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NACHO CORNEJO

IS HONDA POISED FOR A SECOND DAKAR VICTORY?

With closest rival Toby Price crashing out of Stage 9, the way to Dakar victory looks clear for Honda's 'Nacho' Cornejo. But the Dakar Rally is never over until it's over...
Now then, there’s plenty of race coverage on the Internet, so no need for another Dakar race report here. Instead, at what has been a turning point in the rally, here at RUST we’re looking at what’s been going on over the last 9-10 days and wondering if there’s been a rewrite here of the Dakar Rally User’s Guide.

images: RallyZone, HRC, KTM, Yamaha, Husqvarna

EXIT SANDMAN

The unfortunate loss of KTM’s Toby Price today in stage 9 of the 2021 Dakar Rally – his heavy crash resulting in a broken collarbone and concussion – looks to have given Honda’s ‘Nacho’ Cornejo a clear path to victory. But can this be so readily called?

Well yes, the point being the 2021 Dakar is now Honda’s to lose. They have the metaphorical bases loaded, including Cornejo they have four bikes in the top five – that is to say their entire team. The works KTM team has only lost one of their riders in Price, but of the remaining three only Sam Sunderland, in third place and 17’26” behind, is within striking distance. Equally, with the top five each day typically finishing so close it’ll be difficult to pull back that many minutes over the three remaining stages.

Albeit, this is Dakar – never say never…

Honda HRC's Cornejo and Brabec – working together at the head of the field. This year, a winning strategy...
KTM's Toby Price is something of a superhero, but even superheroes fall some time
Cornejo has as good as broken all his rivals, now he just has to keep it together to the finish
Sam Sunderland has been on great form, but is one man's talent enough, is teamwork the new currency ?

STOPPING THE YO-YO

There’s going to be a lot of analysis going on once this Dakar is over. Two very likely conclusions that we’ll probably see will be 1) Cornejo has emerged as an imperious rider-navigator, able to lead if not dominate while breaking trail, and 2) teamwork aids success – on many occasions during this rally we’ve seen the Honda riders working together, two heads are better than one when it comes to leading out the Dakar entry for 400-500km at a time. While not conclusively proven, it would seem the Honda team – under the experienced management of former competitor Ruben Faria – has devised a rally winning strategy. Luck plays its part, but in racing you make your luck.

Stage 8 is a typical example. Ricky Brabec, having won stage 7, led out – at speed – and becomes the hare for Cornejo to run down, which he does at 229km. From there to the end of the stage they ride together.

Brabec commented afterwards: ‘Nacho and I rode together and just worked it out with good teamwork. We went really fast. Yesterday we did well, but I was scared that we would have to open. We rode well today. I’m kicking myself in the head. I wish we’d had the speed and the focus last week. We are fighting and we are stronger now.’

Stage 6 had been a similar story, Kevin Benvides leading our first, and again Cornejo chasing him down…

Benavides: ‘I started first and knew it would be tricky. My partner Nacho Cornejo and I did a very good job, from kilometre 70 onward, we pushed hard together on a 100% sandy stage’.

Cornejo: ‘Today was a tough, long stage with only sand and dunes. My team-mate Kevin and I started out together and we tried to lose as little time as possible. We did a very good job opening the track for most of the stage.

Notice also that Honda has won seven out of the nine stages so far, KTM just two (both Price). Received wisdom has been that to lead out has been costly – a sure way to lose time on your competitors as breaking trail slows your pace. But having a Honda rider lead out most days has given the red team a team-mate to aim for and then to unite with at the front.

We could be adding 2 + 2 to make 8 here. But for sure the teams play strategy. And after recent years where it seems the teams have run four A riders with the hope one will reach the end in front, it could be we’re entering an era where proper team work is back on. The return of the water carrier?

THE DAMAGE

Honda’s hard and fast teamwork has made for a high-speed game of chase that’s broken bikes and riders.

KTM:

The orange squad was more than hanging in there for most of the rally. Toby Price has been bang on form, led the rally at the halfway mark, and even a badly damaged tyre could not keep him out of the top three. Up until his crash in stage 9 it was looking to be very much a two-horse race between the Australian and Chilean Cornejo. Equally Sam Sunderland has been bang on form. It would seem he’s taken the strategy of placing consistently high but not fastest. Any other year (especially based on recent Dakars) this could have been a formula for success, but Honda’s pace setting has left him arguably too far behind, even in third place. Matthias Walkner’s disastrous day two (clutch problem – finishing 69th over two hours behind) cost him his rally. This has promoted him to the position of team water carrier, but there’s no evidence of the team using his skills in the way Honda is deploying their riders’ speed. Junior member Daniel Sanders meanwhile is in his rookie year (only his second rally), and while showing truly brilliant form can only be of limited help in this situation.

Yamaha:

This year has been a disaster for the blue team. They have a history of plucking defeat from the jaws of victory, but this year they’ve been taking the hits right from the beginning. Engine failures (or at least technical issues in PR speak) have decimated their team. Andrew Short broke down as early as the second stage. Daniel McCanney ground to a halt in stage 5. Franco Caimi broke his engine in stage 8. Ross Branch has been their leading light, so nearly winning stage 6, but a hefty crash, and then another flame-out (or grinding halt) in stage 9 saw him leave the stage (in both senses). That’s left Adrien Van Beveren who’s not having his best year, often well outside the top 10. No, not a vintage year for Yamaha, sadly.

Husqvarna:

Here’s a team that’s just not fired this edition. The leading Husky protagonist in fact being a non-works entry. Xavier de Soultrait even led the rally after the fourth stage, and (like Sunderland) in playing the consistency game was staying in contention. Unfortunately his run of Dakar bad luck struck again with a big crash in stage 8. Factory pilot Pablo Quintanilla, a former Dakar podium man, hasn’t shone since the second stage and while he’s hanging just about in the top 10 his one hour deficit – on the current form – puts him out of contention. Luciano Benavides had been mixing it well inside the top ten but was another stage 9 crash victim.

Yamaha's Ross Branch was on the pace, but joined three of his teammates in the withdrawals with a broken motor
Husky's Pablo Quintanilla just hasn't found his top-three pace this year
Elsewhere:

Away from the intense heat at the front, kudos to the Sherco team. After nine stages Lorenzo Santolino is 42 minutes off the lead in eighth place – almost unnoticed despite two top-five finishes. He’ll be hoping for a strong finish after two abandons in his previous Dakars. Teammates Rui Goncalves and Harith Noah are still popping along inside the top 25. Laia Sanz has played her traditional long game and should make the finish (as she always does) for Gas Gas, as the attrition has taken a hold she slipped into the top 20 after stage 9. Placing inside the top 20 are the Hero and Rieju teams. Rieju joining Gas Gas in competing on rebadged KTMs (while Rieju are now selling rebadged Gassers…). And the Brits? David Knight has ridden an excellent first Dakar, probably he’s playing against type, riding sensibly (ie. not full attack), he’s learning the game and the terrain. Only his results have been improving with every stage, dipping inside the top 20 for the first time in stage 9, to secure 27th overall. Between his improving results and his excellent online post-stage interviews he’s doing a great job of repaying the faith of the crowd funders who helped him here. Neil Hawker, in his second Dakar, is riding Malle Moto (aka Motul Originals) and likewise repaying his supporters with solid rides that have equally seen him rise up the ranks, now placed sixth in class, 40th overall.

ARE WE RIGHT?

That’s enough thinking for one night. We have a comments section below if you want to feed back to us on whether we’ve called it, or missed by a mile – so feel free to have your say. In the meantime it’s back to the live timing (should be working, eh?) to see how this all pans out…

DAKAR RALLY 2021

Provisional Standings after stage 9

Pos.

Rider

Num

Nation

Team

Time/Gap

1

CORNEJO 

José Ignacio

4

CHI

Monster Energy Honda Team

36:51’00

2

BENAVIDES 

Kevin

47

ARG

Monster Energy Honda Team

+00:11’24

3

SUNDERLAND 

Sam

5

GBR

Red Bull KTM Rally Factory Team

+00:14’34

4

BRABEC 

Ricky

1

USA

Monster Energy Honda Team

+00:17’26

5

BARREDA 

Joan

88

SPA

Monster Energy Honda Team

+00:29’00

6

SANDERS 

Daniel

21

AUS

Red Bull KTM Rally Factory Team

+00:38’23

7

HOWES 

Skyler

9

USA

BAS DAKAR KTM RACING TEAM

+00:40’25

8

SANTOLINO 

Lorenzo

15

SPA

Sherco TVS Rally Factory

+00:42’08

9

QUINTANILLA 

Pablo

2

CHI

Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory Racing

+01:00:37

10

VAN BEVEREN 

Adrien

42

FRA

Monster Energy Yamaha Rally Team

+01:02’48

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