Australia’s Daniel Sanders is looking forward to what’s perhaps the biggest challenge in his racing career to date – the Dakar rally.
Like most riders in most categories the world over, Sanders had his 2020 season thrown into turmoil due to COVID-19. Specifically, it led to cancellation of the Australian Off-Road Championship (AORC), where Sanders was leading the E3 class with only a handful of rounds completed.
But when one door closes, another opens, and for Sanders, the door that opened midway through 2020 was with KTM Factory Racing and their junior rally programme.
"With the year that's happened, obviously I was looking at the future and what I could do," Sanders explained. "This opportunity popped up through KTM, so I was able to jump across to the rally scene, to do one year of learning and see if I wanted to do it. I've got the option to continue on with it now also.
"I think it was good for this opportunity to get in early and learn because it's going to take a couple of years - it's just going to be a slow process. I've got time, that's the thing, and that's the position I'm in, is to develop myself to be at the top in the rally in the future."
While Sanders is an experienced enduro campaigner, with AORC championships, along with individual and team honours in the International Six Day Enduro under his belt, rally raid competition will present a whole new ballgame for the 26-year-old from Three Bridges in rural Victoria.
As part of the KTM Factory Racing rally team, Sanders is in elite company, lining up alongside Toby Price, Matthias Walkner and Sam Sunderland, all of whom are past Dakar winners. Those riders are also part of KTM’s impressive record at the Dakar that includes an unbroken 18-year winning streak from 2001 to 2019 (no Dakar was held in 2008).
Thanks to COVID interrupting the FIM rally raid season, Sanders’s first – and only – taste of what’s to come at the 2021 Dakar was in late September at the Andalucia Rally in Spain, where he won a stage and finished eleventh overall.
Given his past experience on KTM machinery, Sanders says that, so far, the transition to the KTM 450 Rally machine has been a smooth one.
"The bike's been relatively easy to adapt to, just little things are different - like, the footpegs are a little bit further back in position and you've got higher handlebars positioning compared to enduro. Because you're standing up a lot, they try to get you in a really comfortable seating position."
While Sanders proved his pace at the Andalucia Rally, the Dakar will pose an entirely different set of challenges, not least of which is navigation.
"I have the speed and feel I can go as fast as the other guys, but I’m not riding at 100 per cent because you’ve got to read a road book and that is completely new for me. Everyone can ride fast, the depth of the competition's so strong, but it's just that one mistake where you can lose so much time if you read the road book wrong or if you have to look down five times to read one note. It's a lot more of a mental game.
"I could be up the pointy end, but it's going to be hard to do it in the first year - the competition's so strong now and there are 10 guys that can win it. I'm just going to be taking it day-by-day because there's no point in me pushing at all, especially in the first week. I need as much experience as possible and I need to take everything in that I can to learn everything," Sanders added.
Following the Andalucia Rally, Sanders and the KTM team went to Austria to train at Red Bull’s state-of-the-art ‘Athlete Performance Center,’ then returned to Spain before COVID lockdowns saw a transition to Dubai in the UAE.
"Jordi (Villadoms – KTM Rally Team manager)'s made heaps of road books, so we've just been practising them and doing the last final checks, ready for Dakar,” Sanders explained. “It's pretty much just been a big boot camp and everyone's worked well, improved a lot with our road books. Our road books are trick, similar to Dakar, so we've got the best preparation out of all the teams - these guys definitely do it properly.”
On the eve of the 2021 Dakar, Sanders and the rest of the KTM Factory Racing team have moved from their Dubai camp to Saudi Arabia for final preparations ahead of the rally’s start with the prologue in Jeddah on 2 January.
The rally proper gets underway on 3 January, with 12 stages and one rest day before the finish on 15 January. For its second edition in Saudi Arabia, the Dakar will cover a total of 7646 kilometres, including 4767 km of timed special stages.
Sanders will be one of 108 starters in the bike category, which is part of a total entry list of 555 competitors.