Dakar 2017 Mid-Way Point: Tough Navigating & Costly Mistakes
The race for the podium remains wide open mid-way through Dakar 2017.
My pre-race predictions for the Dakar Rally 2017 consisted in large part of saying that anything could happen. That’s a pretty lame prediction, but in my defense, I was right. In the 5 days of racing leading up to the rest day (Stage 6 was cancelled due to heavy rains), we’ve had 4 different overall leaders, major penalties and injuries for top riders, and the fact that one rider was struck by lightning (and raced 300 more kilometers after being struck to finish in the top 15) is evidence that anything can happen in the Dakar!
We are tempted to imagine that big budgets and better equipment make the race easier or more predictable for the front runners. To a degree that may be true, but they still cover every inch the same as anyone, and they must still hold on and focus just like any of us, racing or not.
The results are never predetermined — a momentary lapse in judgment, or a stone that flips the wrong way, can be the end of a race, or worse. My prediction for the winner, Toby Price, found this out the hard way on Stage 4, when he crashed and broke his femur.
Several other top riders have fallen on hard luck as well in this Dakar 2017. All the team Honda riders were handed one-hour penalties, for illegal refueling. It’s an open and shut case, the rules are clear, so Honda should have known better. I’m sure a head will roll somewhere for that error in judgment — millions of dollars invested in winning down the drain. Consider that without the penalty, Paolo Goncalves would be in 2nd and Joan Barreda Bort would be in 4th, and you get a sense of how big an error this was. An hour is not unrecoverable, but everything will have to go perfectly for the rest of the race, which is a tall order.
Ricky Brabec, the lone American in any class, had a rough Stage 4 after 3 great ones. He took an hour penalty along with the rest of his team, and now is working to climb back through the standings. The challenge is not only physical, it is mental — knowing that you have the potential makes it harder not to realize it. Let’s all hope he has some breaks fall his way in the second half.
Navigation seems tougher this year than in recent memory. To most rally aficionados, that’s great news. Navigation slows the race down and rewards strategy and intelligence over bravery. Difficult navigation shuffles the results day after day, which we’ve seen already and will no doubt see more of.
So, at the rest day and halfway point in the rally, where do we stand? Here are the top 5 in the overall standings:
1. Sam Sunderland (#14)
2016 Finishing Position: n/a
Home Country: United Kingdom
He’s never made it this far in the Dakar Rally and now he’s in the lead, but he’s always had the speed. There is an old saying that it is easier to get a fast rider to be consistent, than the reverse. Will this be the year he holds focus to the end and wins? It’s too early to tell.
2.Pablo Quintanilla (#3)
2016 Finishing Position: 3rd
Home Country: Chile
Pablo trails by 12 minutes. Consider that Toby Price got lost for the better part of an hour in Stage 3, and you see that this time is both meaningful and meaningless. 12 minutes is a lot to make up on the ground, one turn and bump at a time, but it happens in a single instant with a wrong navigation decision. Will that instant come and put Pablo in the drivers seat? That’s what he is hoping!
3. Adrien Van Beveren (#6)
2016 Finishing Position: 6th
Home Country: France
Adrien has played it smart day by day to wind up in third. He is a personal favorite of mine- I met him last year at a World Championship round we were both racing, and came away genuinely impressed at his character. Let’s hope his steady performances continue, and if they do, he will only advance in the standings.
4. Gerard Farres Guell (#8)
2016 Finishing Position: 8th
Home Country: Spain
Gerard is a veteran Dakar rider, doing a perfect demonstration of how consistency matters- no stage finish higher than 6th, but now in 4th place. Impressive ride. An unbroken string of top ten stage finishes could put him on the podium.
5. Matthias Walkner (#16)
2016 Finishing Position: DNF @ Stage 7
Home Country: Austria
Matthias’ 21st place finish on stage 5 moved him from 2nd to 5th in the overall, a perfect demonstration of how quickly things change.
Getting to the Finish Line
At this point of the race, riders are ground down to the level of their training both mentally and physically. In the first few days, people can imagine themselves better than they are, and might get lucky, but by the rest day, there have been too many chances for things to go wrong to rely on that. The reality for every competitor is long hard days in the saddle (longer, the slower you go), and the difference between winning a stage and coming 30th is fractions of a second, repeated every corner and every bump, all day long. Speed comes from habit, not momentary determination.
Everyone wants more than anything to get to the finish, and to do that, you can’t play it too safe. Too safe is too slow, and with the mileage you are covering each day, you need to go fast to have a chance to eat and rest, let alone to work on your bike. For every rider, there is a razors edge to negotiate — as fast as you can get away with, over and over and over, but no faster, and also, no slower.
While the leaders of the race have a different level of pressure, Deep in the pack, people who crash or slow down are caught in a snowball. The stage takes too long, so they don’t get nutrition or rest, so they ride slower, and their situation worsens. Two weeks is a long time to stay on that razors edge.
Within the bivouac, the attitude becomes more welcoming by the day. One in five who started the race is no longer there, and their absence makes everyone realize what an adventure this is. At the top level, competition remains fierce, but for many privateers, they do anything they can to help those around them finish. Each day, more drop out, and each day, the friendliness in the bivouac increases.
Dakar 2017 Malles Moto Class
In the Malles Moto class, it is pure survival mode. The first week has been difficult relative to previous Dakars, and everyone is trying their best to stay out of the snowball. Of my two friends, Manuel Lucchese (#54) has been struggling with altitude sickness and is looking forward to returning to lower elevation, but is still running 6th in class and 64th overall. Lyndon Poskitt (#100) is currently running 3rd in class and 44th position overall, with just seconds separating him from Toomas Triisa (#117) in 2nd and Jose Kozac (#47) in 1st. Lyndon has also been featured on many of the Dakar organization videos.