Dakar Rally Day 5: SS4: In It for the Long Haul

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The 43rd edition of the Dakar Rally is underway in Saudi Arabia. We’ll be sharing daily updates from our friends at WESTx1000. Stay tuned.

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SS4: In It for the Long Haul

The Dakar’s Lengthiest Stage Is Arguably an Initial Test of Endurance Before the Marathon Stage

“The gladdest moment in human life…is a departure into unknown lands.” ― Sir Richard Francis Burton

As stages tick away, Saudi Arabia gives participants a tour of the universe. So far, they’ve ventured to Mars and Moab, the Moon and, today, racers drew lines into a silty California wash, then weaved through acacias in the Serengeti – or at least that’s what it felt like for a while. Understandably, people tend to liken the unknown to pieces of the known, so it makes sense to them. So, they don’t feel such a disconnect, and what’s foreign becomes familiar. But to experience a place like the Arabian Peninsula, a massive region hosting ancient cultures which have been largely closed off to the rest of the world since before British explorer, Sir Richard Francis Burton, disguised as a wandering Dervish, set out for Mecca in 1853 through a land only “open to the adventurous traveler.” The trip involved crossing the famed “Empty Quarter” (familiar?) – the world’s largest contiguous desert and at the time still a blank white space on the map. The journey was dangerous, to put it lightly, with the risk of certain death if he, a westerner, was discovered.

Now, 168 years later, the Dakar Rally introduces a new set of adventurists. Taking them through the same desolate stretch of wasteland Burton once crossed by foot. Men like Nasser Al-Attiyah and partner Mathieu Baumel (#301 TOYOTA HILLUX) possess a similar spirit, battling the elements and elites such as themselves to no end to become champions of three stages, SS4 being no exception. Their counterparts too are warriors of their craft, and at this longest of junctures, a violent struggle for the podium erupted between #301, Stephane Peterhansel and Edouard Boulanger (#302, X-RAID MINI JCW TEAM), Henk Lategan and navigator Brett Cummings (#332 TOYOTA GAZOO RACING) and, of course, Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena (#305 BAHRAIN RAID XTREME) – knowing all too well that the high speeds encouraged by this vacant landscape make it nearly impossible to put a gap between each other. Up to a certain superior level, everyone’s balls are about the same size, so what really determines who will take top seats at the end of the stage are the limits of the machine, the ability to read terrain, and luck. Just set the needle to max and don’t let up until you see the flags. Because if you do, even for a moment, some other man or woman more daring will take those few seconds on the clock you weren’t willing to hold onto.

"It's difficult to open up large gaps in stages like these. We'd have to attack like a madman, but we're already going very fast. I again reached 175 km/h today. I could go faster, but I don't feel like it. You also need to follow the roadbook... At any rate, my pace is really good." Xavier de Soultrait #12, HT RALLY RAID HUSQVARNA RACING

Promised to be only 4% of the challenges, the relatively modest dunes on Wednesday have been whipped and poured by the gods onto this part of the Arabia, moving slowly towards the sea. From afar, it appears soft, flowing, like cake batter shifting to one side of a baking tin. The rounded ledges make easy work of crossing, inspiring enough confidence in pilots for them to concentrate on the next move in the roadbook, and maybe, have a little fun. (But not too much, this is Dakar after all.) It seems Toby Price (#3 RED BULL KTM) and Joan Barreda Bort (#88 MONSTER ENERGY HONDA) have been playing catch together all week, using the first-place seat as a ball they toss back and forth every new day. Or instead, is a game of keep away? And the unwilling participants – Ricky Brabec (#1 MONSTER ENERGY HONDA), Ross Branch (#18, MONSTER ENERGY YAMAHA), Daniel Sanders (#21 KTM FACTORY TEAM) and the rest of the riders – jump up and down between victors with their arms swinging, trying to snatch first place from out of the air. Skyler Howes (#9 BAS DAKAR KTM), however, has chosen to play solitaire. Only trying to outdo himself this event, and if that leads to the podium, he (and every American who knows what rally is) will be all the more ecstatic. He’s already impressed us all yesterday with a 4th place finish and taking the overall title for at least 24 hours, which was ultimately handed to his friend Xavier de Soultrait (#12, HT RALLY RAID HUSQVARNA).

“We’re not marking one another, it’s just one relentless attack after another, and in the end, we finished at the same time! Apart from a small navigation error near the finish, I don’t think I can push much harder. To stay in contention, we need to go all out. So far, so good, as we aren’t making too many mistakes. In the old times, 50% of all contenders would be knocked out of the race by driving mistakes or technical issues, but it’s become far less common, so you just have to hold on.” Stéphane Peterhansel #302, X-RAID MINI JCW TEAM

Rally Raid is unlike any other motorsports event. In a phrase, it’s all encompassing. It takes everything you’ve got to just make it to the final day, let alone to be a contender. The trials – for everyone involved from the racers, crew and managers, to the organizing body, volunteers, contractors and media – are relentless. And clever. They are meant to manipulate you, throw you off your guard, give you the illusion of comfort and relief. Then quietly let the air out of your tires when you’re asleep at night. It’s the kind of childlike mischief which exhausts and endears at the same time. Is the ASO restricting the number of tire swaps? Then why not tempt you through three stages with beautiful, buxom roads whispering, “let’s go all the way…” At first, one racer will give in. And while your mind tells you to reserve your tire tread, that the guy over there will burn through his equipment too fast, just be patient. Your heart, however, will see opportunity slipping away. It will remind you that going fast is your favorite. Don’t you miss the wind blowing against your cheeks? Then, as hearts do, it will lie to you, telling you all things you want to hear, no matter how improbable, like perhaps you could do the exact same thing as the other racers and somehow come up with different results.

Traversing the huge length of HP, swerving around enormous sandstone bulbs stick up from the ground like they fell carelessly from the sky. The land of sleeping giants. The trucks are the only vessel tall enough to see the whole face of the boulders. But they didn’t have enough time to linger and make nice with the rocks. Pushing so hard every day, one can only expect malfunctions – or operator errors – even the Camas drive a bit more conservative in the technical areas. KAMAZ-MASTER drivers Dmitry Sotnikov, Ruslan Akhmadeev and Ilgiz Akhmetzianov (#507) have been steadfast on their hold of the overall lead, with another KAMAZ truck, and everyone else in the class, vying for their chance to take the reins on this race. With so many strong teams up against them, it will be quite a feat if they can hold onto their title and keep their vehicle rolling. And the same could be said for our American friends at Polaris RZR Factory Racing, who still have one car in the running. Wayne Matlock and Sam Hayes have been working hard to keep their Baja racing instincts in check. It’s almost second nature to see a rocky terrain or wide-open backcountry and just set fire to the program. But this isn’t the Baja 1000. Your car, and your mind and body and emotional state, need to last you for two weeks. And if you’re hammering the pedal at every opportunity, then you might as well plan to drag your car across the finish line. At 28th overall in the Lightweight category and 19th in SSV class, we think the Polaris crew have come together well to find the right rhythms.

“It wasn’t that easy. First there were dunes and then fields of rocks where we suffered a flat tire. The second part was a nervous affair because we had another two punctures, but it really wasn’t fun. Then came an easier, faster section, followed by a part with trickier navigation, but our co-driver did a great job. We saw Viazovich after he stopped before the first neutralized sector, he probably had a mechanical, but I don’t think it was a flat tire.” Dmitry Sotnikov #507, Kamaz – Master

The 2021 edition of the Dakar Rally has been a sight to behold. No real patterns have developed in every class to make outcomes predictable. Hell, this is only Day 5, so it’s anybody’s guess who will board the charter home a champion. Altogether, USA has been representing well this year. With Howes gaining an overall lead – if only for one day – and maintaining a notable presence in the Top Ten, no, Top Five. Is a big deal for North America’s humble sized rally raid fan-base. Bonus, Brabec still has a chance for gold, if he’s able to hang on. And in the Lightweight Vehicle and SSV classes, all three US entrants are busting through Top Ten like they’re going to rob the place. Austin Jones (#408 MONSTER ENERGY CAN-AM), 18-year-old Seth Quintero (#383 RED BULL OFF-ROAD) and Mitch Guthrie (#381) are giving us a reason to keep our eyes on the scoreboard. Jones Is 3rd overall and Quintero is not too far behind, in 5th. Whether our boys and gals sporting the Stars and Stripes have it in them to perform for eight more stages, if they’ve convinced just one more person back home to stay tuned to the Dakar Rally, we’ve already won.


Ø Liaison > 226 km – Special > 403 km; Wadi Ad-Dawasir to Wadi Ad-Dawasir

Ø If the link sector is included, this is the longest stage of the race, but the sporting part is unlikely to push the competitors to the limit. On the contrary, the focus will be on having fun at the wheel, even though the winding tracks will give participants no respite. However, it is worth keeping in mind that mistakes carry a hefty price tag even on transition stages like this one.

Ø Stat of the day: 395 m – At the average speed of 129.63 km/h set by Nasser Al-Attiyah, the winner of the car stage to Riyadh, his 11-second margin over Stéphane Peterhansel is tantamount to 395 m —just under the length of a running track— after 337 kilometers of racing.

Ø Altitude has very little effect on the temperature in Saudi Arabia. The riders and crews competed for most of the 403-km special at approximately 1,000 meters above sea level, but the vast plateau that stretched out to the horizon did not provoke vertigo like the mountains can. However, the wind that continues to gust over the region particularly transformed the dunes dotted about the first part of the route into steep steps that caught out a number of competitors. As it blew over the desert, it also removed any traces that may have pointed to the existence of tracks, sowing the seeds of doubt in the minds of many navigators, including the co-pilot of Carlos Sainz, who went round in circles a little too much on the Wadi-to-Wadi loop.

Ø Somewhat counterintuitively, Dakar stages can sometimes be long and fast at the same time, especially when it comes to transition stages in which the link section makes up much of the course without detracting from the excitement of the race. A big part of the stage took place on tracks, not tarmacs —a thoughtful detail that no doubt reminded veterans of the winding tracks of the Ténéré, not least because they were also instructed to change course after reaching a lone tree that evoked memories of a different one. An icon of sorts. The fast special gave competitors the chance to test their top speeds and a taste of the sense of freedom that can only be found in some desert areas of the world. In the second link sector, these dream-like moments in sparsely populated landscapes successively gave way to hamlets, villages and suburban neighborhoods as the race drew closer to the capital Riyadh.

Ø Not so long ago, Ondřej Klymčiw and Petr Vlček took part in the Dakar on motorbikes and obtained their best respective results in 2017 (12th) and 2020 (38th / 4th in the Original by Motul category). This year, they are sharing the cockpit of a Škoda from the early 1980s, which is proving to be particularly at ease on the sandy tracks of Saudi Arabia.

Ø The Dakar has been a mixed bag for Yazeed Al-Rajhi since the start of the second edition of the Dakar in his country. The Toyota driver, who came in 44th on Tuesday after finishing third in the prologue, suffered a mechanical at km 30 and had to wait for his support crew. Although he eventually managed to resume the journey towards Riyadh after almost three hours, the driver who finished fourth in 2020 will end the day almost 5 hours behind Peterhansel in the general standings, postponing his dreams of a Dakar victory on home turf for at least a year.


1st Place Bikes, Joan Barreda Bort #88, MONSTER ENERGY YAMAHA RALLY TEAM: “It was another good stage. I started very far back because of my result yesterday, but that’s the way it is in this Dakar, you’re either at the front or far back. We need to keep it up. I’ve used three tires so far. I think the one I used today is quite worn, but I was supposed to use it for three days, so it’s not great news. But we’ll see what we can do in the coming days.”

1st Place Cars, Nasser Al-Attiyah #301, TOYOTA HILLUX: “It wasn’t an easy stage. We lost a minute to an error, but we were hardly the only ones to make a mistake and we quickly got back on track. Opening up a gap is difficult, but today it was good to have my teammate Henk Lategan right behind me. That’s exactly what I need, a fast driver who can help me out.”

2nd Place Bikes, Ross Branch #18, MONSTER ENERGY YAMAHA RALLY TEAM: “I had fun. I was a bit frustrated after I missed a waypoint from the get-go this morning. Then, I wanted to see how fast I could go and find out what my bike’s top speed was. Yamaha has done a great job with the bike and it’s really fast; I’m not aiming to ride that fast. I need to stay consistent throughout the remaining stages to see how it all plays out.”

3rd Place Cars, Henk Lategan #332, TOYOTA GAZOO RACING: “We were actually going really well in the beginning until a tyre delaminated. I don’t know exactly what happened, but we had to stop and change it. Then we got a little bit lost in one of the canyons, but I think the rest of the day was really nice, really smooth.”

Sebastien Loeb #305, BAHRAIN RAID XTREME: “We didn’t run into trouble today except for a couple of minor things that cost us a minute each. We went flat out from beginning to end, we had fun. There are many plateaus where you go really fast and it’s hard to open up a gap.”



1. #88 Joan Barreda Bort (ESP), MONSTER ENERGY HONDA TEAM 2021


3. #21 Daniel Sanders (AUS), KTM FACTORY TEAM


5. #12 Xavier de Soultrait (FRA), HT RALLY RAID HUSQVARNA RACING

6. #27 Joaquim Rodrigues (PRT), HERO MOTORSPORTS TEAM RALLY

7. #4 Jose Cornejo Florimo (CHL), MONSTER ENERGY HONDA TEAM 2021


9. #11 Stefan Svitko (SVK), SLOVNAFT RALLY TEAM




1. #12 Xavier de Soultrait (FRA), HT RALLY RAID HUSQVARNA RACING

2. #88 Joan Barreda Bort (ESP), MONSTER ENERGY HONDA TEAM 2021

3. #47 Kevin Benavides (ARG), MONSTER ENERGY HONDA TEAM 2021


5. #8 Skyler Howes (USA), BAS DAKAR KTM TEAM

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