Of the 286 total entries cleared to start the 2021 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia, 231 (78 motorbikes, 14 quads, 56 cars, 49 lightweight vehicles and 34 trucks) have survived the prologue and opening six stages and made it to the rest day. A further 26 vehicles have withdrawn from the race but remain eligible to continue the adventure under “Dakar Experience” rules without appearing in the general standings.
As different scenarios unfold, the titles at stake are still up for grabs in the five categories, but the current leaders have taken at least a few steps forward: biker Toby Price, quad rider Nicolas Cavigliasso, car driver Stephane Peterhansel, lightweight vehicle driver Aron Domżała and truck driver Dmitry Sotnikov have the advantage going into the second week. The 23 vehicles in the Dakar Classic category overcame the challenges of the first week. Marc Douton and his Sunhill buggy lead the regularity race.
Cars: Dancing on a razor’s edge
The men on the final podium of the 2020 Dakar lined up for the start of this year’s edition in Jeddah with the confidence that comes from being one of the big favorites. Fast-forward one week and the protagonists are still the same, but the roles have changed.
Struggling to adapt to what he calls “the new roadbook philosophy,” Carlos Sainz has made a series of navigation errors that have pushed him down to third place in the general standings, 40m39s behind his X-Raid MINI JCW teammate Stephane Peterhansel. The collector of Dakar records is well aware that victory is far from guaranteed on the rest day, not least because he is just 5m53s ahead of a rival as fast and aggressive as Toyota Gazoo Racu Nasser Al-Attiyah. The Qatari has been as unerring as Frenchamn Peterhansel throughout the opening week, claiming four stage victories (including the prologue) and ratcheting up the pressure on the overall leader. He has a knack for pushing his rivals until they crack. Whatever the weather is like on the road to Neom and then Jeddah, expect the heat to rise in the competition stage after stage.
Jakub Przygonski is fourth overall, 1h11ms behind the lead, while Orlando Terranova threw in the towel on stage 5 due to an electrical problem. Rising star Henk Lategan tumbled out of contention after two stellar performances in a row, while Yazeed Al-Rajhi fell out of contention with a failed gearbox in stage 3, and Bernhard ten Brinke also crashed out of the race. Bahrain Raid Extreme is still banking on Nani Roma (fifth at 1h37m) to catch up with the leading trio, but Sebastien Loeb is out of the running after making several blunders and breaking a wishbone on his Xtreme, which meant an unscheduled night in the desert for the French driver and sent him plummeting to 45th place overall, 11h34m behind his old stablemate at Peugeot. Mathieu Serradori has a similar tale to tell after slipping down to 50th place despite a string of provisional podium finishes, while his equally ambitious teammate Yasir Seaidan languishes in 38th place.
Motorcycles: Price holds tenuous grip on race lead
A dozen riders are still in with a shot for the win in bikes as the race heads into its second week. A mere quarter of an hour separates the top 10 halfway through the rally. Defending champion Ricky Brabec is 13th overall, but the American Monster Energy Honda rider is only 19 minutes down on the leader, which makes him still a force to be reckoned with in the final week. Brabec made a series of navigation errors in the first few stages after claiming the prologue, but has remained in contact with the leading group without pushing his Honda too hard or burning through the six rear tires allocated to each elite biker for the entire race.
The 2016 and 2019 champion, Toby Price, is in control of the general standings. The Australian KTM rider stayed cool throughout a series of specials in which navigation turned up the heat on the competitors.
Honda has placed two riders, Kevin Benavides and Jose “Nacho” Cornejo, behind the Australian and is in perfect position to pounce on any mistake the leader may make at 2m16s and 2m57s back respectively. Argentinian Benavides put in a heroic performance in stage 5 from Riyadh to Al Qaisumah, soldiering on to victory despite crashing and hurting his nose and an ankle after cresting a dune. Meanwhile, the Chilean has found his rhythm after a cautious start to the rally and is now racking up one top placing after another.
Spain’s Joan Barreda, the fourth Honda biker, sits in seventh place despite a string of navigation errors and has taken three stage wins so far, bringing his career tally to 27 and making him the third most prolific Dakar biker of all time, behind Peterhansel and Cyril Despres, tied with 33. Xavier De Soultrait is fifth overall after six stages after a series of consistent performances near the front of the race. The Frenchman, now riding for Husqvarna and chasing Ross Branch in the general standings, even had a brief stint in the lead, as did American Skyler Howes, currently eighth.
Daniel Sanders also flew the flag for Australia in the opening week, landing three stage podium finishes (including the prologue), sitting in 12th position 18 minutes behind his older countryman, and comfortably leading the rookie classification. On the other side of the coin were Andrew Short, who was knocked out of the race very early by an issue with fuel, and Matthias Walkner, who lost two and a half hours to a clutch problem in stage 2.