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ADV NewsDakar Rally 2021: Riders With The Strongest Chance To Win

Dakar Rally 2021: Riders With The Strongest Chance To Win

Ex-Dakar Racer Ned Suesse gives us his top picks for the Dakar Rally 2021 win.

Published on 01.01.2021
When the Dakar kicks off in Saudi Arabia on January 3, it will be a welcome start to the New Year. Not much more needs to be said about 2020!

Looking forward, there are several rule changes this year that will have a big impact on the racers.

First and foremost, the roadbook will be distributed each morning at the start (instead of the night before). This eliminates the possibility that teams can deconstruct the roadbook and add more information than the organization planned. This practice had gotten rampant, and led to a real advantage for factory teams vs. privateers. I’ve spoken with several racers about this and the consensus is that getting roadbooks in the morning is great – it levels the playing field and saves a lot of time in the evening.

Second, there is a limit on rear tires, and on any service in neutralized sections. The goal makes sense – to keep factory riders from getting a huge advantage based on additional tires and repairs, but the rule in practice is problematic. One concern is that racers may be tempting fate on tires that are dangerous, and another is that a racer can’t so much as tighten a bolt on their bike in a gas stop, which has always been a chance to do a safety check.


Third, racers are all required to wear airbag vests. These inflate when they sense a crash, creating an additional layer of safety. The reviews from people who have tried them are mixed – definitely helpful in a getoff when they work as intended, but they have occasional mistaken inflations which can be a problem. As with everything, the goal is well intended and the technology will no doubt catch up.

Another storyline in the 2021 Dakar is that after 18 straight wins, KTM lost the title to Honda last year. They will be anxious to get back the title, just as Honda will be determined not to relinquish it. The battle between manufacturers is great for the sport in my opinion, as it justifies investment of energy and money to claim the top spot. We all benefit as race fans!

Dakar Rally 2021

The logistics of the race are fascinating in any year as support resources try to keep up with fast moving racers. A literal village of people, from mechanics to kitchen staff, must move cross- country quickly and reconvene every night. In a normal year, everyone refers to the Dakar bubble, and obviously this year with the Covid pandemic, that word takes on additional meaning. The race is taking great pains to test everyone repeatedly before they are able to enter the bivouac, and to limit contact with the outside once there. Time will tell if the approach is effective or has an impact on the outcome of the race.  Any symptoms (or obviously, a positive test) will exclude not only the participant but anyone they have been close to (for example, shared a camper with). For that reason, many teams have changed their camping arrangements to limit exposure between racers. 

Top Contenders For the Win

Enough about that, let’s focus on the riders. Every year, there are a few categories of riders pursuing the dream. Let’s start with those who have the best chance of winning:

Ricky Brabec #1 (USA, Honda) 

Dakar Rally 2021 Ricky Brabec

Ricky made history in 2020 by being the first American to ever win the Rally, while also ending Honda’s 31 year-long drought on the top step of the podium at Dakar. Ricky was in a great position in 2019 before his motor let go. Last year, he controlled the race perfectly – winning only two stages enroute to the overall victory, which I see as a testament to good racecraft. He is strong where it is tough and technical, and they have promised a more technical course this year, so that is good news for him. Ricky has a positive mindset, a great bike, and he is in the best shape of his career, so he has stacked the odds in his favor. Anything can happen (and usually does) but I see him staying near the front.

Toby Price #3 (AUS, KTM)

Dakar Rally 2021 Toby Price

What is there to say about Toby that hasn’t been said? He’s a warrior, he knows the game inside and out, and he is on a great bike supported by a great team. He won in 2019 on a broken wrist, he has never finished off the podium and I predict the same for him this year.

Matthias Walkner #52 (AUT, KTM)

Dakar Rally 2021 Matthias Walkner

Walkner won in 2018 and has both speed and strategy on his side. He will be in the front pack and if things fall his way, he can certainly win again. To me Walkner is the thinking man’s racer – he is more calculated than some of his teammates and that can be a shortcoming or an asset depending on the situation.

Others With A Lucky Chance

Following them is a pack of riders who are incredible athletes, but from whom a win would be more surprising. Given that everyone above this paragraph was below it a few years back, that’s no knock, just a recognition of what has happened in the past. As they say, the past isn’t a great predictor of the future, it’s just the best we have. 

Pablo Quintanilla #2 (CHL, Husqvarna)

Dakar Rally 2021 Pablo Quintanilla

Pablo has won stages and been a consistent contender, but at the same time, he has never been outright quickest. He will stay up front through determination and skill, but I think things have to go wrong for others for him to take the top step of the podium.

Joan Barreda Bort #88 (ESP, Honda)

Dakar Rally 2021 Joan Barreda Bort

For all of his many stage victories, JBB doesn’t have the win many thought was almost inevitable. Winning the Dakar takes an incredible combination of strategy and timing combined with brute force speed, and while he has always had the latter, he has never hit the former quite right. He is not my pick for the eventual podium, but I will be surprised if he doesn’t win a stage, and there is no one else I would say that about.

Sam Sunderland #5 (GBR, KTM)

Dakar Rally 2021 Sam Sunderland

Sam is lightning quick in the sand, and if the route features a lot of dunes, he will be a threat. After winning in 2017, he finished third once but abandoned twice, so consistency is not his strength. If things fall his way, he has the skill and the speed to win.

Andrew Short #7 (USA, Yamaha)

Dakar Rally 2021 Andrew Short

After the last Dakar, Andrew switched from Husqvarna to  Yamaha and he is really pleased with his new bike. His physical condition is excellent, he has done well at other events that use the standardized roadbook, and he has been working with the same approach to navigation and training as Ricky. Andrew is a thoughtful racer, which may work against him on the fast days but to his advantage on the technical ones. Of all the racers, he is the finest sportsman I have met and I’ll be cheering for him no matter what! 

Others in this category include Adrien Van Beveren, Kevin and his brother Luciano Benavides, Jose Ignacio Cornejo Florimo, and Xavier De Soultrait. Each of these riders is absolutely capable of the lead pace, but has not demonstrated the consistency and ability to lead out and maintain a gap. Between them, they will take stage wins and have moments of glory, and most likely one of them will wind up on the eventual podium.

Riders To Watch

Finally, my experience in racing has been that success can be defined by exceeding expectations. Below are a few riders who aren’t expected to win, but will be great to cheer for as they look to take on the biggest motorsport event in the world.

Skyler Howes #9 (USA, KTM)

Dakar Rally 2021 Skyler Howes

Another of my personal favorites, Skyler is unique in this crowd as someone who is paying his own way, even after a top 10 finish. Last year, he moved forward through consistency, but he got exposure to the front of the race and I think he learned from that. His equipment is better this year, and so is his fitness (last year he raced with only a few weeks of riding after a broken back). His attitude is grounded and determined. I will be rooting for him as I have personally witnessed the grit and commitment he has shown to take the start. We can be proud of our American field!

Daniel Sanders #21 (AUS, KTM)

Dakar Rally 2021 Daniel Sanders

Sanders is quite possibly the fastest guy in the world on an enduro bike – he overalled the last ISDE while winning almost every test. Rumors from his time on the KTM factory rally team are that he is incredibly fast on a Rally Bike, but there is more to the game than just raw speed. I won’t be surprised by a stage win, and I look to Daniel to be a factor for the overall in future years.

David Knight #101 (GBR, Husqvarna)

Dakar Rally 2021 David Knight

After an incredible enduro career that saw victories and championships at both a national and world level, Knighter has been looking for a new challenge. He has found it taking on the Dakar, and while I do not factor him for the overall win, I do think he will show pace and determination. If his past career is anything to go by, he will be a fan favorite.

What is missing this year are the journeymen privateer racers that we usually have to cheer for. This is always a difficult race to enter, and the drama and uncertainty of 2020 made that more true this year than ever. I know several people who were considering going soon, and I think they all decided to get the uncertainty of Covid19 in the rearview mirror before making the investment to get to the start line.

Finally, one cannot overstate how many chances there are for things to go wrong. Every day in the Dakar entails hundreds of roadbook notes. Any single one of them can change the outcome for a racer – making the right decision and leapfrogging forward, or making the wrong one and losing time that will be impossible to claw back. As the race begins to unfold, some of the fastest and best prepared will see their chances go up in smoke, but no one goes forward and stays there through luck.

Here is to a safe and exciting rally for everyone!

The 2020 Dakar Rally starts with a prologue on January 2nd and runs through the 15th with 12 stages of racing plus a rest day in between. You can watch daily highlights online on Red Bull TV starting January 2nd at 10:00 AM PST. NBCSN will have a daily recap of the action on television in the U.S. starting January 3rd at 4:30 PM PST. A list of TV Broadcasters can also be found on the Dakar Rally website.

Author: Ned Suesse

Ned is a Moto Journalist, Dakar Rally Finisher and the founder of DoubleTake Mirrors. He began riding off-road motorcycles shortly after college, which eventually developed into a desire to race. His competitive racing career has taken him from Mexico to Tunisia, Italy and all over the Americas. He finally reached his dream of racing the Dakar Rally in 2012 at the age of 35. Ned crossed the Finish Line 53rd out of the 188 participants, and was the only American to go all the way that year!

Author: Ned Suesse

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Riders to watch? How about Laia Sanz?


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