When riders set out at Mar Del Plata on the Atlantic coast of Argentina on January 1 there were 178 in the start list of Dakar 2012. Now in Copiapo, Chile for the one rest day of the 2012 rally after nearly 4500 km the 33rd edition of the world toughest motor sports event it has again evolved into the tale of two riders: Cyril Despres and Marc Coma of the KTM factory team.
French rider Despres is in the overall lead with a cushion of almost eight minutes on teammate Marc Coma of Spain. But that is only half of the story. Third placed Helder Rodrigues of Portugal is almost 50 minutes behind Despres and that will be very difficult to overcome. Both KTM riders are attempting to win their third Dakar title and KTM, the Austrian sports bike specialist is looking at a potential eleventh consecutive title. KTM’s riders have one every edition since 2001, except in 2008 when the rally was cancelled on the eve of departure from Lisbon following security threats in North Africa. KTM also overcame a surprise change of engine size imposed by the rally organizers that reduced allowable engine size down to 450 cc. This was a move that was largely viewed as an effort to break the company’s stranglehold on the bike category.
In 2012, organizers introduced a regulation that a change of engine incurs a penalty of 15 minutes. This raised the issue amongst rally observers as to whether, given the substantial lead by Despres and Coma, whether the factory team would fit new engines to their KTM 450 factory bikes at the half way mark. Team Manager of the KTM Factory Team said on Saturday that this would not happen. “There will be no new engines for Cyril’s and Marc’s bikes in the rest day,” he confirmed from the bivouac in Copiapo.
Indeed the factory bikes of the two key KTM riders, and those of their support riders Rubin Faria and Joan Pedrero and the 450 Rally Replica bikes of KTM’s 2012 rookies: Frenchman Johnny Aubert of the Enduro Factory Team; Chris Birch of New Zealand who competes in Extreme Enduro events for KTM; Moh Balooshi, the first Arab rider to contest the Dakar and supported by KTM UAE and Felipe Zanol who challenged Cyril Despres in the 2012 Dos Sertoes Rally in Brazil, who is supported by KTM Brazil are all on track to finish the rally.
Looking ahead, riders have another 3,795 km including around 1,500 of timed special stages before they reach the finish in Lima. While they still have much hard territory in Chile to negotiate, they will break new ground on January 11 when they enter the coastal desert of Peru, the third country to be integrated into the South American Dakar.
It is clear that the focus will be on Despres and Coma in the coming days and the race to the finish line has a lot at stake for both riders. Despres, with two stage wins to his credit so far will be doing what he can to retain his lead. Coma, who has won three stages, will be doing whatever is needed to erode that same lead. As Stage Seven indicated, the two riders are so equally matched that they can finish a 420 km timed special no less than two minutes apart. On the other hand, both riders have had the bitter experience in past African Dakar Rallies of seemingly having victory in their hands in the finals stages, only to see it disappear and go to their rival. The Dakar 2012 is still very much open.
Cyril Despres was relaxed going into the second half of Dakar 2012: “Now we are at the bivouac where we will stay for tomorrow’s rest day. The idea is to take it easy and recharge your batteries ready for the second week of racing. It will also be a chance for me to go through my bags, sort out my stuff, talk to my team… If everything goes according to plan I might even squeeze in a siesta.”
Marc Coma at the half way mark was still positive about his chances to make up the deficit. “We arrive at the halfway point with options, nearly eight minutes behind Cyril (Despres), a difference that is not impossible to recover. It’s true that it will be difficult, but considering how many kilometers are left, seeing the race left, I am an optimist and today’s stage (Stage Seven) helped me a lot psychologically”.
Overall positions of key KTM riders at the half way mark (does not include KTM privateer riders)
1, Cyril Despres, France, KTM 18 hours 12 minutes 38 seconds (2 stage victories)
2, Marc Coma, Spain, KTM at 7 minutes 48 seconds (3 stage victories)
10, Joan Pedrero, Spain, KTM (support rider for Marc Coma) at 1: 23:48 (15 minutes penalty 51)
15, Rubin Faria, Portugal, KTM (support rider for Cyril Despres at 2:00:39 seconds (40 minutes penalty)
16, Felipe Zanol, Brazil, KTM Brazil at 2: 13:40
24, Johnny Aubert, France, KTM at 2:48: 09
41, Chris Birch, New Zealand, KTM at 5:19:08
53, Moh Balooshi, UAE, KTM UAE at 6:28:50