We’re in that awkward limbo – Christmas is over, but the New Year is yet to really dig its heels in. And as we face months more of cold fronts and overcast skies, there is but one consolation: the next two weeks of the Dakar Rally.
As we move into a new decade, the Dakar too celebrates a new chapter, with the revered rally raid moving from its home of the past decade – South America – to untouched terrain on Saudi Arabia’s shores.
This year, the epic encircles the largest country in the Middle East, covering 7,500km, 5,000 of which will be special stages, including five in excess of 450km.
To put that into perspective, imagine you were to take a road trip, departing from Bordeaux and heading northwest to Dublin, across the sea and all. Then, you take a looping route through Belgium to Marseilles, back up to skirt north around Switzerland, cut through Liechtenstein and dip your toes into Slovenia before heading back to eastern France. If you were to do all of that, you still wouldn’t quite have covered the distance that the 500-odd competitors are up against over the next 12 stages and 13 days of action.
To make matters more complicated, 75 per cent of this year’s route consists of sand, while canyons, mountains, rocky pistes and boulders will no doubt complicate matters.
Each day is made up of an untimed liason and timed special stage, with the motorcycles, quads, cars, SSVs and trucks all following the same route. Their start is staggered, although the bikes will occasionally start in mass motocross fashion.
Leading the motorcycle cohort is the Red Bull KTM factory team, with the winners of the three most recent rallies, Toby Price, Matthias Walkner and Brit Sam Sunderland racing under numbers 1, 2 and 3 respectively. Having dominated the Dakar for the past two decades, the Austrian manufacturer is looking to add win number 19 to its resume.
However, Honda has unfinished business with the Dakar podium after engine failure snatched their first victory in 30 years from Ricky Brabec in the final stage of Dakar 2019. Also among the forerunners will be Husqvarna Rockstar Energy’s Pablo Quintanilla and Andrew Short, and the Monster Energy Yamaha team comprising Adrian van Beveren, Xavier De Soultrait, Franco Caimi and Jamie McCanney.
In the auto class, two-time Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso is partnered by co-driver Marc Coma in a Toyota Hilux, while three-time winner Nasser Al Attiyah and his long-time co-driver Mathieu Baumel will also once again race for the Toyota Gazoo Racing team. Carlos Sainz Sr. and co-driver Lucas Cruz will race in a Mini JCW Buggy for the Bahrain JCW X-Raid Team, as will 13-time winner Stephane Peterhansel and co-driver Paulo Fiuza.
Meanwhile, after switching from Mini to the Borgward Rally Team, runner-up of last year’s rally Nani Roma finds himself a new car with a new co-driver, sharing a BX7 DKR EVO with Dani Oliveras. And representing Orlen X-Raid Team in a Mini John Cooper Works Rally, Jakub 'Kuba' Przygonski and Timo Gottschalk hope to become the first Polish drivers to win their category.
Goodwood’s favourite truck driver and five-time winner, Eduard Nikolaev, will be joined by long-time team mates Evgeny Yakovlev and Vladimir Rybakov in the Kamaz Master team, unfortunately not driving the epic Bonnet truck that they brought to the 2019 Festival of Speed presented by Mastercard. Also onboard one of the four automatic transmission Kamaz 43509 trucks, Dmitry Sotnikov, navigator Ruslan and newcomer mechanic Ilgiz Akhmetzianov.
Representing the Instaforex Loprais Praga team in a V4S DKR, nine-time Dakar stage winner Ales Loprais will be joined by navigator Khalid Alkendi and mechanic Mechanic Petr Pokora. Dakar is very much the family trade for Loprais, whose uncle Karel Loprais won six titles in the trucks between 1988 and 2001, before Ales’ father Milan set up the private Loprais Tatra team.
Fourth in the truck line-up is the Maz-Sportauto Belarus trio of Siarhei Viazovich, navigator Pavel Haranin and mechanic Anton Zaparoshchank. And finally, completing the truck top five is the Czech Big Shock Racing Team, with Martin Macik driving an Iveco Powerstar, joined by his usual navigator Frantisek Tomasek and new mechanic David Svanda.
Following the obligatory scrutineering, the rally began yesterday with a coastal route from Jeddah to Al Wajh, a 752km slog that includes a 319km special, delivering diverse terrain and plenty of navigational challenges.
In the bikes category, Toby Price has stated his intentions early by taking the win in the first stage, crossing the line a little over two minutes ahead of Honda’s Ricky Brabec. However, a two-minute penalty to Price for a damaged roadbook diminished the gap to mere seconds, while his teammate Matthias Walkner is not far behind in third.
Meanwhile Lithuanian Agrorodeo driver Vaidotas Žala flew to victory in the car category. Despite punctures plaguing the four wheelers, Stéphane Peterhansel, Carlos Sainz and Nasser Al-Attiyah are all title contenders, unlike Jakub Przygoński, who was knocked out of contention for the general classification just a few kilometres into the race. Perhaps most shockingly was Romain Dumas’ early exit from the rally, after his and co-driver Alexandre Winocq’s RD Limited Peugeot 2008-derived DXX caught fire just 65 kilomtres into the opening stage.
In the world of trucks, Kamaz proved successful, with Anton Shibalov becoming the first leader of the rally.
In a contrast to the incredible heights (5,000m plus) reached in South America in previous years, the highest point of the rally this year will be a mere 1,400m, reached on Stage 3, in a looping 504km course starting and ending in Neom. The following day, riders and drivers will be treated to historic delights in the form of the Nabatean temples. And on the 12th January, fresh from their first rest day in the capital, Riyadh, the pilots will dive straight into Stage 7, the longest stage, with a 195km liason and 546km Special from Riyadh to Wadi Al Dawasir, which promises one of the most varied routes of the entire rally.
Stage 9 sees competitors head into Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter, as they wind their way from Wadi Al Dawasir to Haradh, across a huge 476km liason and a 410km Special, the latter promising hard ground and rough riding.
Stage 10 signals the start of the Marathon stage, as competitors ride a 534km special into the depths of the Empty Quarter, where they bivvy for the night without their support teams. Here, the only mechanical aide they will receive is from one another – a brief taste of the challenges faced by competitors in the Original by Motul class. The following morning will bring 80km of Saudi’s finest dunes.
And finally, Friday 17th January will host the last stage, with a 73km liason followed by a 374km Special to decide the winner of the overall rally, while a 20 km special section will select the winner of the separate Qiddiyah Trophy, without impacting the general classification.