Photos: HRC, KTM, Yamaha, Husqvarna, Red Bull
Arguably the biggest challenge on the 2021 Dakar Rally was staging the marathon in the first place. The annual rally raid is always tough, but COVID-19 added extra challenges to this year’s event.
While the remote nature of the competition’s route through the Saudi Arabian desert had its advantages, event organisers Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) still had to manage the logistics of getting 310 entries - include 108 motorcycle riders – and their vehicles into Saudi Arabia, plus support crews, officials, media and medical personnel.
To ensure a safe rally within the “Dakar bubble”, over 2,400 PCR tests for COVID-19 had been conducted ahead of the rally’s start, with masks mandatory and other safety and social distancing measures introduced.
Last year, Honda broke KTM’s 18-year streak in the motorcycle category when Monster Energy Honda Team’s Ricky Brabec was victorious, also recording the first win for an American rider.
Brabec was back this year, joined at Monster Energy Honda by the same team mates from 2020 - Joan Barreda, Kevin Benavides and Jose Ignacio Cornejo.
Red Bull KTM’s lineup was led by veterans and past winners Toby Price, Sam Sunderland and Matthias Walkner, but in place of Luciano Benavides in the KTM factory team, Aussie Daniel Sanders was making his Dakar debut. While experienced in enduro and a past AORC and ISDE champion, Sanders would come into Dakar with only one rally raid-style event under his belt.
Monster Energy were also backing Yamaha’s factory team this year, which saw Adrien van Beveren, Jamie McCanney and Franco Caimi returning, joined by new arrivals Ross Branch and former Husqvarna factory rider Andrew Short.
Luciano Benavides took Short’s place at the Rockstar Energy Husqvarna factory team, riding alongside last year’s runner-up Pablo Quintanilla, while former Yamaha regular Xavier de Soultrait was on a privateer Husqvarna.
With Honda proving last year that KTM were beatable, it gave hope to the smaller factory teams, too, like the Sherco, Hero Motorsports and Rieju squads.
Boosting the Aussie contingent to four this year were privateer debutants Michael Burgess and Andrew Houlihan, while the starting field also included 30 riders under the ‘Original by Motul’ category who aim to complete the 12 daily stages and 8,000 kilometre distance without any assistance.
At last year’s Dakar, motorcycle entrants received their road books only 20 minutes before the start of selected stages to put a premium on "live" navigation. That initiative was applied rally-wide this year, with other new changes for 2021, aimed at improving bike management, including a limit of six rear tyres, time penalties for more than one piston change and a ban on mechanical servicing at the refuelling stops.
Safety initiatives included adding aural warnings for go-slow zones and “enforcing” speed limits. Finally, airbag vests were made mandatory for all motorcycle and quad entrants this year.
Jeddah to Bisha
277 km special - 622 km total
The 2021 Dakar got underway with defending champion Ricky Brabec leading the field out after winning the Prologue that established the starting order.
On a course with complex navigational sections, several riders got lost, including Brabec and his team mates Joan Barreda and Jose Ignacio Cornejo.
Even the experienced Toby Price got lost, but still won the stage, with his KTM team mate Matthias Walkner third. Franco Caimi was the best of the factory Yamahas in seventh, but finished behind the experienced Xavier de Soultrait on his privateer Husqvarna 450 Rally.
Daniel Sanders, on his first Dakar stage and following an impressive third in the Prologue, got lost, too, but still finished a credible 25th.
“It was really cool to start my first ever Dakar stage up near the front,” Sanders said. “The terrain was incredible with loads of rocks and some very tricky notes in the road book.”
Those rough, rocky trails also made tyre conservation a factor, especially given the new rules on rear tyre allocation for 2021.
- Toby PRICE KTM 03h18m26s
- Kevin BENAVIDES Honda +00h00m31s
- Matthias WALKNER KTM +00h00m32s
Price – 1st, Sanders – 25th, Burgess – 35th, Houlihan – 68th (Stage).