Dakar Rally 2017: 10 Riders With the Strongest Chance to Win
Rally Racer Ned Suesse gives us his top picks for the podium at Dakar 2017.
One of the great pleasures of a race as complicated as the Dakar Rally is the opportunity for speculation, analysis, and general bench racing it provides. There are tactics and strategy, personalities and teams, and so many opportunities for the unforeseeable to happen.
Even the best theories are often proven wrong when trying to predict the outcome of a race as long, grueling and unpredictable as the Dakar Rally. Only the athletes out on the course know how they stack up against each other. But as a Rally-Raid competitor and Dakar Rally finisher myself, I do have some unique insights. And while I won’t be racing in the Dakar Rally 2017, I am in South America enjoying the race from the cheap seats on the sidelines as a fan.
Setting the Stage for Dakar Rally 2017
Last year was Marc Coma’s first year as competition director, and his job became harder when Chile pulled out of hosting the race late in the year. Some competitors I have spoken with felt the 2016 course was too fast, and that navigation was too easy. Several stages were cancelled after the leaders (in some cases, less than 10 people) had already finished on the basis that the organization could not provide sufficient safety support to the remainder of the field. Even if timing is nullified back to the last common point, this isn’t fair for anyone. It will be interesting to see if the organization changes the balance of the course for 2017.
As for the riders, the race always unfolds with unforeseeable twists and turns. Early leaders have trouble, and raw speed is important but only in relation to consistency — the race is so long, that a racer who takes too many chances will almost always get caught out by one of them. At different times, the race will be both incredibly hot and freezing cold, at low elevation and high, wet and dusty — every condition requires the right preparation and those who have not done the homework will pay.
While I won’t go as far as predicting finishing positions in this year’s rally, I will say there are 10 riders with a chance to get on the podium and one that is favored to take the top step. Here is my assessment for the top 10 strongest contenders for the Dakar Rally 2017 podium, in no specific order:
Paulo Goncalves (#17)
2016 Finishing Position: DNF @ Stage 11
Home Country: Portugal
Paulo was leading the race last year until the rest day, and was pushing hard when he fell. He continued with broken ribs, but crashed again and was knocked out and eventually abandoned the race. He was pushing hard because he had to, so the question for Paulo is less about his strategy or ability to be consistent, and more about whether he has the pace to stay with the young riders without overextending himself. We won’t know until the second week.
Matthias Walkner (#16)
2016 Finishing Position: DNF @ Stage 7
Home Country: Austria
A former MXGP world champion, Matthias is very fast and a favorite of the KTM brass. Last year he crashed heavily on Stage 7 and broke his femur, but he was in podium position prior to that and clearly has the speed. He won a stage in the Morocco rally this year starting from the front, so if he can avoid injury he may be a threat for the win.
Sam Sunderland (#14)
2016 Finishing Position: N/A
Home Country: United Kingdom
Sam may be the most talented rally-raid rider on the grid to have never finished the Dakar Rally. With wins in the Merzouga Rally and OiLibya Rally to his credit, he’s shown he has the speed against some of the best in the world. But he hasn’t shown consistency. The Brit has had a string of bad luck, with both injury and machinery to blame, but eventually, one questions how much luck is made.
Joan Barreda Bort (#11)
2016 Finishing Position: DNF @ Stage 7
Home Country: Spain
JBB has won more stages in recent years than anyone, but never been able to put together a podium finish. He rides close to the edge, so between crashes and broken bikes, he can’t seem to translate speed into finishing results. Honda has supported him heavily, with team tactics that put more consistent riders at his service, but this year the Honda team is under new management. It will be interesting to see if he can continue to show his trademark speed without his trademark mistakes.
Ricky Brabec (#9)
2016 Finishing Position: 9
Home Country: United States
Brabec is the sole American rider, and he is coming off a great year of competition. He won the National Hare and Hound series, and he raced a few other world championship rallies with solid results, so he is getting the navigation game down. He will be expected to support the HRC team this year, so tactics may prevent him from finishing as high as he might, but his consistency means he will be a threat for the top 5.
Adrien Van Beveren (#6)
2016 Finishing Position: 6
Home Country: France
Adrien is a young rider who has specialized in European sand races. Last year was his first Dakar and he finished sixth — he is very fast, and also very smart. I think he stands a good chance of moving up the pack this year — he appears to be taking his time to learn the race, and he will be more prepared this year.
Helder Rodrigues (#5)
2016 Finishing Position: 5
Home Country: Portugal
He has been at the sharp end for many years, and will take whatever opportunity comes along, without ever going beyond the edge. For Helder to win, something has to go wrong for others, but something always goes wrong for others.
Pablo Quintanilla (#3)
2016 Finishing Position: 3
Home Country: Chile
He’s the most hometown of the lead pack, the Chilean was crowned 2016 World Champion in Cross Country rallies. He has not shown dominant speed at Dakar, and failed to finish his first two attempts, but last year he was there when it counted at the end.
Stefan Svitko (#2)
2016 Finishing Position: 2
Home Country: Slovakia
The Slovak has been very consistent over the last few years, and has even won a couple of stages, but he has never demonstrated dominant speed nor won from the front, while navigating. However, he will be there to advance when other riders overreach, and that is the essence of this race.
Toby Price (#1)
2016 Finishing Position: 1
Home Country: Australia
The 1st place winner of last year’s rally has to be seen as the strong favorite to repeat this year. He is smart, fast and tough, and he recognizes the long game in the race. Last year, he won 5 stages, but even when he wasn’t leading the overall of the race, it always appeared he was riding well within himself, pushing his competition to make a mistake and hand him the lead. In the end, that’s exactly what happened. Also of note: He won consecutive stages, meaning that he made first tracks faster than anyone else could follow him, which is very impressive indeed.
Malles Moto Class
One of my favorite aspects of the Dakar Rally is that the challenge of finishing the race legitimizes competitors at all levels. This race is about more than just winning, it is a way of life for many competitors. The most challenging way to do the race is a category called Malles Moto, which means no support from a team, the rider must work on their own bike, and they have only a single small box for spare parts (and camping gear) from which to operate. There are two riders, I’m proud to call friends, that you should definitely keep an eye on in the Malles Moto class this year.
The first is Lyndon Poskitt (#100), who has been riding around the world and racing rallies along the way for the last 2.5 years. He has been documenting his progress on YouTube with the “Races to Places” series, and he rode TO this year’s Dakar along his touring route. Doesn’t get much more hardcore than riding to the start of the worlds longest motorcycle race!
Manuel Lucchese (#54) is an Italian friend who epitomizes the resourcefulness needed for Dakar. In past years, he has started Dakar without a plane ticket home after the race, and without a second set of tires. This year, he is racing as a Qatari after the Italian federation denied him a start license. He has been rescued by ranchers, internet groups, and strippers — no matter what the challenge, Manny will find a way.
Every single person that competes in Dakar has an unbelievable story to tell, not only from the race itself but from the sacrifices required to get there. The danger that is central to the race makes a fascinating dynamic between competitors — people want to win, but they also care about the well-being of their fellow competitors, because everyone recognizes how serious this business is. The challenge of the terrain is so much that as fans, we can cheer for everyone to finish, and for our favorites to win.
Check out our Mid-Way Point Update for Dakar 2017