We got to witness just a fraction of what has gone down as the toughest Dakar Rally to be held since the event shifted to South America. And we weren’t disappointed.
There’s not a whole lot of information about one of those ‘bucket list’ motorsport events that cannot be gathered from online sources these days. And I am very grateful for that. For one thing, not only does it allow me and others to geek out about motorsport, but it also fuels the desire for those who are willing to go many steps further and actually participate in it.
And what is an event like the legendary Dakar Rally without those who think driving or riding for a total distance of around 9,000km across a continent in just two weeks is a fun thing to do? That too, over and over again!
But had I never experienced it and only gathered info from afar, I could never have relayed to you the kind of energy one feels when you are a part of an international motorsport’s toughest off-road event in any way. A media invitation from Hero MotoSports Team Rally to cover the first three legs was a way to not just witness India’s participation in the event but also the mammoth machine that is the ground effort to run such an event.
Also, witnessing those magnificent men and women in their rally-raid machines – be it on two wheels or four – is a one-of-a-kind experience. We got to witness action in the expanse of the Sechura Desert in Peru. The rally course, courtesy of Dakar Rally race director Marc Coma – a former five-time winner in the motorcycle class and a six-time FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Champion – made competitors spend a lot of time completely off-road in the timed special stages than in previous editions. And not just in Peru but also in Bolivia and Argentina where, more desert dunes, deep mud and camel grass took a major toll on competitors.
After the dust settled on the 40th edition of the rally with 14 stages – one with a fully cancelled timed section and another with just the bike and quad section being cancelled – Carlos Sainz, Matthias Walkner, Ignacio Casale, Anibal Aliaga and Eduard Nikolaev took overall wins in the car, bike, quad, ATV and truck classes for Peugeot, KTM, Yamaha, Polaris and Kamaz, respectively.
Up close and personal, we got to see the draining effects of soft and deep desert sand on cars and trucks boasting mighty high cylinder capacity V-8s. The winning Kamaz truck has a 13-litre, V-6 engine. The insane power and torque figures of the trucks, around 1,000bhp and upwards of 4,000nm of torque, allowed the nine-tonne behemoths to plough through dunes at speeds of anywhere from 60 to 80kmph. Its top speed, however, is 160kmph that it only managed in the rare flat out sections that came before and after the tough dune section. Motorbikes were pretty fast, but none could exceed 180kmph on those sections, and the cars hovered around the 200kmph mark.
Among cars, there was a pretty epic story to be told. In what is set to be Peugeot's last Dakar Rally participation (for now, at least), former two-time WRC champion Sainz took the crown despite a lot of the attention being directed towards his teammates, 'Mr. Dakar' Stephane Peterhansel and former nine-time world rally champion Sebastien Loeb.
Both Frenchmen had their victory bids compromised through crashes that put them down the order – Peterhansel finished fourth overall – and eventually out of the rally, as going down a deep dip in stage five led to an injury for Loeb's co-driver Daniel Elena.
Finishing behind Sainz was Nasser Al-Attiyah in his Toyota Hilux. The Qatari was trailed by Giniel DeVilliers' Toyota Hilux and Peterhansel with Jakub Przygonski's MINI in fifth overall.
Less Wheels More Pain
Relatively slow ploughing in the dunes, with some sections that were softer than other parts, had the much lighter but proportionately powerful and torquey bikes as well as their riders struggling. Walking the tight-rope of speed, balance, maintaining momentum, navigation and heightening your pain threshold explains why a former bike rally champion was appointed the Dakar’s race director.
It led to more pain for some of the top bike riders than they could bear. Last year’s winner Sam Sunderland, Hero MotoSport’s own Joaquim Rodrigues, Sherco-TVS’ Adrian Metge and Aravind KP and Yamaha’s surprise leader until stage eight Adrien Van Beveren were among some of the retirees from the rally. But probably the most high-profile retiree was Honda’s Joan Barreda-Bort. ‘Bang Bang’, as the Spaniard is famously known, was probably at the top of the heap in terms of talent among cross-country riders, but standing between him and victory was the mighty Austrian bike manufacturer KTM, for whom Matthias Walkner sealed a 17th consecutive Dakar Rally crown.
In his effort to put Honda back on top – the Japanese manufacturer won the last of its five Dakar Rally titles in 1989 – Barreda tried to ride with a heavily injured left knee after a crash on the eighth stage in Bolivia, where his bike suddenly lost grip during a left turn and he tried to keep it upright. He even won the stage after that and closed in on Walkner, but the pain became too much for him to bear in stage ten, and Honda had to settle for second place courtesy of Kevin Benavides.
Honda is in an odd-place as far as international motorsport is concerned at the moment. Due to the company’s founder, Soichiro Honda, taking a personal interest and considering motorsport vital for product development and of the company’s technical staff, the Japanese manufacturer was a force to be reckoned with from the mid-1980s to the early 90s. A period that coincided with Japan’s gung-ho spirit to be a formidable force at a global level. Ever since Honda passed away in 1991, much of the company’s decision making in motorsport started happening in a committee fashion, and it started banking on its past successes. MotoGP aside – mainly because of the talents of Marc Marquez – this approach has led to lean spells for the company in different arenas including at the Dakar Rally.
It makes one wonder if ‘Bang Bang’ Barreda will ever be able to deliver that elusive overall win that Honda is searching for.
In third place was Australia’s Toby Price who was returning to the Dakar Rally after missing last year's event while trying to recover from a broken leg from a crash in the 2016 edition.
France's Antoine Meo took another factory KTM bike in the top five, while the Himoinsa Racing Team entered KTM of Gerard Farres Guell made it four out of five for the Austrian manufacturer at the sharp end of the overall classification.
With an overall win and nine of their riders in the top ten, Yamaha dominated the quad bike class of the Dakar Rally as they generally tend to do. Chile's Ignacio Casale was the overall winner head of Nicolas Cavigliasso, Jeremias Gonzalez Ferioli, Marcelo Medeiros, Alexeis Hernandez, Dmitry Shilov, Nelson Augusto Sanabria Galeano, the lone non-Yamaha quad of Kees Koolen (riding a Barren Racer BR 1 690), Axel Dutrie and Giuliano Horacio Giordana.
Kamaz's Eduard Nikolaev was briefly threatened by IVECO's Federico Villagra before the latter was forced to retire on the 12th stage of the rally due to mechanical issues.
The Russian took his third overall Dakar Rally win ahead of Siarhei Viazovich in a Maz and Kamaz teammate Airat Mardeev.
My ever so brief experience of the rally was the meat in the proverbial sandwich of being shuttled around (in some style too, thanks to Hero) that brought home just a fraction of the logistics in experiencing such an event in person.
One almost felt like a package being transferred from one big conveyor belt to another. Long-haul flights – approximately 26 hours of flying time to reach Lima from New Delhi. Being shipped on a bus to see the ceremonial start that was witnessed by a crowd that would put some musical concerts to shame when it comes to passion. After that, getting transferred to a 4x4 vehicle (ominously fitted with a roll cage) to go to the dunes in time to catch the vehicles coming past.
Of course, there is a ‘proper’ way to cover or spectate at the Dakar and other cross-country events too – get your own vehicle and follow the rally yourself. It is something that requires not a small amount of money and planning. And it made me appreciate the efforts of organisers, photographers, journalists and support staff that ensure one gets to see the action in today’s fast-paced digital age.
To see regular Peruvians do so in everything from beat up Volkswagen Beetles, motocross bikes, soft-roaders and full-blown 4x4s, while driving long distances on the highway and into the off-road sections too, brought home the energy one gets in seeing motorsport in the flesh. Especially rallying – a sport that is pretty much tailor-made for India and its variety of terrain. Hopefully, more of my compatriots will get bitten by the bug.