Feature – The Ultimate Dakar Guide

T

he Dakar, in the last ten years has become a vastly complex event where tactical battles centred around the route often deciding the event. With so many incredible riders, on the most evenly matched equipment the event has ever witnessed,  the Dakar is often won by the rider who is most consistent and smartest, not the fastest.

The Marc Coma/Cyril Despres era was dominated by two riders who won the stages they needed to, when they needed to and used daily positioning to carve their wins out. In our guide to the 2016 race, we’re going to help you understand the ins and outs of the stages, the riders, the teams and point you toward some privateers worth keeping an eye on.

Like every year in the Dakar, the course makes the event. 2016 looks set to be incredibly tough. Every year the organisers add days to the route that are clearly designed to remove large portions of the field, push the racers technical skills and their fitness. Eight time Dakar finisher Si Pavey gives us his breakdown on the route.

Simon Pavey “The Dakar route looks very differently set up to last year. Last year the whole event was built around making a really tough first week that began with Day Two. That day wiped a huge amount of people out physically. This year it’s really different. The whole event looks to be progressively more challenging. The effect, especially for privateer and Malles Moto guys, is that catching up after a mistake or problem is going to be really hard. In the past, you could always look a day or two down the route and see a stage where you could maybe still get in at a reasonable time and save a little energy but I’m struggling to see where that is this year.

There also appears to be a lot of stages with the potential for privateer guys to be caught by cars this year and that’s terrifying. It’s difficult to describe how much slower you move when the cars are coming. You ride aware that they’re behind you and often pull over for them so that adds an extra element to the difficulty.

Any time you have a special stage that reaches more than 300km it’s not an easy day in Dakar. You can always say that. Stages are really dependant on the the terrain, so the first day in the Cordoba area is only 227km, but is really twisty which’ll means even that won’t be a short day out.

Right from Stage Two the whole event looks as though it’s going to be set up to get progressively tougher. From Villa Carlos Paz to Termas De Rio Hondo is a long special. Even if the stage is high speed, it’s four and half hours for the very fastest guys, so you can expect it to be a long day.

The area around Stage Three will be a fun ride for the bikes. When I’ve been there before it was enjoyable, with big twisty mountain trails and dramatic scenery. You can also expect the temperature and altitude to start to climb.

Stage Four looks like the point they’re really going to ramp the difficulty up. It’s a 429km special and they’ve already made it clear it’s a gruelling day. It’s the first trip to real altitude, with the average above sea level around 3500m. For a lot of people it’ll be the first time they start suffering the altitude pain. Generally, the pre-race descriptions have been very accurate and provided good information; when they say it’ll be tough they mean it.  On top, it’s also a closed park marathon stage, so looking after the bike during the two days will play a massive part.

Stage Five they’re then heading into Bolivia. The altitude gets really high then, up to 4600m. It’ll be really cold; it always is up at that altitude and the weather can be really bad. The whole over the time in Bolivia is at altitude and the organisers are saying this is where things will get difficult. The navigation will be tricky, the big plains don’t have many tracks and it reads like they’re deliberately tried to make the Nav tougher. Those various factors could make Bolivia really decisive this year. Last year, the first day in Bolivia saw a lot of silly mistakes throughout the field. People had odd crashes, rode in holes they didn’t need too, got washed down rivers and so on. The altitude has a lot to answer for.

Stage Six is a big unknown, it’s probably the first bit of fresh ground for the event. Previously it’s dipped in and out of Bolivia. The chances of rain are high; the terrain has tendencies to catch people out. Last year we saw the sweeper truck get utterly stuck in a mud hole. It’s also a huge special stage at 542km. That’s a long, long way to race for even if it’s unlikely to be technical.
Stage Seven heads back down into Argentina, to Salta. That area is one of my favourite parts of Dakar in terms of enjoyment. The riding is just immense. It’s also being sighted as another tough day. They say in the description that people will come in after nightfall, but they often say that. If you have a normal day, without major mistakes it’ll be unlikely.
The rest day is only a rest day if you’re in a factory team. For everyone else it is just another day. For privateers it can be a real danger point of the rally. Getting to the rest day makes you feel like you’ve cracked the event. The day after the rest day a lot of people make mistakes and go out through over confidence.

Stage Eight brings the first dunes of the event. The sand in this area is brutal, soft, challenging to navigate and difficult to see due to their white colour. The area around Bélén can be stupidly hot too and there is the potential for this to be the first of three very hard days for the racers. Being a really good sand rider is going to make an enormous difference here.

Stage Nine will likely be hot and tough again, with the day ending in a Marathon bivouac for the bikes. A mix of dunes and harder terrain will be tough but with the riders having to work on their own bikes heading into a day almost entirely comprised of dunes and heat it’s going to be really challenging. At the front of the race these three days, Stages 8 to 10, will be a really decisive and really play into the guys who are good in the open desert.

The biggest challenge with this is area, is just how hard on the bike the sand dunes around Fiambala are. It’s unbelievable how much it punishes the engines. Two of the times I’ve raced in Fiambala it’s been over 45˚C and incredibly soft. Even when people were racing 690’s, you’d be pinned in second gear for hours upon hours. People would park on the top of dunes facing into the breeze trying to cool their engines. The riders further down the order, or those with limited sand skills are going to find this incredibly tough. The slower you are, the more you’ll get stuck and the harder you’ll be on the bike.

La Rioja to San Juan will again be tough. The stage is long and features more sand and fesh fesh. The heat will still be high but so will the speed in places. The real kick in the teeth is Stage 12. It looks on paper like it could be almost a reverse of Stage Two from last year and while they undoubtedly could make that stage easier, it’s an incredibly hot part of the country and the stage is very long. There was a lot of tight riding, with sand, fesh fesh and the heat made things very physical. It’s a stage where big mistakes could easily be made for riders all through the field and with a day this long, a lot of guys can expect to see the lead cars.”

The team depth in Dakar is incredible now with everyone but Kawasaki having a presence in the race and at least one really fast rider. We put that question to Si Pavey and these are his thoughts.

Honda

“I think at long last it is the Honda team’s race to loose. On paper they are the strongest team now, they’ve got a lot of experience, arguably the two fastest riders in the race and the bike is as good as, if not better than anything else. The only thing that surprises me is how much the bike has changed since last year. The other shadow is the actual team, the tactics they employ and whether they’ve learnt enough to put the whole package together. I think last year they should still have won with Goncalves. It was a lack of clear rider structure that cost him time. Hopefully they’re learning these things and changing them.”


KTM

“The big strength in the KTM team is that as whole they know how to win. You can’t underestimate how much the team behind the pro riders matters and controls their chances of winning. That is KTM’s biggest strength. They have the structure, the bike, the knowledge, tactics and a team of mechanics behind the riders that can manage their racers better than anyone. They are KTM’s biggest weapon.

There is no doubt Coma left a hole, but KTM have such depth that you can’t discredit them. Someone like Jordi Villadoms has a great all round package has the ability to run in the top five most of the whole event. In Dakar, that is as important as anything. The real unknown is in Toby Price. He finished third last year, is smart, fast learning, has great experience around him and is arguably the fastest all round off road rider on the planet. The biggest part missing is experience; no one in Dakar has won in recent times in less the than five attempts.

Add in the depth with the likes of Rally Raid World Champ Mathias Walkner, David Casteu, Stefan Svitko, Ivan Jakes, Laia Sanz and five time Enduro World Champions Antoine Meo and Ivan Cervantes and maybe KTM can keep they’re incredible run going. I don’t think they’re favourites, but they can definitely win it. After all, Coma only won one stage last year…”


Husqvarna

“Husqvarna’s biggest question mark for me is around the team structure. Essentially the bike is a KTM so we know it is good. They’ve got a good balance of riders. Rueben Faria has huge experience, has scored several podiums before and could still be a huge threat. Quintanilla is a genuine overall contender. He is a great rider, showed top level speed last Dakar and is backed up by a two time world champion in Pela Renet.
The question mark for me is around the back room staff. If KTM are smart they keep it all together and don’t suggest that they’re different teams. If they’ve got the right mechanics it could be a great year for Husqvarna, with a podium a realistic aim. The mechanic in Dakar is so much more than a spanner spinner, he’s the level head, the post to lean on and needs to be strong.”


Yamaha

“A big problem for the Yamaha team is they only have one really fast, true overall contender, in Helder Rodrigues. It also depends on which Helder turns up too. They’ve got a couple of others who can be very quick in multistage winner Frans Verhoeven, Alessandro Botturi and the incredible sand specialist Adrien Van Beveren.

There are few other issues they face too. The bike last year was awful, guys who are fast enough to win stages couldn’t break the top 20. This year they’ve gone back and rebuilt it from scratch. That means the bike is relatively new and unproven in Dakar. They’ve done well in a couple of other rallies, but nothing compares to the terrain or brutality of Dakar.

If all the pieces fall well they can do some damage and while you wouldn’t pick Helder as a winner right now, if he’s in the mix I wouldn’t surprised. He’s a guy who has served his time and has a lot of the package to be a winner, after all he’s podiumed twice.


Sherco

“Sherco as a brand seem to be putting the effort in all dirt bike fronts. They’ve signed some big guys in other disciplines. They’re lead rider Juan Pedrero is really fast, with bags of experience and they’ve got the potential to upset the order a little bit. It’d be really cool to see such a small brand in the mix as they were a few years back.”

The list of riders that can impress, push for stage wins and mess with the overall standings is long and filled with talent most of us have never heard of. On top of the list of ‘Elite’ and Factory riders are a collection of riders that could provide some big shocks. Below we’ve compiled a list of the privateer riders you haven’t heard of that can shake up the old guard, maybe in put in a top five performance and even win a stage.

For the full list of riders, they’re bios and previous results click here.

5.  Stefan Svitko

5th Overall last year, the former World Enduro rider has incredible skills in the wet. With the potential for a lot of rain this year, both in the mountains and Bolivia, Svitko has the speed to put a lot of factory riders to shame. At 33, with six Dakar’s under his belt, he has podium contender potential.

10.  Olivier Pain.

It’s easy to right a rider off after one bad year but Olivier Pain comes into this Dakar with very little focus on him. After a Podium in 2014, he scraped a 10th place last year aboard the worst factory bike in the entire race. It’s a feat that should be commended. This year he’s rocking out on a KTM and has the potential to really shine over the two weeks.

16.  Ivan Jakes

Eighth last year, fourth the year before, Jakes won his first stage in 2015 and like Svitko, could be in the mix for top privateer.

21. Daniel Gouet Perez

A few years back, aboard a Honda, the Chilean put in performances that shocked a lot of people. He is fast, especially in the open desert terrain and should be one to watch. Plus he’s on a Suzuki and that’s pretty cool.

29. Hans Vogels

Fast, Fit, Dutch and a very good sand rider, Vogels had a good 2015 Dakar. He doesn’t appear to make many mistakes and cruised home to 11th overall. One to watch, especially on the sands days.

31.  Ondrej Klymciw

After a surprise 20th place finish in last years, the Czech born Ondrej took a different approach to racing. Taking a whole year out to train and prepare will undoubtedly have made him one of the fittest, best prepared privateers in the field and it’s that reason he could do well.

42.  Adrien Van Beveren

Van Beveren is the best beach racer in the world right now, claiming the French Championship and winning the legendary Le Touquet Enduropale. If he can get to the sand dunes in week two, he’ll be incredible.

48. Ricky Brabec

Ricky Brabec is a beast. At 24 he’s already won the Baja 1000, AMA Hare and Hounds Championship, finished 5th in Abu Dhabi Rally and won the legendary Vegas to Reno. He knows how to make a bike go fast in the desert so watch this very American filled space.

49. Antoine Meo

For the off-road racing fans amongst you Meo is a man who needs little introduction. The final member of the KTM factory team, Meo is the reigning and now 5-time World Enduro Champion. We don’t think much more needs to be said about his skills.

51. Pierre Alexandre Renet

Much like Meo, Renet is a current Enduro superstar with two EWC titles to his name. His skill set is as good as anyone in the event and will only become more impressive the worse the terrain gets.

52. Ivan Cervantes Montero

Four World Enduro titles, Five Spanish Motorcross Titles and big grin. There is no doubt that Cervantes can make waves in the Dakar, especially with his skills on hard pack and rocky terrain.

61. Adrien Metge

Younger brother of Honda Factory rider Michael Metge, Adrien has every opportunity to follow his brothers footsteps. Racing for Honda South America in this years event, like so many of the top Dakar racers he’s got a history of good results in the Enduro scene and will be looking to run in the top 20.

 

Privateers we’re watching.

We love the privateers of Dakar. They’re the life blood of the event, the storie writers, the ones we look up to. While finding the people who are going to bring us tales of glory prior to the event is tough, we’ve picked out a few names for you to pay attention to until the heroics emerge from the bivouac. These are our Editor Llel’s picks of the riders who’re worth paying attention too.

40. Jurgen Van Den Goorbergh

Former Moto GP racer, awesome rider and a favourite to win in the Malles Moto Class. Incredibly tough and a super nice guy. Being in Malles Moto will always force ridiculousness.

56. CS Santosh

The world’s fastest Indian had a very straight forward run in Dakar last year as a KTM satellite rider. This year we predict will be a little different. With high aspirations and an unknown Suzuki under him things could be wild.

66. Francisco Arredondo

The tiny Guatemalan is one of the biggest characters in the bivouac. A celebrity in his home country, last year he got washed away in a flood river in Bolivia, before being forced to stop in a local’s house for soup and some clothes drying.

70. Pedro Bianchi Prata

The former BMW factory rider is another man with a million stories. Quick, experienced and likely to find an incredible way of solving a problem. In 2013 he found and paid a local to ride him on a scooter to his spare engine after his bike blew up. He still finished the event.

80. Manuel Lucchese

The crazy Italian has a love affair with Dakar bordering on dangerous. He has also raced every single event on a budget of a handful of boiled sweets and a safety pin in his pocket and it’s awesome. His drama’s have already begun, having spent every second before the event building his bike, passing through tech inspections in last place.

 

Americans on the ground.

The US have a decent showing this year with five guys starting the event. They’ve got some good privateers in the form of Alex Smith (103), Scott Bright (105) and Ian Blythe (106), all of whom are good off road racers and should do well. The final rider is Carroll Gittere (145).

Brits.

British riders are sadly thin on the ground in 2016, with just two taking the start, Chris Cork (116) and Jamie Smith (134). Both guys dropped out early on in their first attempts at the event, so let’s hope they have a vastly improved 2016.

The Dakar rule book changes little by little each year. Lots of the changes are insignificant to the every day existence of the rally, but two noticeable changes stand out.

Time Gaps

The first is the alteration of the start time gaps between riders. These have been extended to three minutes for the top ten riders each day. While it sounds small, it’s a really significant change. Tactically it gives a huge boost in advantage to those up front on some stages, but in the open desert it’ll mean those who start a few places back can make huge time gains over a single day. It’s a good way of forcing the riders to be more tactical with the results day to day. Positions 11-20 start two minutes apart and 21-30 will be one minute. After that it’s one every 30 seconds.

Marathon Bivouac

The marathon bivouac has been a staple of Dakar for a long time. It’s much loved for the drama it adds to race and essentially is a ban on all assistance for one night. Riders must do all there work themselves. In the last few years we’ve seen pro riders being forced to into performing their own engine changes with water carriers. In response to this, Marc Coma and ASO devised Enduro style rules for the first Marathon stage with a Parc Ferme. This means the riders will likely have a very short work period and then must place there bike in the closed park where it may not be touched until the next day. It’s a big shake up and means issues like Barreda’s broken handlebars or the need to change engines could be rally ending.

 

 

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