Tomorrow (January 13) is the 2024 Dakar Rally’s rest day. The first week of riding is over, with the Prologue and then six stages (spread over seven days, thanks to a new Chrono stage spread over 48 hours). Here’s where things stand in the race so far:
Ricky Brabec and Honda lead the way
Honda has the strongest factory team at Dakar in years—maybe ever. They’ve lost newcomers Skyler Howes (mechanical woes on Stage 6) and Toscha Schareina (crash on Stage 1), but they still have Nacho Cornejo, Pablo Quintanilla, Adrien Van Beveren and Ricky Brabec in the race. Right now, Brabec leads the standings and Van Beveren is third. Between them, Honda’s riders have won four of six stages so far. They appear to be healthy, so if the bikes hold up, they should be able to carefully play the hounds-and-hares game that takes over the latter stages of the race, with teammates riffing off each other.
Setbacks for KTM/Husqvarna/GasGas
KTM and Husqvarna’s teams both started a man short (missing Matthias Walkner due to injury, and not replacing Skyler Howes, respectively). Then, GasGas lost Sam Sunderland to a mechanical breakdown (reportedly a simple missing oil drain plug).
That means these teams are all suffering, and they certainly aren’t dominating the daily standings like they have in previous years. Having said that, KTM still has Toby Price in fifth place and Kevin Benavides right behind, to help each other get to the top with snakes-and-ladders tactics. And in the past, we’ve seen Husqvarna/GasGas/KTM kinda-sorta work together, as they’re all basically the same bike and owned by the same corporate overlords.
So, these setbacks are only that: Setbacks. KTM’s Price and Kevin Benavides have four Dakar titles between them. They know what it takes to win, and they will start working on that plan after rest day.
Hero struggles for the next step
Nobody’s paid much attention to them, but Hero’s factory team has become fairly strong over the past three years at Dakar—but they’re still struggling to get to the same level as KTM/Husqvarna/GasGas or Honda.
Currently, Ross Branch is killing it in the 2024 race, sitting in second place overall at the rest day. But that’s it for the factory team. Joan Barreda (who moved to Hero from Honda) went out near the end of Stage 6. Before him, Joaquim Rodrigues went out on Stage 1 and Sebastian Buhler went out on Stage 3.
Every one of those guys was a top-20 rider in the overall standings, and a top-five in the dailies. But with them all gone, Branch, fast as he is, is all alone. Having no teammate makes it hard in the second half.
If Branch can stay on the bike, and the bike can hold together, he sure looks like a top-five finisher, which is good news for Hero. But if the team wants to get to the next level, they’ll need to get another reliable rider who’s a proven top-five finisher… or coach the existing team into smarter riding early-on.
Kove rides the roller-coaster
Kove returned to Dakar this year after getting all three of its riders across the finish line last year, a first-ever for a Chinese manufacturer. Kove also added Xavier Flick and Neels Theric, two experienced rally raiders, and Mason Klein (racing as a factory-supported privateer). American Klein was considered a potential top-10 finisher, easily, as he’s got scads of speed and is also an excellent navigator.
Unfortunately for Kove and Klein, he faced continual mechanical gremlins (some looked self-induced) in the early stages. He showed a blistering pace on a couple of the early stages, but his breakdowns cost him time, as well as factory rider Sunier Sunier. Sunier stopped to help Klein, and that put him pretty far back in the standings as well.
All for naught, alas! Klein never had the chance to properly pre-run his bike this year, as the sponsorship deal was all very last-minute, and the mechanical kinks eventually caught up to him with a breakdown in Stage 6 that knocked him out of the race.
Now, Theric, Sunier and Fang Xialiang are going to try to at least finish this race on a Kove, and maybe get a top-20 (Theric is probably the only one with a hope there; he’s currently in 24th). Cesare Zacchetti is also riding a Kove, apparently representing their Italian distributor. It’s most interesting to see this company’s efforts grow, as they aim to compete for the win within five years, a very bold goal considering they started from basically nothing.