Again, at this point, it’s all conjecture. However, you’ve got to wonder how much better this team would be if they had more funding. Yamaha supposedly has them on a shoestring budget, and if they had more money, maybe they could hire away some disgruntled racers from the Honda team and really emerge as a threat to KTM? It’s an interesting question.

Toby Price is the most outstanding rider at Dakar right now, and well worthy of the alien title. Photo: Marcelo Maragni/Red Bull Content Pool
Is Toby Price an alien?

At Dakar, the coveted title of “alien” is hard to achieve. To earn the title, you have to first win a stage while opening the track. In other words, you’ve got to be the first rider out the gate in the day, the racer who doesn’t have any tracks to follow, making navigation much harder. Only a handful of riders have won under these conditions, most recently Marc Coma and Cyril Despres.

Winning while opening the stage isn’t enough, though. You also have to take the win for the whole race a couple of times, and now Toby Price has done that.

But a look through his career tells a fascinating story: in 2013, he broke his neck while training and should have been paralyzed. Yet, thanks to titanium rods and multiple surgeries, Price managed to debut at Dakar in 2015, earning a third and only the second rookie to ever land on the podium. In 2016, he was first; in 2017, he wrecked early on, breaking his femur, which could easily have ended his career a second time. Surprise, surprise, he was back in 2018, with only a couple of months to get in shape, and earned a third. And this year, after breaking his wrist just before the race and riding in visible pain the while time, he nabbed his second Dakar championship.

With that in mind, it’d be pretty hard to deny that Price is a rider of extraterrestrial talent.

The dunes in this year’s rally were spectacular, but some fans missed the more varied terrain of other years. Photo: Honda
Where next?

Since the Dakar Rally left Africa in 2008, organizers have had to scramble to string a route together through South America. Every year, a country or countries drop out of the race, leaving staff to figure out last-minute route alterations after they’ve already planned out the day-to-day travels. To their credit, they’ve managed to put together an excellent race every year since changing continents.

But in May 2018, the situation became desperate, when the ASO was unable to reach a deal with Bolivia and Chile, leaving them to run the race entirely in Peru — a far cry from its roots as a two-continent rally from Europe to Africa.

Video clips of this year’s race were spectacular, as the Peruvian setting allowed for lots of dune-bashing, all very classic Dakar-looking stuff, just like in the race’s glory days in the Sahara. But when you look at the actual map of the race, most of it was just circles in the desert, not the epic country-to-country route of the past. Also, there was little variation in the terrain when compared to years past; no doubt some competitors were happy to avoid altitude sickness, and there were no stage-canceling floods, but still, the landscape didn’t even out the field as it has in past races.

Adrien Van Beveren had another tough luck story this year; it’s the same as always with the low-budget Yamaha team. Photo: Yamaha

So, the race’s legendary long-distance reputation took a hit this year, and what if Peru had said no to the ASO as well? There wouldn’t have been a Dakar at all. So, the organizers need to get next year’s route figured out, ASAP, and maybe, just maybe, it’s time to consider a return to Africa.

Despite the ongoing threats of terrorism in some areas, the Africa Eco Race has run trouble-free for years in the Sahara. If they can do it, why can’t the ASO? Of course, there are other smaller rally raid events that run in Africa as well, such as Rallye de Maroc. If the ASO is down to a single country in South America, why not move back to Africa? Surely they could find at least a couple of countries willing to cooperate there?

Whatever the solution, the ASO has to do something, because the race is in decline the way things stand now.

Overall top 10

  1. Toby Price, KTM (00:01:33 penalty)
  2. Matthias Walkner, KTM, + 00:09:13 (00:03:00 penalty)
  3. Sam Sunderland, KTM, + 00:13:34 (00:02:00 penalty)
  4. Pablo Quintanilla, Husqvarna, + 00:20:46
  5. Andrew Short, Husqvarna, + 00:44:10
  6. Xavier de Soultrait, Yamaha, + 00:54:00 (00:01:00 penalty)
  7. Jose Ignacio Cornejo Florimo, Honda, + 01: 08:06 (00:15:00 penalty)
  8. Luciano Benavides, KTM, + 01: 09:10
  9. Oriol Mena, Hero, + 02:08:41
  10. Daniel Nosiglia Jager, + 02:31:53 (00:02:00 penalty)

4 thoughts on “Dakar: The Follow-up”

  1. Here’s my take, and this is coming from someone who actually bought a rally “replica” back in the 1980s:

    For KTM, this is their Superbowl – the majority of their product line and competitive focus has been on off-road especially enduro for decades. Success at Dakar reflects results in sales; for Honda and Yamaha, not so much as they seem to be more interested in the motocross segment of off-road competition. There really isn’t a market for smaller rally style motorcycles although Honda is trying with the CRF250.

    Back in the Sahara days of the Dakar, the big bikes had a more direct tie-in as far sales go for the emerging adventure touring market. I bought a BMW Dakar model myself for that very reason: Gaston Rahier and Hubert Auriol were my desert racing heroes back then.

    Despite their ridiculous girth and lesser off-road capabilities (except for the KLR), the newer Africa Twin,Tenere, and BMW GS bikes are a bit more realistic for the adventure touring crowd that follow the Dakar. Big engines strain less with big loads and better suspension works well on a gravel road.

    For my dollar, a 600 cc rally bike would be the perfect all-rounder: strong enough for sensible adventure touring (leave the kitchen sink at home) and light enough for the occasional off-road trail ride.

    As far as what’s next for the Dakar, they appear to be running out of countries. This year’s edition had spectacular highlight videos but the shortened length of the rally, both in days and mileage, doesn’t quite capture the imagination they way previous year’s routes did. Maybe a merger with the Australian Finke race or a modern Peking-to-Paris is the way to go.

    1. The reality is, with the Silkway rally, the Africa Eco Race, the Finkway, even the SCORE events in Baja, there are plenty of other prestigious options, and if people get tired of the ASO’s nonsense AND the race loses its allure, then it will die. But as long as people are willing to put up with the silliness and as long as it’s still considered by insiders to be the pinnacle of motorsport, then it will continue as long as they have just one country willing to put up with them

  2. For a race that is so visually stunning(especially sand dunes the size of mountains), it’s surprising it doesn’t get coverage on a major network.
    Also surprising is that after 18 straight wins KTM hasn’t cashed in and made a Rally replica of one of its bikes. Of course this in the company that hasn’t made an updated version of its popular 640 Adventure after many years of begging from customers.

    1. It’s taken them years of teasing to bring the 790 Adventure to market, and that’s probably their biggest future model … same for the 390 Adventure

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