2020 Dakar Rally: It’s a wrap for an incredible race

Wow, what a race! The 2020 Dakar Rally didn’t have the constant over-the-top mayhem that typified the race in its South American years — no rained-out mudslides, no ripping around on bike-melting salt flats — but it was a year of big change. The rally moved to Saudi Arabia, and Honda finally won the bikes category. Let’s take a look at this year’s goings-on.

For a full list of this year’s finishers, click here.

Brains beat raw speed

For the South American years, there was constant whining that the race was turning into a World Rally Championship-style event, low on navigation and high on wide-open throttles.

David Castera, the rally’s new director, heard those complaints, and when the race moved to Saudi Arabia, he took action. For a few stages, he withheld the day’s navigation roadbook until just before the stage started. Otherwise, the teams were generally restricted from using navigation experts (aka “mapmen”) to mark up the roadbooks in an attempt to shave time off the specials, via shortcuts.

Ricky Brabec ran a very smart race, but having top support staff undoubtedly played a huge part in his success.

The result? The so-called “aliens,” the riders who could hold top speeds and navigate at the front of the pack, just didn’t have that performance this year. Not even KTM’s Toby Price and Honda’s Joan Barreda Bort did it, and they’ve both showed that capability in the past.

Instead, we got a win from Ricky Brabec. The Honda rider is fast, and smooth, but he’s also never been accused of being an extraterrestrial. Instead, Brabec’s focused on the mental aspect of the race: stay consistent, don’t let up and lose time, avoid stupid crashes.

In the past, Brabec’s been let down by Honda’s machinery, but he didn’t quit the team in a snit. Instead, he put in constant work over the offseason, practising his roadbook navigation with help from racing legends Jimmy Lewis and Johnny Campbell. The payoff was almost immediately obvious this year: while stars from Yamaha and KTM were losing time early in the race due to navigation errors, Brabec was laying down consistent times, and never lost control of the rally. Because he never got behind, he never had to ride over his head to catch up, and that in itself is a big part of avoiding trouble (take note, Yamaha!).

Everyone thought Matthias Walkner was a very cagey rider, but without the help of the mapmen, he seemed to struggle a bit this year, and he wasn’t alone. He still earned a solid fifth-place finish – a great example of KTM’s strength.

Another key to Honda’s win: hiring the right support staff. In the early years of its revived Dakar program, the team was almost legendary for making stupid mistakes that got them huge penalties. Part of it was no doubt a cultural clash, dealing with the notoriously difficult ASO (organizers of the Dakar). Part of it was likely a touch of arrogance, assuming that they’d instantly be as successful as they are in MotoGP. But a lot of it was just team management that didn’t really understand how the rally works.

Well, this year, along with Johnny Campbell, the Honda rally team also had veterans Ruben Faria and Helder Rodrigues helping out. Both of these guys were podium threats in their career, and always a possibility to win an individual stage. They know how the rally works, how the organizers think, and what the riders need. No doubt they’re just as key to this year’s win as Brabec’s canny riding, because the Honda squad ran smart for the entire rally. The win really is a credit to all of them.

Get ready for some turnover

Looking at the various factory teams, it’s almost sure we’ll see some changes in the lineups next year. Or at least, the teams should consider it carefully, because you know some of the riders are.

First off, it’s likely Toby Price will leave KTM’s bike team and move to cars. Price had terrible luck this year, and minor mechanical difficulties like his roached tire mousse could have had much more serious consequences.

Toby seems happy the race is over. It’s most likely not a question of if he’ll move to four wheels, but a question of when.

That lesson was no doubt driven home in the aftermath of Paulo Goncalves’ death on Stage 7; Price was at the scene, and watched the failed attempts at resuscitation. He’s had his own epic crashes in the past, winning last year on a wonky barely-healed wrist. His necked is a pinned-together mess.

Also, Price has bought his very own trophy truck. He actually raced the Baja 1000 with Nasser Al-Attiya as co-driver in 2019, and they finished second. So, don’t be surprised to hear that T-Pies is moving to four wheels. It’ll be a huge loss to the moto community, as he’s the most popular star in years, at least for the English-speaking fans, but change is inevitable. Cyril Despres, Marc Coma, and Stephane Peterhansel all made the switch, and probably Price will be next.

Then, look at the Yamaha team. Once upon a time Yamaha dominated the bike category, and even as recently as the South American years, they were contenders for the podium. But at the past couple of races, that’s changed. Adrien Van Beveren and Xavier de Soultrait, the team’s two fastest riders, both struggled with the terrain and navigation early this year, and both suffered crashes that took them out. Overall, the team hasn’t had a top-five finish since 2017, when Van Beveren was fourth. They haven’t had a potential winner since Cyril Despres earned a third-place finish in 2013.

In the past, you could blame funding, but that isn’t the case now, as Monster Energy sponsors the team, and there should be plenty of cash. Instead, maybe it’s time to look at bringing in some new blood. Yamaha’s got great second-tier racers like Franco Caimi and rookie Jamie McCanney; it’s time to emulate Honda’s approach and bring in staff who can properly support those racers, and it’s also time to see if they can land a real ace rider.

Jamie McCanney hoons through the desert. The Yamaha rookie performed admirably in his first Dakar.

First on that list should be Andrew Short. The former Supercross star supposedly spent time practising with Honda’s Brabec during the off-season, and it seemed to pay off in the Dakar. This year, Short had horrid  technical problems with his Husqvarna bike, including a 30-minute penalty for issues during the first marathon stage and a massive time loss when he swapped wheels with Toby Price and finished a stage on a bare rim.

Despite that, he was a consistent top-10 finisher almost every day, and ended up 10th overall, even with all the setbacks. Make no mistake — there’s going to be considerable interest in Short in the future. KTM is likely going to want to keep him; if he leaves the Husky team, it’s most likely to move to the orange mothership, replacing Toby Price. But Yamaha would be wise to at least try, so long as they can somehow fit him into their Euro-centric squad.

Ross Branch, the “Kalahari Ferrari,” really upped his game this year. No doubt some factory teams are wondering if he’s worth picking up.

Another rider who’s likely tapped to go places is Ross Branch. He proved his grit on the BAS Dakar team this year, with consistent top-10 stage finishes, and continuing despite a horribly battered body. A factory team should pick him up and develop his racing even further, if possible.

One other rider to keep an eye on is Skyler Howes. He ran with the Klmyciw team this year, with excellent results, ending ninth overall in his second attempt. He’s a proven champ elsewhere (he won the Sonora rally), and given some development work, has plenty of potential.

But it’s the same old story. Despite Honda’s win this year, the majority of riders at Dakar prefer to ride KTM, as it’s just easier and safer. Parts supply is assured, and even if the factory team can’t fit you in, there’s plenty of room with Husqvarna, Gas Gas or a factory squad that runs the same machine. Riders tend to move from Yamaha and Honda to a KTM-based team, not the other way around.

Despite Honda’s win, KTM is still the strongest factory team at Dakar, and most successful racers are using their bikes.

The bikes still could be better

Let’s face it, the Dakar is hard on machinery. Still, Honda’s Kevin Benavides had a blown engine, when he was in contention for a win, and that shouldn’t have happened. Later on, Joan Barreda Bort also copped a 15-minute penalty for an engine swap. Both those riders were potential top-five finishers, so while Big Red didn’t have the epic fiery meltdown that’s typified its efforts the past few years, it still needs to get better. Sure, it might seem impossible to build a 450 single that can rev its guts out for 12 days of rally racing without self-destructing — but KTM can do it, so Honda needs to get better at it.

Although KTM didn’t have any blown engines this year, it did have some of its own issues. Ignoring tire mousse failures (maybe the fault of the team’s technicians, but more likely the tire manufacturer), KTM had at least three broken swingarm bolts, including two for Skyler Howes. These are the sort of failures that can not only end a race, they can end a life. It’s puzzling how this could be a problem, because KTM’s been doing this race a long time. Regardless, they need to figure it out.

Laia Sanz won the female category, as always.

And also…

  • Laia Sanz won the women’s category, not that there was any doubt. Sanz had a bit of a rough go this year, running under the Gas Gas banner on what was essentially a re-badged KTM, but hung on and prevailed in the end. She ended up 18th overall.
  • The top rookie was Jaume Bertriu, of FN Speed Team, finishing 14th overall. Yamaha’s Jamie McCanney was right behind him in 15th, though, and were it not for penalty trouble, probably could have beaten him. Both earned top-10 stage finishes, and will likely be around for a while, funding permitting.
  • Privateer Stefan Svitko finished in 11th, no doubt a welcome result after DNFs the past two years. Super-tough Svikto didn’t threaten the podium as he has in the past, but he was a good example of smarts being able to outlast raw speed. He finished in front of several factory team racers.
  • Adrian Metge, in 12th, was Sherco’s top finisher. It’s too bad this factory team is so under-funded, as it’s always got a rider or three in the top-20, and they really perform well against much richer opponents.
  • Emanuel Gyenes was winner of the Malle Moto class, meaning he ran the race without a team, completing his own mechanical maintenance every night. This is a ridiculously difficult feat, and props to him.
  • Speaking of which — Price and Brabec were heard talking about running Malle Moto themselves during one of the bivouacs. No doubt Brabec is going to stay where he is for now, and Price is likely moving to cars, but the thought of these two guys racing in the Malle Moto class is exciting for sure.
  • There was considerable whingeing after the ASO moved the Dakar to Saudi Arabia this year, given the country’s recent human rights record. Was it justified? Well, at time of publication, we haven’t heard of any problems, and the race certainly ran much more smoothly than it did in South America (Stage 12 re-routing notwithstanding). Although the route was reportedly a bit clunky this year, it’ll no doubt be improved next year, and the scenery was spectacular this year.

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