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6 things we learned from Dakar Rally 2020

Six history-making ways the 2020 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia will always be remembered.


The 2020 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia will go down in history for many reasons – a new era of the race in a new country, a new winner and, sadly also the tragedy of Paulo Goncalves.

After a few deep breaths and a hectic two weeks immersed in the biggest bike race on earth, what did we learn from this year’s Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia? How did Honda do it? Could the results have been different? Who earned legendary status and why does it help to be a desert rat?

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Honda – team work makes the dream work 

The Honda Rally team finally got the right blend of rider, team and machine at this year’s Dakar. It can be no coincidence that hugely experienced Portuguese rally racers, Helder Rodrigues and Ruben Faria came onboard and finally the jigsaw came together.

The new General Manager of the 30+ member team at the race, Ruben Faria was only racing three years ago and has Dakar podiums to his name – most notably in 2013 when he finished second. Helder Rodrigues, acting as advisor to the riders, is also a former Dakar podium finisher. Between them the Portuguese duo have 21 Dakars and about as much experience as you could ever need.

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Ricky Brabec took the lead in the Dakar in the third stage and never let go thanks to consistency and teamwork. Even on the days where Ricky started up front, because of a previous stage result, he raced with his teammate’s help and gave very little time back to his opponents. 

For the second half of the rally it seemed clear the mission of his team was, as one commentator put it, “to defend against the KTM armada.” It might have taken longer than we expected, and it sure took longer to get their bikes in order than we expected, but the Honda Racing Corporation finally did it after a lot of trial and error. 

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Brabec the desert rat

Ricky Brabec won the 2020 Dakar Rally not just by talent, having a honed and reliable rally bike, through first class navigation skills or because he had a great team around him, but because he is a desert rat. The first American in history to win this race did it because he lives and breathes desert conditions. 

None of the top guys is short of experience of course and certainly none had any idea how the rally would be to ride in Saudi. But by many accounts the rider most comfortable in the uncomfortable desert conditions was the rider who won.

By his own admission Brabec lives and breathes the Southern Californian deserts. It’s where he grew up riding, racing and where he spends his year training. 

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Think about it on the bike looking over that navigation tower at the unknown terrain ahead of you. The big, open spaces, the endless horizons, the sudden rocky gulleys and the treacherous mine fields of camel grass. If that stuff is all kinda normal and you’re used to feeling it under your tyres then a chunk of the concentration needed to race Dakar is already in the bag.

Ok, we know it is not that easy, but transfer that desert knowledge to someone like, say, Matthias Walkner who spends half his time in wet and for parts of the year, snowy Austria. Even taking into account the KTM team’s training programme in Spain, it is nothing like desert conditions experienced in Saudi.

Sure, they make trips to north Africa to train but these are prescribed week blocks of training a few times a year. Meanwhile Brabec can basically ride out from his door into desert and crack on. 

The key to Ricky’s victory then behind obvious riding talent must come down to his stubborn, gnarly cactus desert roots.

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18 years of domination by KTM

The easy thing to do following the result in Saudi Arabia would be to praise Honda and pour scorn on KTM for letting the remarkable 18-year record slip. 

But that would be unfair on Honda and Brabec for a start and it would also miss a point that is unprecedented: 18 years is one hell of a run.

Sport has a habit of moving in decades with either team or individual domination, or patterns of results. Can you think of other teams or individuals who stretch way beyond a decade with that much success at the very top of a sport? 

Alex Ferguson’s reign at Manchester United is the only one we can muster – Toni Bou might get there yet for Honda in TrialGP but these are exceptions just like KTM’s at Dakar.

Regardless of the outcome this year, to sustain that level of team domination is a thing to be applauded. 

KTM Team Dakar 2020 stage12 560

Could Toby Price have won?

There are many ifs and buts in sport and to speculate changes nothing. But, throw the cards in a different way and the 2020 Dakar results, or at the least how the second week of Dakar panned out, could have been very different for Toby Price and likely Pablo Quintanilla.

Toby Price’s roadbook failed on day one, the resulting two-minute time penalty was just the start of it. On stage six Price’s rear tyre and mousse trashed itself and though Andrew Short stepped in with his rear wheel (check the footage of Short riding sand dunes with no rear tyre) to help Toby out, the 16 minutes lost on the day was significant.

Rear Wheel toby.price Dakar 2020 560

Then came an event which put everything else into perspective. Paulo Goncalves tragically lost his life on stage seven. Price was the next rider on the scene and stayed with the Portuguese rider until the helicopter took Paulo away. Price got back going again and was awarded time back but the effects of being that person out there are hard to imagine. To then carry on and try to win this race?

The next day’s stage was also cancelled out of respect and though everyone agreed it was absolutely the right thing to do, it changed and affected the strategy of Price and the KTM team.

It was the same for Husqvarna and Quintanilla who took the following stage win ahead of Price, they had no choice, but they were already running out of time. As they struggled to claw the time back the Honda team closed ranks around Brabec who was running away with it. There’s always next year…

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Laia Sanz – 10 consecutive Dakars 

Ultimately, when a Dakar competitor presses the starter button in the freezing, pre-dawn conditions, having not slept enough and begins for another day putting a weary body into action, every rider is equal. 

For all the hundreds of riders who have raced this event during the last decade, Laia Sanz stands tall as one of the few to have finished each and every one of them. Much more than that she is the first Spanish rider ever to finish 10 consecutive Dakars. 

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Check your history on Wikipedia but that list of Spanish riders includes Marc Coma, Nani Roma and Jordi Arcarons among others. Sanz has also achieved this across three different manufacturers, Honda, KTM and we will acknowledge GasGas this year as something new for Laia. 

The biggest accolade for Sanz in achieving this 10th victory came despite probably her toughest rally. If you ever doubted Laia’s true mettle, then stage two of this year’s Dakar proved how wrong you were. Sanz crashed hard early in the stage, taking almost 20 minutes to get herself together, fix her bike and get going again. “It’s never good to crash during any stage,” Laia explained at the time, “but to crash at the start of a stage, and a stage that has tricky navigation, wasn’t good.”

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Laia had over 300 kilometres still to cover that day on the first marathon stage. With no overnight assistance to either repair her damaged bike or at least help with the bruises, it was very much a case of just having to bite the bullet and get on with it. 

But buckle down she did to haul back up the order to finish 18th overall. Sanz deserves legend status. 

laia.sanz Dakar 2020 podium Betriu 560

Saudi Arabia: a new Dakar era

The event being run in Saudi Arabia brought a huge element of the unknown to this year’s Dakar. Riders like Sam Sunderland described stages with: “a huge mix of terrain with high speed tracks and then slower technical sections. In and out of the canyons there were a lot of lines visible and that made navigation more of a challenge.”

The terrain was unknown to everyone: “ASO has taken advantage of the fact that the race has come to a new country, a new continent, to make a rally where everyone starts with the same information.” Explained Honda Rally Team Manager, Ruben Faria.

Couple that with the new rules with pre-coloured roadbooks only handed to the riders just 25 minutes before the stage start on certain days (marathon stages) and we can see big changes happened in Saudi. 

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It eliminated all that pre-stage knowledge some teams and riders had in recent years and saw a return to reading roadbooks, the terrain and navigating more while they were riding, like the old days.

Racers brought up on short tracks, motocross in many cases, had changed the sport in recent years in South America but 2020 saw a step back to the true spirit of Dakar on a bike.  That inherent spirit of adventure and needing to navigate and race, to look after yourself and treat it like the marathon it should be and not 12 sprint races spread across two weeks.

The fact that many riders crashed in part hasn’t changed, it is the same each year (we wish them all the very best, of course). But it points to the riders themselves also needing to re-calibrate their brains after a decade of increasingly fast Dakars in South America.  

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Do we even want Dakar to be “safe”?

In the light of the terrible loss of one of Rally’s legends, Paulo Goncalves, you have to lean in that direction. But it is sadly true that this was not the first death on a cross-country rally event.

The distances, the hours spent behind the bars, the desire to race, the unbelievable terrain, the weight of the bikes and the speed are all part of this sport. People climb the highest mountains, cross the Arctic and sail around the world because of the challenge, right? In motorsport look at the Isle of Man TT, one of the biggest events in road racing on this planet. The danger is there but that is an accepted part of it. 

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Organisers of the Dakar, ASO, are constantly addressing issues, particularly speed. The new Dakar Rally Director, David Castera, has vast experience in this sport and brought much of what we listed above to the table in Saudi trying to get it safer and slower. 

From where we stand the 2020 Dakar has moved in the right direction bringing that spirit of adventure back. Regardless of the pre-event political and human rights flags being waved about Saudi Arabia the country, as an example of a country hosting a giant sporting event they did a good job and we have entered a new era.

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Photo Credit: Rally Zone 
Byline jp ISDE 2018 Enduro21 Jon Pearson
Enduro21 Editor and Bike Tester