Images: Rally Zone (KTM, Husqvarna, HRC)
After three stages the 2020 Dakar Rally looks set to continue the rally’s reputation of being the toughest rally in the annual schedule, by some measure. Saudi Arabia looks to be offering the usual Dakar extreme challenges in terrain while there’s that constant tightrope walk that is navigation. And as such, while certain riders are showing impressive speed, trends are only just emerging and it’s way too early to call the outcome. Even with excellent form there’s still so much that comes down to chance.
The win-lose conflict
Stage winners so far have been: Toby Price (KTM), Ross Branch (KTM) and Ricky Brabec (Honda).
Part of that has been due to the amazing speed each of these riders has shown, but part has also been due to daily start position. It’s story we know from the 2019 event – opening the trail costs time, a lot of time.
Stage 1, Price started 23rd solo – with a good bunch of tracks to assure him of his navigation he set a blistering pace to record a significant win and time advantage. But leading out on stage 2 – having to watch the roadbook all the way, cost him 20 minutes on stage winner Branch (who started 14th).
Sam Sunderland ran second to Branch in stage 2. Now while Branch lost much time to a crash in stage 3, Sunderland, along with fellow first starter Pablo Quintanilla, were left breaking trail and this cost them equally that 20-odd minutes. No one yet, it’s evident, is able to open the trail and keep a full-on speed. So it remains to be seen, after winning stage three so commandingly (5-minutes faster than the next man – having started as 12th solo) whether Brabec can open stage four and keep his lead.
It makes you wonder – speculate on – whether the team managers are already looking at the stages ahead so as to place their riders in a lower start position for the final stage. Should they get that far…
Dodge the rocks
One worrying trend – for the riders – has been the issue of reading the roadbook while missing rocks. or just plain missing the rocks. Honda HRC’s rookie Aaron Mare caught a rock and suffered a small crash just 25-30km into the rally. He hurt his hand, which he duct-taped up for support and finished the stage an impressive 35th. But by the next morning the swelling to injury was too much to continue. The smallest mistake severely punished. Laia Sanz is a solid Dakar performer but even she got caught out, hitting a rock while reading her roadbook early in stage two, costing her 20 minutes and bringing bike damage just when she didn’t need it, in a super-marathon stage (no mechanics and only 10-minutes work time at the end of the day). Joan Barreda, later that same day also crashed in a roadbook-rock manner, but continued okay.
So for sure, the riders would be liking to use a little less speed and trying to stay safer – but when you have the likes of Brabec scorching to a significant advantage, can they afford to? Meanwhile the risks of trying to keep up became all to apparent when the luckless Adrien Van Beveren crashed at high speed, collecting collarbone and hip injuries (lucky to be just that) that caused him to be helicoptered out of the event.
An innovation for this year’s Dakar has been to give the riders their roadbook just 25 minutes before they start certain stages – so there’s no time for the professional teams to have their ‘map men’ go over the course with Google Maps and give the top riders a virtual look-see of the route before the start (as happens when the road books are given out the night before). The thinking behind this: to level the playing field, so those in lesser teams without that resource aren’t disadvantaged – and also to make the event safer, by slowing the riders, and rewarding those with great roadbook reading skills.
Does it work? Well, on stage two where this system first operated it was indeed a non-works rider who won, Ross Branch (an amateur rider being a commercial pilot by day). So there’s a tentative yes to that. Has it slowed the riders? Not sure as yet (viz. Van Beveren’s crash) but it may do over time if accurate navi is seen to outweigh all-out speed.
Honda’s Joan Barreda offering a typical story of minor rally issues:
Around kilometre 200 I fell while looking at the roadbook. I hit a rock and fell, not very hard, but enough to distract me a little. Right after, in the canyon area, I took a mistaken track and got a bit lost, but I was quickly been able to recover from it.
Barreda’s teammate, young Jose Cornejo is showing good rally chops that have pulled him up to 5th overall:
I was a long way behind the dust of a riders who started out in front of me and I preferred to hold back and let them open the track. Sure, I lost a little time there, but in general the stage went well.
KTM’s Toby Price reflecting (conservatively) on leading out stage two, where he’d been given the roadbook just 25 minutes before the off:
Today was always going to be tough, leading out from the start without having had much time to read the road book. The stage went ok, I lost some time to the others but the most important thing is I looked after my bike and the tyres.
The manufacturers’ position
After three stages clearly Monster Energy Honda has the upper hand with four riders in the top five overall – and Ricky Brabec looks in top form. They’re looking strong.
Red Bull KTM nonetheless have their four riders all inside the top ten and with nine stages to go there’s still so much ground to cover, and they’re resilient. There’s a way to go yet.
Monster Energy Yamaha is a small team and today losing half it with Adrien Van Beveren crashing out makes their chances of a significant take out all the slimmer. Didn’t help Xavier De Soultriat suffering a wee injury at the end of the day either.
Rockstar Energy Husqvarna has featured in the running, they are there or thereabouts but with Quintanilla currently 7th and Andrew Short 17th – check in later…
TVS Sherco are inside the top 20 with all three of their lead riders who started (having lost their fourth man Michael Metge just beforehand).
2020 Dakar Rally
Positions after three stages
1 Ricky Brabec Monster Energy Honda/USA 10:39.04
2 Kevin Benavides Monster Energy Honda/ARG +04.43
3 Matthias Walkner Red Bull KTM/AUT +06.02
4 Joan Barreda Bort Monster Energy Honda/ESP +11.02
5 Jose Cornejo Monster Energy Honda/CHL +11:19
6 Toby Price Red Bull KTM/AUS +11.58
7 Luciano Benavides Red Bull KTM/ARG +14.20
8 Pablo Quintanilla Rockstar Energy Husqvarna/ARG +15.40
9 Sam Sunderland Red Bull KTM/GBR +17.10
10 Xavier De Soltrait Monster Energy Yamaha/FRA +19.55