Opinion: Looking back at Dakar

The 44th running of the Dakar Rally drew to a close on January 14th. It’s now been 21 years since I rode up onto the finisher’s podium at Lac Rose just outside Dakar Senegal in the 23rd Paris Dakar Rally. Little did anyone know at the time that it was to be the very last true Paris to Dakar Rally, now referred to as the ‘classique’.

The Paris Dakar rally is considered the world’s most difficult off-road motorsport event and certainly one of the most watched. I have followed the Dakar closely since the early 1980s, I met many of the iconic personalities that made the Dakar such a significant event. There is no debating that the rally changes every single year, evolving with the world around it. I believe that it is one of the last true grueling adventures left on the planet that is accessible to the average person.

As the Dakar closes in on half a century, the world has become a much more complex place. Certainly, the equipment was much less complicated when the race first started. Early participants had to be their own mechanics, finding time to erect shelter, scrounge for food and find somewhere to sleep. Just as the machines and safety equipment have evolved, so too have the conditions. Competitors now sleep in well-appointed accommodations and eat deluxe fare. Physiotherapists are also commonplace. And much needed, as riders’ bodies endure immeasurable punishment.

The Dakar has gone through three major incarnations over its 44 years. The early Europe to Africa versions were held until 2007. The rally was abruptly cancelled in 2008 due to a terrorist threat. It was moved to South America for 2009 and has since been hosted in Saudi Arabia to a high degree of success.

Organizing such an event requires at least 12 long routes over rugged desert terrain and massive infrastructure to support it, not to mention the security to handle the millions of dollars that change hands as the French organizer ASO is a for profit entity.

The Original class is based on a specific set or rules that mimic the early days where competitors relied solely on their own devices to complete the rally. Once the event starts, only the rider can work on their bike, they must check into a Parc Ferme and sleep in tents more or less isolated from the rest of the bivouac. For 2022, 24 hardy riders rode over the finish line podium in the Original class. A relatively small number, these admirable riders are looked upon as the Ironmen and Ironwomen of the Dakar.

During the first three decades of the Dakar Rally, about 50 percent of entrants dropped out before crossing the finish line. Out of 143 motorcycle competitors this year, only 19 failed to complete the rally. It is a testament to the reliability of today’s motorcycles, as well as the level of preparation and skill of the riders who chose to enter.

The KTM and Honda teams were considered in highest contention for the win this year, however 2018 winner Sam Sunderland was shifted over to the KTM Group-owned Gas Gas team. KTM’s first win took place back in 2001, kicking off a winning streak that covered two decades until Honda unseated them the past two years.

This year KTM had three riders in the top ten overall – two factory team riders and former winners in Mattias Walkner and Aussie Toby Price. However, the big news is 22-year-old American KTM privateer Mason Klein who, in atypical fashion, came out of nowhere in his rookie year to grab the number nine spot. Klein has to be considered a Cinderella story and surely in line for one of the coveted factory rides in ’23.

The HRC Honda team enlisted Dakar veteran Chilean Pablo Quintanilla to ride the red bikes for ‘22 and were well-rewarded with the choice as he finished second overall this year beating out the other four official Honda riders. 2020 winner American Ricky Brabec had to be considered one of the contenders to win, however an early navigational error set him too far back to fight for a second top step on the podium by the time the finish line was in sight. The Honda team was rewarded with four riders in the top ten, still an admirable result.

The Husqvarna team, which is also housed within the KTM Group, engaged a few riders including U.S. hopeful Skyler Howes who showed good promise in the recent years. Howes dropped out as a result of a hard fall but vows to come back stronger next year.

The Yamaha team sorted out their past teething problems and had a win in their sights with two days to go – their French rider Adrian Van Beveren led overall with just over five minutes in hand, but it wasn’t meant to be. As they say, “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.” The Yamaha team had two strong top ten finishes by American Andrew Short and Van Beveren in eighth and fourth place respectively.

Few people are familiar with the brand Sherco, a small French company who entered freshly built factory bikes and were compensated with an 11th place finish overall by Spanish rider Lorenzo Santolini.

The Dakar Rally win went to UK rider Sam Sunderland in what has to be considered a masterful lesson in strategy. Sunderland is vastly experienced and remained in view of the lead until the second to last day when he overtook his brother-in-law Van Berveren for the front spot.

These days I believe a Dakar win must be reverse engineered. Navigational challenges are a part of rally racing, so you have to be strategic. Each day’s starting order is based on the previous day’s results, so starting in seventh or eighth place gives you the advantage of following multiple tracks through the desert.

Sunderland placed in the top ten only seven times during the twelve stage rally, but held the overall lead for eight of those days – including the day that counts most: the last one. It was an exciting and well-deserved win for Sunderland and the GAS GAS team.

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