The Dakar Rally kicks off Saturday in Saudi Arabia, the second time the world’s most grueling event in motorsport’s calendar has been held in the kingdom.
Launched in 1979 between Paris and the Senegalese capital, Dakar, the celebrated endurance challenge moved to Saudi Arabia for the first time last year after a decade in South America.
As part of its “2030 vision” to increase its openness, Saudi Arabia has recently held high-profile football and boxing matches and will also hold its first Formula One grand prix in 2021.
Defending champion Carlos Sainz summed up the general mood of relief in being able to race after a season ruined by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m happy to be here after such a difficult year,” said the Spaniard, a three-time Dakar winner (2010, 2018, 2020).
The Dakar gets under way with Saturday’s prologue ahead of 12 stages, with a rest day Jan. 9.
It starts and ends in the Red Sea city of Jeddah.
Qatar’s Nasser al-Attiyah, like Sainz also a three-time winner (2011, 2015, 2019) said it was “very important to be here and to race.”
“Our target is to win. … It’s my dream to win again,” said the Qatari who’s busy 2021 also includes targeting a seventh Olympics and doing better than his skeet shooting bronze in London in 2012 with gold at the Tokyo Games postponed a year because of COVID-19.
The 43rd Dakar sees a new class joining the collection of cars, bikes, quads, trucks, buggies and SSVs, with the Dakar Classic category limited to vehicles from the 1980s and ’90s.
A raft of new safety measures includes compulsory airbag vests for motorbike riders, warnings that will notify competitors in the approach to potential dangers with designated “slow zones” limiting the speed to 90 kph in especially tricky sectors.
Defending motorbike champion Ricky Brabec became the first American to win Dakar last year, breaking KTM’s 18-year winning monopoly as he streaked to victory on his Monster Energy Honda Team bike.
The 29-year-old was in a confident mood, saying he was comfortable with the unforgiving Saudi desert terrain because it was similar to his Southern California base.
“Where I live, my hometown looks more or less similar to almost everything we covered last year,” he said. “I can go as fast as we need to go and not really think about what’s ahead of me because it comes natural from the training at home.”
Leveling the competition are two further rule changes.
First, roadbooks used to navigate each stage will be distributed 20 minutes before each daily start rather than the night before, allowing competitors much less time to map out their route.
And second, riders in the bike class will be able to use only six rear tires, with tire management usually playing a decisive role in how hard bikes can be pushed.
“I’m not sure that’s a good way to go about it,” Brabec responded, before adding: “Strategy is definitely going to come into play. We’ll see how it goes when we get to our sixth tire.”
Brabec will be up against a formidable array of previous winners in Australian Toby Price (2019, 2016), Briton Sam Sunderland (2017) and Austrian Matthias Walkner (2018).
“There’s a lot more than four riders who can win the Dakar,” Brabec said. “It’s going to come down to the last couple of kilometers.”
Price acknowledged that it was a “tough class.”
“There are 10 solid dudes in there who can get the win,” the Australian said.
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