The 40th running of the Dakar Rally is now over. As the dust settles the stream of stories grows. Up front, as expected, we saw an epic duel between Honda and KTM riders, but there was also a strong showing from the Yamaha factory. Spanning three countries and almost 9,000km, Dakar is an epic assault on both rider and machine, with privateers making up the bulk of the 190 motorcycles and quads entered. Because of this, the action at the front of the field is only a fraction of the story. We will highlight a few of those many stories, but first we should talk about the drama up front.
The bike category saw two huge names crash out of the lead this year. Navigation errors also played a big part of this year’s rally, with almost all the front running bikes taking a wrong turn and losing nearly an hour as the back-tracked. All but one…
Red Bull Factory KTM rider Mattias Walkner. Photo ©A.S.O.
And the one rider not to make this mistake was veteran Mattias Walkner (#002) of Austria. The Red Bull KTM rider was in the top 5 overall the entire rally, playing a game of consistency when, in stage 10, his spot-on navigation moved him from 3rd place to the lead… with nearly an hour gap to 2nd. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The story of this year’s Dakar actually started before the green flag ever waved.
The Front Runners
Paolo Gonçalves (#006), one of the factory Honda riders, was unable to make the start due to a lingering shoulder injury. This pulled Honda support rider Ignacio Cornejo (#068) of Chile off his bike and onto Gonçalves’ machine. No pressure there. But quite honestly the extra pressure never showed on Cornejo’s face, or in his results. Some brilliant riding in the dunes of the early stages left him 12th overall.
Jose Ignacio Cornejo, in just his second Dakar, had to suddenly fill the boots of veteran Paolo Gonçalves, out before the rally started with an unhealed shoulder injury. Cornejo impressed, the young Chilean managing a best stage result of 5th and ending 10th overall. Photo: ©A.S.O.
The middle of the rally saw a few finishes outside the top-20, but a 5th place in stage 10 (where so many riders made navigation errors) helped keep his name in circulation. His overall position continually hovered just inside or just outside the top 10, and he ended the Dakar with a solid 10th overall.
But up front everyone was waiting to see the usual suspects continue their Honda vs. KTM battle. It started with KTM and Honda swapping stage wins for the first three days. Sam Sunderland’s KTM, #001, took stage 01, with stage 02 going to Honda’s Joan Barreda Bort (#005). Stage 03 went back to Sunderland. The KTM/Honda battle was back, but no one sent Yamaha the memo. The blue bikes finished one-two on the 4th stage.
Honda’s Joan Barreda Bort won several stages and remained in the fight until a knee injury hampered him in stage 07. He fought on, winning the stage, but retired in stage 11 due to the pain. Photo: ©A.S.O
But probably the biggest news from stage 04 was the retirement of rally leader and last year’s winner Sam Sunderland. The KTM rider misjudged a dune and landed hard, compressing his spine. Despite remounting, he only made it about another 5km before he stopped from the pain. Early reports were that Sunderland had lost feeling in his legs, but this turned out to be from pinched nerves in his spine, and before the rally was even over he had announced the beginning of his physical therapy and his eagerness to be back for Dakar 2019.
Sam Sunderland looked on form and ready to fight for a second consecutive Dakar win, but a stage 04 crash left him unable to continue. Photo: ©A.S.O.
Van Beveren ran a smart strategy, alternating between aggressive and conservative until he got cross-rutted in a fast riverbed section and crashed out, 3km’s before the end of stage 10. Photo: ©A.S.O.
This meant all eyes were now on Yamaha’s Adrien Van Beveren (#004), who seemed to be using the strategy of consistent results over stage wins. But by stage 06 the rally had moved out of the dunes and into the thin, cold air of Peru’s Andes mountains. The bikes struggled to make power in the thin air and riders struggled with deep water holes from recent rains. Van Beveren could only manage an 8th place in the stage, giving up the overall lead to Honda’s Kevin Benavides (#047, Argentina).
Kevin Benavides remained in the top-5 overall for the course of the rally, winning a stage and even leading the event briefly. Finishing 2nd overall, he was the only person to break KTM’s stranglehold on the top finishing positions. Photo: ©A.S.O.
When stage 07 began in LaPaz, Bolivia, no one was sure how things would play out. With the course being a combination of sandy tracks, low dunes, and rutted trails, it was Van Beveren who shined, his 2nd place on stage putting him back in the overall lead. But the big news surrounded the day’s stage winner, Joan Barreda Bort.
Many saw Barreda as Honda’s best chance at victory, but a big crash severely injured his knee. He remounted and still won the stage, but no one was sure how he could manage another week in the saddle. Still, Honda man Kevin Benavides was second overall at this point, staying under the radar with smart riding while still finishing up front each day. This meant Honda was still in the fight with at least one rider, no matter what.
Benavides wasn’t the only one feeling pressure on stage 08 though. Van Beveren managed only 7th on the stage, cutting his overall lead to only 22 seconds over Honda’s Benavides. Barreda, with his injured knee, managed 8th during the stage and still clung to a top-five overall ranking.
Stage 09 was cancelled due to heavy rains at high altitudes. The resulting fog grounded helicopters which is considered a major safety concern due to the time it takes for medical help to arrive by land. While seems like a chance for riders to take a break, what it really meant was a 400km ride to a new bivouac to begin stage 10. The riders were just coming off a marathon stage, where no part on the machine can be replaced for two stages. This left mechanics in a scramble to set up their workspaces to service the bikes. Riders were also forced to head 400km further than they expected, not finding out until they arrived at the stage finish. Just when you think it’s over…
Navigating across hundreds of kilometers of terrain using only a roadbook is no joke. Doing it while going as fast as possible is borderline insanity. Photo: ©A.S.O.
As mentioned before, stage 10 was where the rally got flipped on its head. The mix of dunes and riverbeds combined with heat peaking at 109°F to sap rider strength and mental focus. A group of fast riders were together, negotiating a long riverbed. When one rider misread his roadbook and went left at a fork, the entire group followed, ending up over 10km off course before realizing the mistake, and losing upwards of 40min.
Up front though Van Beveren was navigating correctly but still lost over 6min to Benavides, and the overall lead. Pushing in the second timed stage, only 3km from the finish, he cross-rutted at high speed in a dry riverbed and wen down hard. He was airlifted out and later diagnosed with a broken collarbone, several broken ribs, and bruising on his lungs.
This left only KTM’s Mattias Walkner to have survived the stage and avoid navigation errors. This launched him into the lead by almost 40min over Barreda, whose injured knee would finally get the better of him during the 11th stage.
From here out the rally was Walkner’s to lose. With such a large lead and only four stages to go, going fast but not taking chances was the only logical plan. Stage 12 was also cancelled due to weather, and this took away one precious opportunity for competitors to hunt down Walkner, who cruised the rest of the rally to a convincing win. Honda still had a lock on 2nd place by way of Benavides’ consistent performance. They could at least deny KTM a podium sweep, but KTM took not only the win but third through fifth.
Winner Mattias Walker, flanked by fellow Red Bull KTM riders Antoine Meo (6th overall, left) and Toby Price (5th overall, right), celebrate with the crew. This was Walkner’s first Dakar win, but it was KTM’s seventeenth consecutive victory. Photo: ©A.S.O.
Stories of Note
KTM also won the women’s category with their young ace Laia Sanz (#015). This was her eighth Dakar so she is far from a rookie, managing a 12th place finish overall and a best stage finish of 10th (stage 08). This is her second-best result, having finished 9th overall in 2015.
With a field composed mostly of European and South American riders some may wonder if there are any Americans among the bunch. Most of note is Californian Ricky Brabec, riding for Honda. Brabec has a stage win to his credit from last year though he seemed to be aiming for a more consistent approach this year.
He took a 2nd place in stage 08 and had two other 4th place finishes, but for the most part he was finishing each day between 10-25th place. Sadly, with only two days left in the event, while holding 6th place overall, his CRF450X engine let go, ending his rally so close to the finish.
KTM’s Laia Sanz drastically improved her navigation skills in this, her 8th Dakar. She handily won the women’s category but also impressed by finishing 12th overall and rebounding quickly from a few decent crashes during the rally. Photo: ©A.S.O.
After a masterful 3rd Dakar appearance, American Ricky Brabec suffered a mechanical failure on stage 13. Because the 14th and final stage is extremely short, it was gut wrenching to see the young rider robbed of a solid 6th place overall. Photo: ©A.S.O.
Another exciting story to follow is that of Hero Motorcycles. The Indian company is known throughout the world, specializing in simple, lightweight motorcycles for developing nations. In an attempt to increase their global footprint, they partnered with German company Speedbrain, who in the passed have managed official efforts for Honda and Husqvarna.
They got off to a terrible start when their fastest rider, Joaquim Rodrigues, pancaked into a dune during the very first stage. His injuries were severe enough to end his Dakar then and there. On the plus side, his injuries were not severe and he will recuperate.
While hopes for a good result shifted to Indian native Santosh Shivashankar, in stage 03 he would lose the cap to his rear fuel tank. With 30km left in the stage, Santosh would run out of fuel and lose an hour attempting to siphon fuel from fellow riders passing by. He finished the stage in 98th but did manage to fight back to a 34th overall, his best finish yet.
Hero Motorcycles’ Joaquim Rodrigues crashed out in just the first stage of the Dakar. Photo: ©A.S.O.
You are forgiven if you did not know Hero was running a third bike. Spaniard Oriol Mena came to the team so late they didn’t have time to add him to their website. In fact, they didn’t even have time to build him a bike; it is rumored that his machine was a 2013 model left over in the Speedbrain shop from when they managed Husqvarna’s effort. Despite this, Mena showed tenacity and skill in his very first Dakar, managing a best of 4th place in stage 10, ending the rally with a string of top-10 finishes and a 7th place overall.
Original by Motul
When the Dakar Rally started it was essentially a bunch of lunatics using slightly modified road vehicles to race across Africa, because… why not? That original spirit lives on in the Malle Moto class, renamed this year as Originals by Motul. Riders in the Originals class have all their tools in a small container and perform all maintenance and repair (except tire changes) themselves, using only what’s in their box.
The Originals class requires riders to perform all bike work themselves, while living in spartan conditions. Photo: ©A.S.O.
This means that after hours of racing, plus hours of riding to and from the day’s race course, they must prep their bikes for the next day, go over their roadbook, and find some time to eat and set up their tent for the night. Quite simply, it’s the ultimate test for any motorcycle racer, which is why former KTM factory man Olivier Pain decided to have a go this year. No team of mechanics and team chef and team doctor… just a bike and a box.
Olivier Pain posing by all the tools he has while competing in the Originals by Motul category. Photo: ©A.S.O.
Pain was the fastest Originals rider in all but three stages and was never more than a few minutes behind his rivals when he wasn’t leading. He took the class lead on stage 02 and kept it. In the end he was 29th overall, 9.5 hours from race winner Mattias Walkner, but about 1.5 hours clear of 2nd place Originals rider Lyndon Poskitt (33rd overall). This includes a 15min penalty Pain received for changing the head gasket on his KTM. An entire engine swap would have been easier, but this would have incurred a one-hour penalty.
Olivier Pain rode a brilliant race, winning the Originals class and finishing 29th overall. Photo: ©A.S.O.
Speaking of Lyndon Poskitt, last year his successful YouTube-based series, Races2Places, did a great job of filming behind-the-scenes action and giving viewers at home a fantastic perspective. The footage was put into a one-hour film called “Malle Moto.” This year Lyndon did a step better and crowdfunded a budget to allow a 1-man film crew to put together daily episodes during the entire event. If you are looking for coverage of the Originals class, Lyndon’s YouTube channel is a great place to look.
Lyndon Poskitt managed to take his KTM to a solid 2nd in the Originals class while helping film daily episodes for his web series, Races2Places. How did he find the time? Photo: ©A.S.O.
And now comes the long wait for Dakar 2019. On the plus side, stories and footage will continue to trickle onto the internet and into Dakar lore for months to come. And there is always re-watching the event on RedbullTV or binge-watching videos on the Rally’s official YouTube. There is also the Merzouga Rally in April. Though it lacks the hype of Dakar, it still features the best of the best fighting for victory over intense, natural terrain.