Australia will field four representatives – including three rookies – at the 2021 Dakar Rally that gets underway on 3 January.
Leading the Aussie contingent is Toby Price, a six-time starter and two-time winner in the annual marathon event. For 2021, he’ll be joined in the KTM Factory Racing team by Daniel Sanders, who’s making his Dakar debut.
The other Aussie debutants are Michael Burgess and Andrew Houlihan, who are also riding KTM 450s. Burgess will be racing with BAS Dakar KTM Racing, while Houlihan will be competing with the Nomadas Adventure Coca Cola Racing Team, with support from Speedcafe.
TOBY PRICE - #3
Red Bull KTM Factory Racing
KTM 450 Rally
33yo, Singleton NSW
“2020 was obviously a quiet season. It began with the Dakar and another podium finish even though it wasn’t the result I had hoped for, and then nothing,” Price said of the COVID-interrupted rally raid schedule last year.
“I knew nothing was going to happen in the first months of the year. I stayed calm and didn’t really do anything. It was a gradual re-start with a lot of mountain biking and weight training. Since then, we have only been able to train and test in Europe and Dubai for the past five months.
“This long break has allowed everyone to recharge their batteries and allow their bodies time to recover. A lot of guys are going to show up in great shape. The level of competition is going to be even greater. It's pretty exciting and I can't wait for it to start.”
Already a dual Dakar winner, the 33-year-old will lead a KTM squad that’s aiming to reclaim the title they lost to Honda last year.
“The first Dakar in Saudi Arabia was totally new for everyone - we didn't know what to expect.” Price explained. “We now know that it is fast over very wide stretches. We'll see what's in store for us this year.”
While Price says he doesn’t like to predict what will happen, he’s aiming to continue his streak of finishing on the podium each time he’s completed the rally.
“My goal is to attack with the hope of another podium finish, but we are all going there to try to win. And the ultimate goal is to be on the top step of the podium holding the big trophy.”
DANIEL SANDERS - #21
Red Bull KTM Factory Racing (Junior Rally programme)
KTM 450 Rally
26yo, Three Bridges VIC
Since joining the KTM Factory Racing team in a deal that was negotiated during last year’s interrupted Australian Off-Road Championship (in which he won the E3 category), 26-year-old Daniel Sanders has adapted swiftly to the demands of rally raid competition.
In his first event with the team, the Andalucia Rally, Sanders won a stage and finished eleventh overall. Dakar is a different animal, though – longer, tougher and with much more demanding navigation requirements.
“My expectations are to finish and hopefully I’ve learnt a lot over the last four months of roadbook training and with the bike, so I’d really like to get into the top 10, but of course, I want to finish it mostly,” Sanders said.
“I’m expecting the worst. I expect long tiring days, low energy, so it’s going to be very hard to focus and minimise the fatigue.”
While he has the backing of the KTM factory for his Dakar debut, Sanders has cited the enthusiasm of Aussie privateers Burgess and Houlihan as additional support.
“It’s cool to be in a group of Aussies racing and to see Andrew and Michael racing and seeing their passion for the race. We’ve all been in contact and helping each other where we can in this tough situation of COVID. It will be really cool to catch up and hear the stories each day in the race,” Sanders enthused.
“For the supporters, I’ll be giving it everything. I haven’t left the country for four months to not finish. I hope to be at the pointy end, but with only one rally under my belt, I hope I’ve got enough experience in racing and some luck on my side to get up the pointy end. Thanks everyone for their support.”
ANDREW HOULIHAN - #62
KTM 450 Rally Replica
50yo, Albury NSW
To prep for the 2021 Dakar, Andrew Houlihan took part in the 2019 Morocco Rally and Africa Eco Race, which was a “comeback” of sorts following a massive crash in the 2018 Hellas Rally that left him in a Greek hospital for a month. Far from dissuading him, that experience actually gave Houlihan the resolve to make his Dakar dreams a reality.
Like everyone else, Houlihan’s plans were interrupted by COVID-19 and it looked like he would miss this year’s event altogether after his initial flights were cancelled.
“As soon as I returned to Australia in February from the Africa Eco Race, COVID hit, and my plans to return to Morocco and Saudi to train did not happen,” Houlihan explained.
“I have had to make the most of what time I’ve had available in Australia - it definitely has not been the ideal preparation for me.”
For his first Dakar, Houlihan has set the bar low, but says his first attempt won’t be his last. Following a couple of tilts at the Bike category, the 50-year-old from Albury plans a future Dakar assault in the SSV category partnered by his wife Katie.
“Dakar has the reputation as the most physically and mentally demanding, as well as the most dangerous race in the world. So, for 2021, I just want to get across the finish line safely, get my first Dakar done and then return in 2022.
“I’m really excited to be there with Toby, Daniel and Michael. I expect all three of these guys to be very competitive.
“It would be great to see Aussies on the podium in Saudi.”
MICHAEL BURGESS - #80
BAS Dakar KTM Racing
40yo, Bendigo VIC
Victoria’s Michael Burgess is no stranger to desert racing, having trained in the deserts of WA and competed in the sand dunes of Morocco’s Sahara Desert. But that experience is only a recent thing.
“I’m a bit of a late bloomer in the world of off-road rallies,” Burgess explained. “I used to ride enduro and did desert racing. Five years ago, my friend Matthew Fish (former Dakar rider) told me to try some “road-book stuff”. I loved it. The adventure evolved from there. From a kid riding bikes in the bush with my mates to the Dakar!”
Like Houlihan, Burgess’s pre-Dakar travel plans were compromised by COVID, but the 40-year-old says his training has been trouble-free.
“My training has been great, probably the best I have had leading into any event, and I have really enjoyed the journey. I’m fit and looking forward to riding the road books.”
As a rookie, Burgess’s only goal is to ensure he enjoys every kilometre of the experience – anything else will be a bonus.
“My expectations of Dakar are the whole challenge that goes with the label ‘Dakar’. Expectations of myself are to enjoy it - results are not a factor when it comes to the investment made with an event like Dakar. Riding to finish is the goal.
“I am looking forward to riding with Andrew, Daniel and Toby. We have been talking through social media networks helping each other out. I am also very proud to be waving the Australian flag alongside these three legends.”
All four Aussies will be part of a field of 108 starters in the Bike category at this year’s Dakar, of which 37 are rookies like Sanders, Houlihan and Burgess.
The rally gets underway with a short prologue on 2 January, followed by the first of twelve daily stages on 3 January. A rest day on 9 January leads competitors into the second week of action, ahead of the finish on 15 January.
Those who finish the 2021 Dakar will have covered more than 7600 kilometres, including 4767km of timed special stages.