The route of the first edition of the Dakar in Saudi Arabia explores the vast expanses of the largest country in the Middle East. The drivers and crews would be facing a total of 7,500 km, including 5,000 km of special stages, five of them longer than 450 km. In a country where the desert is king, 75 percent of the rally would be over sand… all types of sand.
Starting from Jeddah, the route headed North to Al Wajh and Neom, then east to Al Ula and on to Ha’il before heading south to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital city on day 11 for a well-earned day of rest. Still to come was a further six days of pain and anguish for competitors before arriving at the finish line in Qiddiya.
Jeddah is home to 3.5 million people. As the second-largest city in the country it is also its economic heart thanks to its commercial port on the Red Sea, with its origins dating back to the 7th century.
The gateway to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina would also be a launch pad for the drivers, riders and crews of the Dakar, who gathered for four days of scrutineering before the start.
Competitors are split into different sections, with some of the route being vehicle specific to cater for the different abilities of bikes and quads, SSVs and trucks.
The numbers involved are amazing, with 158 bike riders, 28 quads, 92 autos including cars and utes, and 73 SSVs.
The distances are tremendous, made even more gruelling by the speeds involved with average distances over the 12 stages being as long as 886 km, of which 477 km were completed at full racing speed.
For PowerTorque readers we concentrate on the truck division, where stage 1 from Jeddah to Al Wajh was described as essentially a coastal course, but soon provided rocky sectors leading to punctures. But no report for our market would be complete without monitoring the incredible talent of Australian rider Toby Price who started with race number 1, following his win of the event in 2019.
Russian truck maker KAMAZ fielded one of the largest teams in the truck section and on the first stage it was Anton Shibalov that became the first leader to head the trucking contingent.
Shibalov in the Kamaz (516) ranked 1st with a time of 3 hours, 40 minutes and 35 seconds, ahead of Siarhei Viazovich in the MAZ-SportAuto (503) by 1 minute and 33 seconds. Third placed Janus Van Kasteren (505) in the Petronas Team de Rooy Iveco Powerstar led from Dimitry Sotnikov in the Kamaz, then fellow Czech countryman Martin Macik (504) again in a Powerstar, ahead of Martin Soltys in the Tatra (509).
Stage 2 ran with a 393 km special stage resulting in Viasovic (503) in the MAZ SportAuto taking first place, followed by Sotnikov (501) Kamaz, then Karginov (511) Kamaz, Macik (504) IVECO, Nikolaev (500) again in a Kamaz and followed by Shibalov in yet another Kamaz.
Stage 3 and with a special stage of 504 km it was Karginov (511) Kamaz, followed by Viazovich (503) MAZ, Shibalov (516) Kamaz, Richard De Groot (524), the PRAGA of Ales Loprais (502) in fifth spot and Vasilevski in the MAZ in sixth.
Stage 4 and the leader board changed once again. This time it was Shibalov in the lead (516) with Kamaz in the top three placings with Karginov and Sotnikov (511 and 501), ahead of the IVECO of Van Kasteren (505), Huzink (507) and Viazovich in the MAZ (503).
For Stage 5 Kamaz positions changed with Sotnikov leading from Shibalov and with Karginov in third, ahead of Viazovich and Loprais. Hino’s entry with the Hino Team Sugawara was running 12th a great effort by this manufacturer as the only Japanese truck maker in the event.
The Dakar 2020 makes all other motorsport events pale into insignificance, particularly that of Formula 1 where all too often the racing is processional and sudden changes of position are really only dependent on bad luck.
In the Dakar event the options for change in the leadership are so vast that they become unfathomable over the course of the day. Drivers, co-drivers and their mechanics have to consider every 100 metres of track, coping with sand dunes, rocks, incredibly steep drops and climbs, sandstorms, and of course the movement of other competitors in a variety of different vehicles.
By the close of Stage 6 and after having covered 830 kms, Karginov (511) in the Kamaz led Shibalov (516) again in a Kamaz from the MAZ of Viazovich (503) and Janus Van Kasteren in the IVECO. Sotnikov in the third Kamaz (501) had dropped to fifth position, ahead of Loprais in the Praga (502). Whilst we are concentrating on the first six place setters, it should be mentioned that the field of 44 trucks all kept up the pressure on the front runners.
After Stage 7 and 741 kms of high-speed competition, Karginov remained in the lead, followed by Sotnikov and Shibalov, making it a KAMAZ benefit match for the top three positions. The Praga of Loprais was running in 4th place, followed by the MAZ of Viazovich.
For Stage 8 Karginov remained in pole position, with Shibalov in second place, but with Loprais having moved into third place. The Kamaz of Sotnikov was in fourth position, followed by Viazovich in the MAZ and Sugawara in the Hino.
After having completed the 886 km of Stage 9, Karginov was in the lead, with Viazovich second, Loprais in the Praga third and Gert Huzink (507) in the Riwald Dakar Team truck fourth, ahead of Sotnikov (501).
The completion of Stage 10 and 608 kms resulted in Shibalov in first, ahead of Sotnikov with Huzink moving up to third and Karginov making do with fourth, ahead of another new name in this group, that of Patrice Garrouste (521), in the Fesh Fesh / R-Sixteam, followed by Macik in the Powerstar.
A further 744 km saw the end of Stage 11, with Karginov, Sotnikov and Shibalov leading the Kamaz procession ahead of Viazovich in the MAZ and Macik in the IVECO.
By the close of Stage 12, and having completed a further 429 km stage, the Russians looked like they had things in the bag, but in Dakar 2020 there is never room for complacency.
At the close of the 42nd Dakar event, 234 out of the 342 vehicles that started the rally in Jeddah (68.4 percent) appear in the final general classification: 96 motorbikes, 12 quads, 57 cars, 29 SSVs and 40 trucks. A further 22 vehicles withdrew from the race but reached Qiddiya under Dakar Experience rules (meaning they can continue but without final ranking).
In the truck division, coming from three consecutive victories, Eduard Nikolayev had looked every bit the big favourite to win. However, the defending champion was off the pace from the beginning and ended up withdrawing due to serious mechanical troubles with his Kamaz truck.
The Russian maker showed the depth of its team, starting with 2014 champion Andrey Karginov.
The 43-year-old Karginov bounced back from an uninspired performance in the opening stage to steal the show with seven stage wins and an infernal pace that left his rivals —and teammates— in the dust, to the point that runner-up Anton Shibalov finished over 42 minutes behind the leader in Qiddiya despite taking three stage wins along the way. Meanwhile, Siarhei Viazovich ended up over two hours back after his strong early performances.
The final result saw Karginov remain in the lead, ahead of Shibalov (KAMAZ) and Viazovich (MAZ), Sotnikov (KAMAZ) and Martin Macik in the IVECO Powerstar in fifth, Janus Van Kasteren in the Petronas Team De Rooy IVECO in sixth place.
Hino Team Sugawara (512), one of four entries in the under 10-litre class and driven by Teruhito Sugawara, finished a highly creditable 10th position.
Bikes, Quads and SSVs
A pause here for the bike fans to catch up with the brilliance of Australian rider Toby Price, who, as one spectator summarised, seems to have the ability to grasp the details of understanding the terrain and formulate his plans in split seconds where others take minutes.
Starting Stage 1 and finishing in 1st position after 752km, Toby Price and the Red Bull KTM factory team were followed over the finish line by American Ricky Brabec. At the close of Stage 2, Price had dropped to ninth position, behind Brabec in fifth and with Sam Sunderland riding a KTM in pole position.
Stage 3 and after 504 kms Price had moved back up to sixth position, while Brabec had taken the lead. The next stage saw Price completing a further 672 kms to finish in fourth place, with Brabec leading for the Monster Energy Honda Team 2020, with teammate and second place rider Kevin Benavides.
Stage 5 covered 564 kms and by the finish line Price was back in second place behind Brabec. By the end of Stage 6 after 830 kms Brabec still held the lead and Price had reached third place.
A new dawn and a new day for Stage 7 resulted in Price finishing 741 km to score fourth place, with Brabec still leading ahead of Quintanilla and Florimo.
Stage 8 was cancelled for motorbikes and quads due to the tragic fatal accident of Paulo Goncalvese during Stage 7. Paulo, a beloved figure of the rally, was immensely respected by both veterans and less experienced competitors who admired, and were inspired, by him.
After meeting the riders and making a decision together with the entire motorbike family, the organisers decided to cancel stage 8 for the motorbikes and quads category, which was supposed to take place on a loop course around Wadi Al-Dawasir, in order to give the riders time to pay tribute to their friend.
Stage 9 saw Toby Price move back into third slot behind P Quintanilla and race leader Brabec, ahead of J. Barreda Bort in fourth, completing the 886 km total distance.
Brabec maintained his number one slot for Stage 10, with Quintanilla retaining second place, Barreda Bort in third and Toby Price in fourth. Fellow Australian Rodney Faggotter moved up to 13th.
For Stage 11 Quintanilla riding for Rockstar Energy Husqvarna held onto second place behind Brabec, with Price in third and Walkner in fourth riding for Red Bull KTM.
The final stage 12 saw Brabec first and with Toby Price third, with Quintanilla between them, Florimo in fourth and Walkner in fifth and L. Benavides sixth. The next placed Australian was Rodney Faggotter placing #13th, with Phillip Wilson at #53, Ben Young at #58 and privateer Trevor Wilson #76 and Matthew Tisdall #96.
With the final points tally completed it was Ricky Brabec and his Honda 450 CRF that made history in Qiddiya as the winner of the 42nd Dakar event. No American had ever won the greatest rally raid on Earth before and it had been 31 years since the world’s leading maker had last won the Dakar.
The Californian had moved into the lead after the third special and adroitly defended his advantage throughout the remaining stages. In contrast with last year, when his motorbike let him down with three stages to go, this time it worked like clockwork all the way to the finish line.
It is a well-deserved reward for a biker who always tackled the race head-on, but also for Honda, which reaped the fruits of its patience since its official return to the Dakar in 2013, ending KTM’s 18-win record dating back to 2001.
No-one else was more aggressive than Pablo Quintanilla behind Brabec. The Chilean biker rode his Husqvarna to a rock-solid second place after taking a year to recover from the injuries sustained during the last Dakar held in Peru. 2019 champion Toby Price took the bottom step of the podium. Finally, Romanian Emanuel Gyenes claimed victory in the Original by Motul class with more than an hour to spare over Benjamin Melot.
In 2016, as a member of the factory KTM team, Toby Price had become the first Australian, in all categories, to win the Dakar in just his second attempt. He rides a KTM 450.
Fellow Australian riders were Rodney Faggotter, a Yamaha dealer from Longreach with the Yamaha Australia Team was riding a Yamaha WR450F, Ben Young, the owner of a construction company who rode for Duust Rally Team on a KTM 450 Rally Replica, Phillip Wilson, a military flying instructor riding for the BAS Dakar KTM Racing Team on a KTM Rally Replica 450 and private entrant Trevor Wilson, a school teacher in Brisbane who rode a Husqvarna FR450 Rally.
Ignacio Casale, a two-time winner of the rally, stamped his authority on the quad race from the get-go. The Chilean dominated the general classification from start to finish and faced no real opposition despite the best efforts of two-time stage winner Simon Vitse and fellow Chilean Enrico Giovanni, who was forced to withdraw in Stage 6.
Casale managed four stage wins and an insane level of consistency, only finishing once outside the top four. The 45 minutes wasted searching for a waypoint during stage 10 were the only bump in the road for the Chilean, who has now drawn level with Marcos Patronelli as a three-time Dakar champion in the quad category.
In the car category it was the veterans that maintained their iron grip on the Dakar, a race in which experience reigns supreme. It is something that neither Fernando Alonso, whose auspicious performances were still far from those of his older countryman, nor Yazeed Al-Rajhi, who continued to move up the learning curve with a career-best fourth place on home turf, can deny. The three men on the winner’s podium have a combined total of 50 Dakar starts and 14 wins in the car category.
An intimate knowledge of the region and the reliability of a Toyota Hilux that has shown what it was capable of benefitted Nasser Al-Attiyah, but it was Carlos Sainz and his Mini buggy who never deviated an inch from the road to success, seizing the lead after stage 3 and then on the rest day. From then on, he was only ever in real trouble in stage 8, when he lost time to his closest rivals, but he managed to fend off their onslaught all the way to Qiddiya.
The SSV category is a growing rapidly in appeal. At the start of the race American Casey Currie was just one among several men to watch. Currie held back until the second week before upping the ante, leaving the spotlight to more seasoned competitors such as defending champion “Chaleco” López (2 stage wins), 2018 winner Reinaldo Varela (2), 2019 runner-up Gerard Farrés (2) and five-time motorbike champion Cyril Despres (1), as well as the up-and-coming Blade Hildebrand (2), Mitchell Guthrie (2) and Aron Domżała (1).
As numerous as the stage winners were, each and every one of them had at least one bad day that dashed their hopes of winning the Dakar outright. Currie, on the other hand, remained consistent throughout the rally to claim his first Dakar in what was only his second start at the wheel of his Can-Am, beating Sergey Karyakin, who is also going home without a stage win but was happy to finish on the podium after his triumph in the quad category in 2017.
Photography by F.Gooden, F. Le Floch, E.Vargiolu, F. Flamand and C. Lopez