Ricky Brabec has won the 2024 Dakar Rally, with this year’s victory for the Monster Energy Honda Team rider making it three Honda wins in the past five years. Back in 2020, Brabec broke KTM’s long stranglehold on Dakar’s bike division to take his first Dakar win and Honda’s first since 1989.
This year, the 32-year-old American only won one stage, but was never lower than third in the overall standings, despite some close competition from Ross Branch (HERO Motorsports Team Rally), who was overall leader until Stage 6.
The 2024 Dakar Rally was one of the most gruelling ever, with the fifth edition to be held in Saudi Arabia starting on 5 January and finishing on 19 January. The route was 7,891km in total, including 4,727km of timed special stages, starting at AlUla and finishing in Yanbu.
Around 60 per cent of the 2024 route was new, with an all-new addition this year being the ‘48H Chrono Stage’ on 11-12 January. Like the Marathon Stages of past Dakars where outside assistance overnight isn’t permitted, the 48H Chrono Stage saw riders have to stop after a pre-determined time, but instead of one big overnight bivouac, seven smaller bivouacs were dotted along the route. Competitors had to stop at the first bivouac they encountered after 4:00PM on 11 January, with potentially no knowledge of their rivals’ position. At 7:00AM the following day, racing from all bivouacs recommenced, with the result tallied after approximately 600km of special stage.
The 48H Chrono Stage led into the mid-rally rest day at Riyadh, with the second week of racing heading north-east from the Saudi capital, before finishing at the Red Sea city of Yanbu.
Of the factory teams entered this year, Honda clearly had the strongest contingent, fielding no less than six riders on the CRF450 Rally. Joining Brabec in the Monster Energy Honda Team was Pablo Quintanilla (fourth in 2023), Jose Ignacio ‘Nacho’ Cornejo (eighth in 2023), Skyler Howes (third in 2023), Adrien van Beveren (fifth in 2023) and Spanish youngster Tosha Schareina, who was signed by the Honda factory team after impressive results in the Sonora Rally and Desafio Ruta 40 last year.
At Red Bull KTM Factory Racing, the team started behind the eight ball when 2018 winner, Matthias Walkner, was forced to withdraw due to injury. That left two-time winner Toby Price and last year’s winner Kevin Benavides to fly the KTM flag.
Daniel Sanders and Sam Sunderland once again saddled up for Red Bull GasGas Factory Racing, while Husqvarna Factory Racing’s sole entry was 2023 World Rally Raid Champion, Luciano Benavides.
Sherco Rally Factory had a squad made up of Lorenzo Santolino, Rui Goncalves and Harith Noah, while Indian brand Hero boasted Sebastian Buhler, Joaquim Roidrigues and the vastly experienced Joan Barreda Bort (fifth in 2022), in addition to Branch.
Schareina won the prologue, but was out of the rally on the very first stage after crashing and fracturing his wrist. Rodrigues crashed out on day one, too, while Branch won the opener from Brabec.
Mason Klein, after impressing on a privateer KTM in 2023, was on a Chinese Kove 450 Rally this year and finished third on the opening stage after electing to lead out. However, the lack of development on the Kove became apparent on the next stage, with the fast young American plummeting down the standings before retiring on Stage 6.
Santolino retired on Stage 2 due to a problem with his Sherco 450 SEF Rally, with Sunderland the next high-profile retirement. Dropping out early on the 600km Stage 3 (with what was rumoured to be a loose sump plug on his GasGas 450 Rally Factory). Sunderland’s retirement left Sanders as the sole GasGas representative.
Still recovering from a fractured femur, Sanders came to Dakar a little underdone and that was reflected in ninth, sixth, eighth and eleventh places over the first four stages, exacerbated by some navigational errors on Stage 4.
Fellow Aussie Price was having a similarly tough start, with a best result of seventh over the opening four stages. However, he would improve to finish third on Stage 5 and second on Stage 6.
Further up the timesheets and overall standings, Dakar 2024 was emerging as a battle between Branch and Brabec.
Into the Chrono
Coming into Stage 6, the all-new 48H Chrono Stage, Branch held the overall lead by just 1m14s from Cornejo, with Brabec in third, 2m23s further back. Ahead lay a 600km, two-day special with nothing but dunes, no outside support and only basic provisions and tents at each of the seven bivouacs along the route.
Howes retired early in this stage with a mechanical issue, while Quintanilla lost an hour after running out of fuel. Brabec, Cornejo and van Beveren were still in the fight, though.
Those that reached bivouac six at the 513km mark included Brabec, Branch, Cornejo, van Beveren, Kevin Benavides, Price and Sanders. With less that 200km to cover on the second day of the 48H Chrono, it made the going a little easier ahead of the rest day in Riyadh.
Finishing Stage 6 in ninth place dropped Cornejo down to fourth overall, Brabec took the outright lead for the first time and Branch fell to second. Price and Sanders were in fifth and seventh place, respectively going into the rest day.
Ricky vs Ross
Losing the assistance of Howes and Quintanilla on Stage 6 gave Brabec a taste of what Branch had already experienced. The Botswanan had lost Rodrigues on Stage 1, while Buhler had retired after crashing on Stage 3. Barreda’s exit on Stage 7 left Branch as Hero’s sole representative.
Stage 7 was a mammoth 873km, with 483km of timed special that saw Cornejo and Luciano Benavides perform well, while in the overall, Brabec’s lead over Branch was cut to just one second! Stage 8’s special was almost as long, and unusually, interrupted by a liaison section in the middle, instead of at one end. The Benavides brothers went 1-2 on this stage, while van Beveren deliberately stopped for a period to ensure a good starting position on Stage 9. Brabec extended his lead in the overall to 42 seconds on Branch, with Hondas in first, third and fourth overall. Price and Sanders were in sixth and seventh, 29 minutes and 38 minutes off the lead, respectively.
Returning to the rocks of AlUla for Stage 9, Honda went 1-2-3, while Branch lost touch with Brabec; the overall margin increasing to more than 7 minutes.
The Run to the Finish
With the rally now at the business end, Branch was running out of opportunities to overturn Brabec’s lead, so did himself no favours by losing more time on Stage 10, a 600+km loop at AlUla. Honda again went 1-2-3 on the stage, while Brabec’s overall lead was now at almost 11 minutes. Price held on to sixth overall after Stage 10, while Sanders dropped to eighth.
The penultimate stage was a 420km special (reduced from 480km) through rocky plains that proved incredibly difficult to negotiate in sections, but Branch prevailed, winning the stage, but only cutting 32 seconds off Brabec’s overall lead. Van Beveren had now nailed down third overall, with Cornejo more than 20 minutes further back.
After last year’s Dakar saw Kevin Benavides win by just 43 seconds from Price, the 2024 Dakar saw Brabec win by a much more comfortable margin. The American's 10+ minute lead proved to be more than enough and he cruised to his second Dakar win.
“It wasn’t easy as the course was really tough and so was the competition - it was definitely a fight to the end for everyone,” Brabec said.
“In 2020, we had a big gap from the get-go. This time was a bit different as I feel like this one was more earned as it was a lot tougher.”
Second overall, Branch prevented a Honda lockout of the podium in what was his best result since making his Dakar debut in 2019. Similarly, third overall for van Beveren felt like a win after years of heartaches and near misses, including fourth place finishes in 2017 and 2022.
Price finished fifth overall, 45m28s off the lead, while Sanders was 1h14m32s behind in eighth place.