It’s a new year which means it’s time once again for the world’s most grueling off-road endurance race, the Dakar Rally. Celebrating its 40th edition, the 2018 Dakar Rally runs Jan. 6-20, starting in Lima, Peru, crossing into Bolivia with a rest day in La Paz, and then entering Argentina for the finish line at Cordoba.
For motorcycle competitors, the rally spans nearly 5,157 miles (including 2,635 miles in timed special routes) spread across 14 stages, including two marathon stages where riders will not have access to their pit crews.
This year’s Rally will have five American riders: former AMA motocross and Supercross racer Andrew Short with the factory Husqvarna team, factory Honda racer Ricky Brabec, Baja racer Mark Samuels on a Honda-backed satellite team, Baja racer Shane Esposito on a KTM and privateer Bill Conger on a Husqvarna.
KTM will try to extend its Dakar dominance to an impressive 17th consecutive victory. Reigning motorcycle class winner Sam Sunderland leads the way for the Red Bull KTM Factory team, with Matthias Walkner, Toby Price and Antoine Meo. Also receiving KTM factory support are Laia Sanz and Luciano Benavides.
The factory riders will each be riding the new KTM 450 Rally which was unveiled at EICMA in November.
“Starting with the number one plate on my bike does add a little pressure, but I am honored to have the opportunity to do so,” says Sunderland. “The first five days of the rally are in the dunes of Peru and I really like that kind of terrain. Hopefully I’ll have a good race and if I can take things fast but steady during that first week I should be in a good position going into Bolivia and then onto the finish in Argentina.”
If any manufacturer has a good shot at unseating KTM, it’s the Austrian brand’s subsdiary, Husqvarna whose FR 450 shares much of its DNA with the 450 Rally. The Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory Racing team will be represented by 2017 FIM World Cross-Country Rallies Champion Pablo Quintanilla and Andrew Short.
“As the World Champion, there is always expectations and maybe some added pressure but I know exactly what I need to do. I have trained really hard for this event and I want to start it on a high note,” says Quintanilla. “Winning the Dakar has been my dream ever since I started racing rallies and I will do my best to make it true. I feel really good on my bike at the moment. As a team, we are really solid and this is also a big advantage for such a long and challenging event. I want to enjoy the race and continue learning. The sand dunes and the altitude stages make this year’s event even more tough but I want to do my job and race for the victory.”
For Short, who retired from AMA Motocross and Supercross racing in 2016, the Dakar Rally presents a new challenge for the Colorado native.
“Being a rookie for rally racing I can admit the anticipation and nerves are higher than normal. Since I took the decision to switch into rally racing a few months ago, I did everything possible to better prepare myself for the Dakar challenge,” says Short. “My goal is to keep my mind calm during the next few days and be ready to take in all the new experiences. I want to learn and improve as the race goes on.”
The Monster Energy Honda team arrived in South America on a bit of a down note, with racer Paulo Gonçalves withdrawing from this year’s race after injuring his right shoulder and left knee. His absence will be filled by 2016 FIM Junior World Cross Country Rallies Champion José Ignacio Cornejo.
On the plus side, Joan Barreda has received medical clearance to race after a left arm injury. Joining them on Honda CRF450 Rallys are Kevin Benavides, Michael Metge and Ricky Brabec who won his first ever Dakar stage in last year’s rally.
“A few days before the 40th edition of the Dakar and we are here in Lima setting up. The team is looking good. Our bivouac situation is really nice; our bikes are perfectly built. We had a shakedown and testing which went well,” says Brabec. “Now with just a day to go we are going to rest and have a last team meeting. The team will be on their own for the next sixteen days racing through the South American desert. Hopefully we can place the Hondas on the top of the podium or the top three or top five. We’ll do our best and fight our hardest to get up there and make Honda proud.”
Representing the Yamalube Yamaha team are Adrien van Beveran, world enduro racer Xavier de Soultrait, Franco Caimi and Rodney Faggotter. The team is the least experienced of the factory teams, de Soultrait leading the team with his fourth Dakar Rally. van Beveran will be competing in just his third Dakar, but he’s already a contender, finishing fourth last year and missing out on a podium finish by less than a minute.
“As an athlete, I always want to take things step-by-step and this is exactly what I did in 2017,” says van Beveren, who was hurt early last season. “I got back from my injury even stronger mentally and now I believe I am strong enough to win the Dakar. This might just be my third year but if all goes well I know I have what it takes to bring home the win. At the same time, I really want to do even better this year. It is going to be a long and tough two weeks, with no easy stages to recover. The key is to remain consistent and keep pushing as much as I can.”