words: Chris Evans images: KTM, Husqvarna, GasGas, Yamaha, Sherco
Around about this time of year a few of us get together and create a WhatsApp group to try and predict who will win the bike class on the upcoming Dakar. You would have thought with 24 or so sandy Januarys under my belt in a variety of different roles I’d be in with a good chance of taking the sweepstake – basically a fiendishly complicated calculation with points awarded for guessing different permutations of the top 5. Needless to say I’ve never got even close to winning. More worryingly still, my wife consistently scores more points than me and her main criteria seems to be how good looking the different protagonists are. So don’t count on my pearls of wisdom to finance your holiday season with a quick flutter down at William Hill (other bookies are available), even if my analysis is both profound and informed…
OK so first of all let’s distil the process down a little by looking at the teams. Statistically at least this has to be the most reliable indicator given that in the last 20 years (or so – could be 19 or 21…) only 2 different brands have won, KTM / Husqvarna / Gas Gas or Honda. As you all know, the last two went to Honda and they are looking like being strong contenders in 22.
IN THE RED CORNER…
For a start their bike is now not only fast and agile it is also reliable and they seem to have managed to wean themselves off that HRC MotoGP fetish for changing things all the time. In addition their management structure is settled, experienced and confident. Which is important because it is very difficult to win the Dakar without a solid team behind you. I actually used to work with their manager Ruben Faria back when he was riding for KTM and I wasn’t the only one to be surprised by his appointment to the top job at the Honda Monster Energy Team. As I’ve already admitted I clearly know nothing ‘cos he’s turned out to be rather good at it. These days my Dakar job description is Motorcycle Competition Relations Officer so I still have quite a lot to do with Ruben and what most impresses me is the questions he asks about the regulations. You can tell he’s worrying about things and that’s good – it that means he’s trying to anticipate what might go wrong. Because as we all know the person who wins the Dakar is the one who makes the least mistakes… and rides very fast.
So good bike, good structure, what about the riders? Well a bit of mid-season manoeuvring saw their 2021 winner defect to the Austrians so they’re one serious contender down. On the other hand they traded one fast South American for another with K Benavides and Quintanillia basically doing a straight swap. Given that Benavides is the current title holder he arguably has more brownie points than Quinty but the Chilean is still a serious contender. As is Honda’s first ever Dakar winner of the modern era, Ricky Brabec. Given how badly his 2021 Dakar started his final finishing position was quite remarkable and he is definitely one of the favourites for 22, as is team mate José Ignacio Cornejo who was leading the 2021 edition until his stage 10 crash. And then we have Joan Barreda. He has never won the Dakar but is nevertheless the rider currently racing with the most Dakar stage wins to his credit. Why he didn’t stop at the refuelling last year only to run out of fuel a few kilometres later remains a total mystery. It can’t have been tactics, even if it did momentarily destabilise the contenders from the other teams. Given his track record you’d be mad to consider him to be a potential winner, or even as a finisher come to that, but maybe with the pressure so off him these days he could yet surprise us.
FAST ORANGE, WHITE AND RED…
Over at the Austrian camp, management and team structure has always been one of their strengths and there’s no reason to suspect that will be any different this year, even if there’s been some rearranging, presumably because the boss’ bosses weren’t best pleased handing ‘their’ rally raid fiefdom over to Honda two years on the trot. As far as riders are concerned KTM looks very strong with all three riders being previous winners. Obviously there’s title holder Kevin Benavides, there’s never give up Toby Price, who’d surely like to win another before moving over to cars and there’s a very on form Matthias Walkner. He was a bit low profile for a while there but has had an excellent post Dakar 2021 culminating in winning the world championship. In addition to this lot, next door you have Gas Gas, minus Laia Sanz who’s gone off to drive a Mini, but with added Daniel Sanders and Sam Sunderland. Sam has a similar profile to Toby and Matthias in terms of wins, seniority and injury and could definitely repeat, if not better his 2021 podium. Sanders is younger, less experienced but also less risk averse than his Austrian stablemates and might well be ready for a win if his lack of rally kilometres don’t get in the way. Finally for the Austro Spanish Swedish Empire you have Kevin’s brother Luciano and Skyler Howes. Again either could win. Luciano should now be over his Dakar 2021 Stage 9 injury while the American will be keen to justify his factory signing following his best privateer 5th place in ‘21. The only potential hic for the Austrians is they will be riding their new-to-Dakar bike. Featuring a brand new (non-trellis) chassis and engine, it didn’t seem to have any problems on the Rallye du Maroc back in October but if there are any inherent weaknesses the Dakar will find them…
If probability suggests that victory should come from one of the above bike / rider combos you can’t completely discount the Yamaha team. Two things are in their favour. Firstly they have a super fast and level headed rider in the shape of Botswanan Ross Branch. They also have another solid rider in ex-supercross rider Andrew Short and a very experienced Le Touquet winner in Adrian Van Beveren. The Frenchman had it virtually in the bag back in South America before crashing out almost within sight of the line. It took him a long time to recover both physically and psychologically from that incident but he’s another one who’s had a good post-Dakar 2021. The other thing the Yamaha team have going for them is a now excellent management structure with the stroke of genius recruitment of Andrea Mayer (Mrs Peterhansel to you) as sports manager. Not only does she have a hot line to Mr Dakar himself but she is also vastly experienced in her own right and has a very clear vision of what is needed to win. Yamaha’s big problem is reliability. There are the only ‘factory’ team not to field a purpose built bike and that’s proved costly in the past. On the 2021 Dakar they had five engines break, apparently all for different reasons. Since then they’ve had a major rethink and handed engine building over to Italian moto-x team Rinaldi. They were hoping to be able to test the results on the seasons other ‘long’ rally, the Silk Way but that got severely shortened with the closing of the border between Siberia and Mongoloia.
SHERCO / HERO
Finally, as extreme outsiders, you have Sherco and Hero. Both are on the up, both in terms of machinery and riders and both are compact, well-run outfits. For 2022 Sherco are coming with an all new bike, while the Hero squad finished their Dakar prep with an excellent third place finish in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge for Joaquim Rodrigues – both teams are demonstrably capable. But against the Hondas and KTMs of this world they’ve got their work cut out. And if it is me saying that, one of them will probably win! A podium is definitely within the realms of possibility.
THE FAST TRACK TO SUCCESS
Away from specific bikes and riders, before signing off, just a quick look at general tendencies. It used to be that you needed at least four Dakars under your belt before you could have a sniff at a win. These days, well structured teams and training camps means riders like Daniel Sanders and Skyler Howes are up to speed much earlier. And as these two prove, riders are choosing to switch to rally raid much younger. No longer is the sport a retirement home for tired enduro riders. In a similar vein, managers are looking for riders in different places. Rather than recruit enduro riders that may or may not manage to achieve the speeds now needed in rally to be competitive, they are looking to hire uncomplicated youth from desert regions that grew up riding at those sorts of speeds. Prime examples are two riders you might not have heard of yet, who will be making their Dakar debuts: Bradley Cox and Mason Klein. South African Bradley has the more classic profile, being the son of ex-KTM factory rider Alfie. Mason Klein looks more computer geek than Dakar hero but he won the Rally2 class on the recent Rallye du Maroc by a substantial margin. Both are tipped for great things. Final rider tendency of note: the day’s of riders squatting Dakar podiums for 10 years on the trot are long gone. Increased competition, higher speeds, more intensive training, busier seasons (don’t forget that for the first time ever the Dakar will be a round of the new ASO promoted world championship) and a host of other factors means that the ideal career plan for a top rider is now: an early start, a reduced apprenticeship, a quick win and a rapid move to a nice comfy car. And with the car category about to explode (not literally haha) thanks to hydrogen powered electric motors there could well be a bit of a recruitment drive, with places becoming available both sides of the cockpit. I wish you all an excellent festive season.
One final word – keep an eye out for, and keep supporting, the British privateers: Simon Hewitt, David Mabbs and David McBride