After six stages, the first edition of the Dakar held in Saudi Arabia has reached the capital of Riyadh for today’s rest day, with 262 vehicles (108 motorcycles, 15 quads, 65 cars, 34 SSVs and 40 trucks) still in the race, amounting to 77% of the competitors who set off from Jeddah a week ago. And 39 of the 80 competitors who were forced to withdraw have decided to continue their adventure and tackle the remaining stages under “Dakar Experience” rules.
As the race heads towards the dunes of Saudia Arabia’s Empty Quarter, which have the potential to shake up the classification in the second half of the marathon, the leaders of the various categories face different scenarios: Ricky Brabec has staked his claim to become the first American winner in the bike category, Carlos Sainz is pursuing his third victory in the car category and Ignacio Casale looks fully in control in the quad race. Francisco “Chaleco” Lopez holds a slim lead in the SSV category, while Kamaz (pictured above) remains the heavy favorites to win the truck class despite the withdrawal of its leader, Eduard Nikolayev.
Bikes: Brabec surging ahead
Is Ricky Brabec on track to win the Dakar for the first time? The American is still keeping his guard up despite holding a lead of 20 minutes over Pablo Quintanilla and a bit more over Toby Price and Jose Ignacio Cornejo as the rally heads into its second week After failing to finish the three previous editions, Monster Energy Honda rider Brabec is painfully aware that the race is not over until it is over, and a lot can happen with six stages to go.
One thing is for sure: Brabec has flawlessly executed his plan for the first part of the rally, which seemed to have his name written all over it. Riding on technical and rugged terrain not unlike the tracks on which he trains back home in California, Brabec avoided all potential pitfalls while setting the fastest pace. Since moving into the lead after Stage 3 around Neom, he has extended his advantage to raise Honda’s hopes of ending a drought that stretches over three decades.
Flanked by teammates Cornejo and Joan Barreda Bort, who is getting stronger as the race goes on, and despite losing Kevin Benavides to a broken engine in the stage to Riyadh, Brabec is turning up the heat on KTM, which has maintained an iron grip on the race for 19 years. Price — the winner of the last Dakar edition in Peru — has taken two stages so far, but he has been rather inconsistent and destroyed his rear tire between Ha’il and Riyadh, where he conceded over 15 minutes to Brabec.
In further bad news for KTM, Sam Sunderland crashed out of the race on Stage 5. However, the Austrian maker can still take comfort from the fact that Quintanilla and his Husqvarna remain within striking distance. Meanwhile, the first half of the rally was a true ordeal for Yamaha, which lost its two leaders, Adrien Van Beveren and Xavier de Soultrait, to injuries in quick succession.
28 of the 41 bikers racing without support in the Original by Motul class are still eligible for the general classification at the midpoint of the race, led by Romania’s Emmanuel Gyenes by over an hour over Florent Vayssade and 1h43m over Benjamin Melot.
Quads: Casale in a league of his own
A duel between the two former winners — Ignacio Casale and Rafał Sonik — seemed to be in the making early on. However, the Chilean made short work of the Pole, who is trailing Casale by an hour and a quarter halfway through the race. A stellar Casale took control of the general classification from the get-go with two victories in the first two stages, which took the field from Jeddah to Neom, while Sonik steadily lost ground. After failing to finish the last South American edition at the wheel of an SSV, Casale is making a dramatic comeback to the quad category, which he already won in 2014 and 2018.
Some 38 minutes behind the Chilean leader, Simon Vitse is sitting in second place as one of the breakout performers of the race, considering that the Frenchman had to sit out the last Dakar in Peru after sustaining grievous injuries in 2018. He marked his return to top form with a win in stage 6. Rafał Sonik is in third place overall, followed by another Frenchman, Alexandre Giroud.
Cars: Three-way stand-off
Vaidotas Zala will go down in the history of the Dakar as the first car driver to win a stage in the Middle East. However, the Lithuanian failed to follow up on this victory, leaving the usual suspects to gain the upper hand in no time. The ever-consistent Giniel De Villiers claimed another first 24 hours later when he became the first man to win a stage on three continents. Carlos Sainz and Stephane Peterhansel followed suit with two victories apiece. The Spaniard now holds a substantial lead at the rest day, while the Frenchman made several navigation mistakes and is now third overall, a reasonable 16 minutes behind his teammate at Mini X-Raid.
Sandwiched in between the two, Nasser Al-Attiyah is flying the flag for Toyota. Despite having failed to light the fireworks at the wheel of his Hilux pickup, the reigning champion reached Riyadh 7m48s behind Sainz. The Qatari seems raring to go on the attack, but he may be waiting for the big dune stages of the second week to tighten the screws on the leader and force a mistake.
Although the three former winners — who have a combined total of 19 Dakar victories — appear to be well ahead of the competition, local hero Yazeed Al-Rajhi is sitting in fourth place at 36m48s and can still dream of a chain reaction of destruction in the front. However, a podium spot looks like a more realistic goal even if he does not go all in, as third place is just 20 minutes away.
The same holds true for every driver within one hour of Sainz: Orlando Terranova (+43m54s), Mathieu Serradori (+50m21s) and De Villiers (+55m41s). Other drivers have seen their dreams of overall glory dashed but remain in contention for stage wins, including Formula 1 and Le Mans star Fernando Alonso (16th at 3h18 and first rookie), Nani Roma (28th at 6h34m) and Jakub Przygonski (38th at 8h25m).
However, Pikes Peak winner Romain Dumas left the Dakar with a bitter taste in his mouth after his car caught fire during the opening special.
SSVs: “Chaleco” on top of things
Aron Domzała burst onto the scene with a win in the opening special, but the Pole plummeted down the general classification due to a spate of mechanicals in the second stage and suffer a series of infuriating near-misses: 11m behind Gerard Farres in one special and then 19m behind Cyril Despres in the following stage. Although a broken engine put paid to the overall ambitions of the five-time champion in the motorcycle category, Despres’ adventure with Mike Horn continues under Dakar Experience rules, allowing him to become the first man in the history of the Dakar to win specials in three categories (motorbikes, cars and SSVs).
Meanwhile, the project on which he is working with Red Bull is already bearing fruit, as young American Mitch Guthrie cruised to a stage win. However, the reigning champion Francisco “Chaleco” Lopez, remains firmly in control of the SSV classification with about 10 minutes to spare over Casey Currie. The American will no doubt try to take the fight to the Chilean in the coming days, as will former quad champion Sergey Karyakin.Trucks:
Kamaz shuffles the deck
Kamaz looks poised to take another victory, but probably not with five-time winner Eduard Nikolayev, who conceded almost four hours into the opening stage. The Russian stable has always found strength in numbers and this year is no exception. Andrey Karginov, Anton Shibalov and Dmitry Sotnikov divvied up four of the six stages so far among them, with Karginov and Shibalov also leading the general classification by a sizeable margin. This gives Kamaz an ace up its sleeve in case current leader and 2014 champion Karginov falters.
Some 36 minutes behind the leader, Siarhei Viazovich and his Maz are the real threat. Meanwhile, Ales Loprais is sitting in fourth place, ready to exploit any opening to grab a podium finish like he did when he finished third in 2007.