Talking Dakar with Lawrence Hacking

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

Guess what? The Dakar Rally is just about ready to start, and to get a rundown on what to expect this year, we’ve contacted Lawrence Hacking, who became the first Canadian rider to finish the Dakar when he completed the rally in 2001.

The 2020 Dakar Rally begins this weekend, and there are two major changes this year. First, the rally has moved to Saudi Arabia, after 10 editions in South America. There’s also been a change in management: longtime director Etienne Lavigne announced his departure last March, and former racer David Castera assumed his role.

This is a good thing, figures Lawrence Hacking, because Castera has been doing this a long time (along with his considerable experience racing in rally raid events, he organized the Rally du Maroc). Hacking says this means he knows how to build an event that works for riders of all calibers.

Lawrence Hacking in his dune-blasting Dakar days.

It’s his life, and he really has a good feeling on how to put on a good event for not only the guys who are racing up front at high speeds and high stakes, but also the amateur entrances that are just trying to complete it, and live their dreams.”

Plus, says Hacking, Castera isn’t stuck in the past. “He’s not afraid to make changes. And I think that’s good too because what was working back 20, 30, 40 years ago wouldn’t work today.”

What can riders expect with the move to Saudi Arabia? “It’s going to be difficult navigation-wise. I mean, it’s a massive country with a lot of sand,” says Hacking.

Legendary Dakar rider/driver Cyril Despres in the driver’s seat, and David Castera in the passenger seat. Castera’s a longtime veteran of the rally scene, and is in charge of the 2020 event. Photo: Red Bull

“When there’s a great big sand dune in your way and there’s a waypoint hidden behind it, you’re going to have to get pretty smart. And then your odometer is going to be off … There’s going to be a lot of on the ground decision-making, so whoever is the best at that will do quite well.”

The dunescape is going to change things up from the wide-open WRC-style stages that dominated South America, but navigation is going to be even harder due to rule changes for 2020 regarding maps. In previous years, daily roadbooks were available before the start of the stage, allowing the top teams to put significant research into the course, determining areas where they could cut corners and save time and wear on the riders and bikes.

This year, some days will see the teams not getting the roadbooks until 15 minutes before the stage starts. That’s going to eliminate a lot of the map-reading skullduggery, and it will even out the playing field.

Careful riders like Matthias Walkner will have an advantage in a navigation-intensive rally. Photo: Marcelo Maragni/Red Bull Content Pool

“What they’re just trying to do is make it more and more rewarding for the better navigators, and that keeps the speeds down,” Hacking says. “In theory it should make it a little bit safer. If they memorize the road book, they’re spending their hours in advance memorizing it, and they don’t have to slow down to look at it as much.”

Hacking reckons Sam Sunderland of the KTM factory team is likely a favourite this year, as he actually lives in Dubai and rides the massive Middle Eastern dunes all the time; he’s also used to the local culture. Toby Price of the KTM squad is another racer who’s expected to compete for a win: his alien-like speed has been proven time and again at Dakar, but he’s got the rest of the racecraft package too. “Toby’s a big, strong, very strong-willed guy,” says Hacking. “Not afraid to take chances, very smart with the road book, and all that.”

Having said that, although Hacking won’t be surprised if the KTM team wins (he also rates Matthias Walkner, the third factory rider, very highly), he does figure KTM’s long dominance in the motorcycle category isn’t good for business.

It would be a really great thing to have a new brand win, because people cheer for brands as well as riders.”

Pablo Quintanilla is a talented racer who seems unable to win at Dakar, despite winning everywhere else.

Of the non-KTM riders, he figures Andrew Short of the Husqvarna team may have a breakthrough year, because he’s proven he can excel in a Castera-directed race by winning the Rally du Maroc. Pablo Quintanilla (Husqvarna) is likely going to run into some bad luck as he has in previous years, Hacking figures, keeping him from winning. And he’s not expecting much out of Honda’s Joan Barreda, due to his emotional style of riding  — a combination of race-ending crashes and mechanical failures has kept Barreda from winning in the past few years.

It’s not that they, or other factory riders like Ricky Brabec (Honda) or Adrien Van Beveren (Yamaha), aren’t fast. Hacking says it takes more than speed to win Dakar. It’s more like a personality trait, and that mindset is as much key as riding ability. But when you factor everything in — luck, new sponsorship money for some riders this year, and a change in terrain — he says there are probably as many as a dozen riders who could win.

The 2020 Dakar runs from January 5-17. CMG will post regular updates to keep you up-to-date on the race standings and the other goings-on in the race pack. Television highlight clips are supposed to run on Sportsnet in Canada this year, and organizers also post daily video updates to their YouTube channel.

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