The 43rd edition of the Dakar returns to Saudi Arabia for only the second time in the rally’s history, following the success of 2020 it is true testament to the organiser’s teams and competitors that this year’s event will be going ahead. The preparations undertaken this year and unusual difficulties with travel restrictions due to the continued spread of the Coronavirus, have required new protocol to be drawn up designed to ensure maximum protection for all involved.

For those in Saudi Arabia, the flowing sand dunes and golden deserts are just part of what makes the Dakar here special, most will take away the experience of just standing on the podium outside the King Abdullah Stadium as a triumph in itself, having their own photo taken as the opportunity to challenge themselves further over the 7,676km route starting and finishing in Jeddah, a challenge that draws many of them back year on year.

The 498 competitors that stood on the podium after had watched as their vehicles passed through the technical and administrative scrutineering: 286 vehicles: 64 cars, 61 lightweight vehicles (including 44 SSVs), 101 motorbikes, 16 quads and 44 trucks are all set to start. Joined by 23 vehicles that will be making a return to the very desert marathon that made them all famous, as they look to the inaugural edition of the Dakar Classic, a regularity race for cars and trucks from the 1980s and 1990s.

David Castera, Dakar Rally Director: “We often hear that participating in the Dakar is a victory in itself. This is certainly the feeling that will invigorate us all on January 3rd in Jeddah”

While the main action start’s on January the 3rd this year’s participants had to take part in a short prologue to determine the starting position for each competitor ahead of the opening stage, 288 competitors lined up to take on the 11km prologue to Jeddah, which was seen by many as an early snapshot of what was to come and where everyone stood, a deceptively simple affair, in which those competing in the motorbike and quad categories would be taking more care than others.

Dakar Start Podium 2021, Carlos Sainz, Lucas Cruz, Nasser Al-Attiyah, Matthieu Baumel, Image Supplied by ASO, Photographer Julien Delfosse

QUADS

The opening stage of 2021 witnessed the return of a Dakar legend, Bolivia’s Suany Martinez was not only the the first competitor to take on the Dakar for 2021 but also a returnee on her Can-Am Renegade 850 Quad, having debuted in 2017 she retired from the Dakar in her native Bolivia during the rally’s visit South America. Having retired in 2017 with a mechanical problem and suffering a serious injury to her leg following a sharp fall in 2018, Martinez is back to take on the middle eastern desert.

Suany Martinez, No.177 Team Can Am Martinez: Castera, Dakar Rally Director:  “In the last two years I was unable to attend the Dakar and I thought that in 2021 I would not be able to do so because of the pandemic and the political situation in my country either. At the beginning of November, I decided to participate and was able to board my Can Am Renegade almost at the last minute. In 2019 I was competing in the National Championships of Bolivia and also in the South American competition.”

“In this 2020 we were unable to compete, that is, I have only done training. My dad gave me a picture of the terrain I’m going to find and warned me that there are dangerous stretches with lots of stones. They are very different stretches from those of the Chilean desert that I know well. I will go cautiously until I find my rhythm.”

Nicolas Cavigliasso also returns to the Dakar for the first time since winning the crown in 2019, having dominated the Dakar two years ago winning nine of the ten stages, Cavigliasso is looking to reclaim the crown he previously held. Despite no previous experience of the Saudi desert and having to set off last, his opening stage was relatively unspectacular setting a time nearly half a minute behind winner Alexandre Giroud.  

Frenchman Alexandre Giroud is looking to put the disappointment of 2020 behind him and started 2021 in the best way possible. The Yamaha rider was a stage winner in 2020, but was forced to retire with a blown engine just hours from the first rest day, his return on his privately run Team Giroud YFZ 700, was greeted with success winning the prologue and beating Manuel Andujar by just one second, Kamil Wisniewski coming in 3rd, becoming the first Quad winner of a special stage for the Dakar in 2021.

Alexandre Giroud, Yamaha Team Giroud, Quad, Images Supplied by ASO, Photographer Antonin Vincent

MOTO

Laia Sanz has made a miraculous return to Moto for this years Dakar, last year she tore ligaments in both her hands during the event but still managed to make it ten finishes out of ten. A serious injury to her forearm left her with a sever friction burn and infection having fallen off at speed over the terrain during the opening stages of the Andalucía Rally.

Lian Sanz, No.44 Gas Gas Factory Team: “In this accident on the Dakar, I tore the ligaments in both hands, but we didn’t know that. I thought I only injured one of my hands. When I got back on the bike I was in a lot of pain and that is when they noticed the injury that would have required surgery. In the end it took me about 5 months to recover.”

“I crashed at the start of the Andalucía Rally. It was a friction burn on my forearm caused from I am sliding on the ground. I was treated, but I had a bad night, and I did not want to risk starting again the next day. In the end, this wound was also infected. With all this, it is clear that I will not arrive for the Dakar in the best of shape.”

“The goal? I don’t want to think about it too much, even though I always tell myself that I want to be in the top 15.”

Joan Barreda was the first of the overall favourites to start the Dakar, having finished six times out of ten and winner of seventeen individual Dakar stages few would bet against the Spanish legend being a contender once more. Despite having to settle for 7th in 2020, Barreda was part of the Honda team that celebrated the manufactures first Dakar victory since 1989. 

Defending champion Ricky Brabec claimed the prologue without really sweating it, finishing 6 seconds clear of Joan Barreda and rookie Daniel Sanders. Sanders, who won the 2019 Australian Off-Road Championship is part of the Red Bull KTM factory team is making his debut having shown his talent during the Andalucía Rally where he finished 11th.

Ricky Barbec, No.1 Monster Energy Honda Team 2021: “I don’t know if it’s the best to win the prologue. I wasn’t really trying to go out and do that. It feels good to be back here in Saudi. The dirt was really good, it rained a couple of days ago here. The race isn’t over, it’s not even started yet. Tomorrow we’re gonna go out there and enjoy and have fun.”

Ricky Brabec, Monster Energy Honda Team 2021, Moto, Images Supplied by ASO, Photographer Charly Lopez

CAR

Carlos Sainz enters the Dakar as the man to beat and on the hunt for Stephane Peterhansel stage win record, to do so he will have to out drive that of 2020 Dakar runner up Nasser Al Attiyah and co-pilot Mathieu Baumel. With Al Attiysh’s coming away from the prologue with his 36th overall Car stage victory in the Dakar, the two previous winners are the overall favourites in 2021.

Nasser Al Attiyah now draws level with his main rival in Carlos Sainz and just 10 of “Mr Dakar” Stephane Peterhansel stage win record.

Nasser Al-Attiyah, No.301 Toyota Gazoo: “We did well in the prologue. I’m glad we got the show on the road, The prologue is just an appetiser, but it gives us a glimpse of where everyone stands. Things get serious tomorrow with a long opening stage…”

South African Brian Baragwanath secured 2nd in the prologue by less than second behind Nasser Al-Attiyah, it was an incredible drive from 38th and showed just a glimpse of how competitive the Century CR6 developed by Mathieu Serradori could be.

Another big name returning to the Dakar is that of nine times WRC champion Sebastian Loeb still partnered with Daniel Elena, having previously raced as both a works driver with Peugeot and privateer in the 3008, Loeb now joins the ProDrive prepared Bahrain Raid Xtreme after choosing to sit out 2020.  

For Carlos Sainz a puncture on the last kilometre of the stage dropped him to 28th at the finish, while fellow Frenchman Roman Dumas bad luck on the Dakar continues. Dumas suffered problems resulting in him taking twice the time of the stage winner to finish.  

Carlos Sainz, No.300 X-Raid Mini JCW Team: “Finally we are at the start of the rally, It wasn’t a great start because we suffered a puncture in the last kilometre, but what really matters is where everyone stands at the finish.”

Nasser Al-Attiyah, Toyota Gazoo Racing, Auto, Images Supplied by ASO, Photographer Florent Gooden

LIGHTWEIGHT VEHICLE

Former WRC rally winner Kris Meeke makes his much awaited debut in the new Light-Weight Vehicle T3, having been tutored under Colin McRae, Meeke would go on to win with Citroën in the rallies around the world, winning in the likes of Argentina, Portugal, Finland, Mexico, and Spain. Following his retirement from the WRC at the end of 2019 with Toyota Gazoo Racing, he joins the Dakar in 2021 with PH-Sport Zephyr with a host of experience to draw upon.

Kris Meeke, No.380 PH-Sport: “I’m taking my first footsteps in rally raid. I absolutely love it, fascinating. So here we are, my first ever cross-country event will be Dakar! The level of anticipation is pretty high, im really excited. It’s a new challenge and a new adventure, one I’m really looking forward to.”

“The only thing I can bring to Dakar is car control. Coming from WRC, your brain is trained to take the maximum everywhere. Dakar is about using your eyes and adapting your speed to that, finding your way. You cant completely trust the roadbook or navigation. So it’s a completely different ball game.”

41-year-old Meeke’s opening stage in the Dakar earned him the first victory for the Light-Weight Vehicle T3 class, but also his first stage victory finishing 2 seconds clear of 18-year-old Seth Quintero and Mitch Guthrie, Seth who is also making his debut with the Red Bull Off-Road Team USA was UTV World Champion at both youth and pro level, competing in the WORCS series, MINT 400 and Vegas to Reno make him an oddity when it comes to Dakar.

While the Light-Weight Vehicle T3 is a relative new comer to the Dakar the much loved SSV T4 has its own hero’s, ‘Iron Woman’ Kristen Matlock arrives at the Dakar as a rookie in SSV but not as an unknown racer, having competed in both the Baja 500 and 1000 she is by no means a novice to rally racing, thanks to the Polaris RZR factory team, both Kristen and her husband will be debuting this year in Dakar.

Kristen Matlock, No.409 Polaris RZR Factory Racing: “It felt really good. I’m not sure how I did as a raw position, but I had fun. It was pretty much another shakedown for the car. I just wanted to make sure that we didn’t have any issues so that we can show up and race tomorrow…”

Another American making the headlines if that of Austin Jones where he will be lining up alongside Gustavo Gugelmin as the favourites in SSV, Jones became an overnight start following 2020 where he placed as the second best rookie in class. Switching from South Racing Can-Am to the Monster Energy Can-Am factory team, this move should give ‘AJ’ the chance to repeat Casey Currie’s victory for the team last year.

Austin Jones ‘AJ’, Gustavo Gugelmin, Monster Energy Can-Am, SSV, Images Supplied by ASO, Photographer Florent Gooden

TRUCK

The charismatic boss of the Kamaz team, seven-time Dakar champion and record holder in the truck category Vladimir Chagin, can rest easy in the run-up to the 43rd edition of the rally, where he will be celebrating his 50th birthday. Once again, the depth of its roster, which features no fewer than four top drivers, makes the Russian outfit the odds-on favourite to win the race.

Reining champion Andrey Karginov is sure to be the man to beat getting the Russian outfit off to a solid start in the prologue, finishing 11th with a time nearly thirty second shot of winner and long term rival Siarhei Viazovich, Viazovich toped the stage with team mate and fellow Belarusian Aliksei Vishneuski coming home second giving the MAZ Sportauto the opening two spots for the main stage. 

The dominance of the blue trucks is nothing short of incredible but has not failed to curb the enthusiasm and ardour of their rivals, Martin Macík put the Big Shock Racing Iveco in third locking out the Kamaz team from the opening podium, while Aleš Loprais from Czechia could only manage 6th in the Instaforex Loprais Praga their where a few surprised on lookers as only one ‘Big Blue Truck’ made it into the top ten, Anton Shibalov keeping the Kamaz Master’s armour intact for now.

While the trucks have often been an all eastern European affair their is a mix of French, Spanish and Japanese taking part this year, Robert Nicholas Warmisham is the only Brit taking part in the toughest category with the Overdrive Toyota Iveco, Unlike previous years Dave Berghmans team will be out in the desert not to win but to assist the many others who are sure to need their help and finish the Dakar.

Dave Berghmans, Overdrive Toyota: “I competed in my first Dakar as a mechanic in 2016. I’ve been doing this with my own truck for three years now. We prepare it for three and we turn every year to start the race. Bob, who was with me in Peru, is back on duty. Luca Lorenzato should have been with us, but he is stuck in Norway because of the Covid so we will have to replace him with an Overdrive mechanic.”

“I liked the first edition of the Dakar in Saudi Arabia, even if the second part was not very funny in a truck. Too monotonous for us. We had to throw in the towel during the last marathon stage, stuck in the dunes after trying to get out the Toyota T3s that had crashed. This year again, we will be there to help others and try to get to the end of the race.”

Siarhei Viazovich, Pavel Haranin, Anton Zaparoshchanka, MAZ Sportauto, Images Supplied by ASO, Photographer Antonin Vincent

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