The 2014 edition of the Dakar Rally was billed at the outset as longer, harder and tougher. The first half of this annual motorsports test of strength for both man and machine have lived up to its reputation in every way.
As riders and teams settled into Salta in Argentina’s Andean foothills for the one day of respite in this 9,000 km epic, it was time to gather strength and assess what has been a very tough and eventful first half.
For the Red Bull KTM Factory team, bidding for its thirteenth Dakar title this year, it has been mixed fortunes so far. Three-time Dakar winner Marc Coma has performed to his usual high standard and leads at the half way mark by an impressive 42.17 minutes.
Team Manager Alex Doringer: “The first week was really very difficult. The Dakar is going back to its roots. The rally was very difficult in the past. Last year it was a little bit easier but this year it’s very rough, very dangerous and difficult for the riders and the bikes. Finally we’re happy to arrive at the rest day with Marc in a good lead.”
Although there are often team activities and sponsor obligations on the only day off the bike, Coma said it was very important to get some rest. “We should not forget that the goal is to rest. But there is always the routine: talking to the mechanics, testing the bike if necessary, and mainly preparing the equipment for the final week, which for us is the decisive one.”
At the half way point, Coma’s Factory teammate Jordi Viladoms is well placed at overall fourth and the two remaining KTM-supported riders, Kuba Przygonski of Poland and South Africa’s Riaan van Niekerk continue to improve positions and are currently seventh and fourteenth overall.
Looking back on the first week, the team took an early blow in Tuesday’s Stage Three when Ruben Faria, second in the 2013 edition, crashed out and was forced to retire. On Wednesday KTM-supported rider Ben Grabham of Australia clipped a rock on the top of a mountain while riding in dust and crashed, together with his bike – in his own words “close to 100 meters down the mountain”.
Then factory rider Chaleco Lopez, overall third last year, also crashed on Friday and had to retire, a big disappointment for the Chilean who the team hoped would be riding to the line in Valparaiso as a top finisher. While none of the three riders were able to continue, they did not sustain any serious injuries.
Team Manager Alex Doringer on Chaleco’s high-speed crash: “His accident happened in a canyon and although his Dakar is over, things could have been worse. I think the biggest blow for him will be mentally because these guys train all year for this race. For Chaleco not to be able to ride into Chile at this Dakar will hurt him a lot.”
Other leading teams and riders have also had their share of mixed fortunes as the original field of 196 starters had been reduced to just 94 at the start of Friday’s Stage Six. At the half way mark, there are nine KTM riders in the top 20 of the overall standings.
Looking ahead to the second week, Doringer said the team’s first priority was getting through the second marathon stage, where bikes enter Bolivia for the first time on Sunday and cannot have any outside mechanical help until Monday night.
Alex Doringer: “Bolivia will be tricky. There will be a lot of navigation, it will be very technical, its new for everyone and on top of all that it is also the a marathon stage. It is going to be very difficult and a new experience for everyone.
“First we need to think about the marathon stage, which is again a key, and after that we’ll think about the next stages. We’ll work on a good strategy and use the gap of Marc to make it safe for him. We’ll work day by day as we always do, and we’ll see what comes out at the end.”
The Red Bull KTM Factory team is competing on the brand new KTM 450 RALLY bike, which had its first real test under race conditions at the Morocco Rally in October.
Overall Standings at the half way mark
1, Marc Coma, ESP, Red Bull KTM 23 hours 08.00 (Stage results: 2-9-3-3-1-2)
2, Joan Barreda, ESP, Honda at 42.17
3, Alain Duclos, FRA, Sherco at 1:00:58
4, Jordi Villadoms, ESP, Red Bull KTM at 1:08.09 (Stage Results: 14-11-11-11-2-9)
5, Esquerre, CHI, Speedbrain at 1:33.28
7, Jakub Przygonski, POL, KTM-supported rider at 1:49.59 (Stage Results: 20-13-9-13-19-8)
9, David Casteu, FRA, KTM at 2:12.05
12, Stefan Svitko, SVK, KTM at 2:36.44
14, Riaan van Niekerk, ZAF, KTM –supported rider at 3:23.07 (Stage Results: 27-19-13-69-4-13)
15, Ivan Jakes, SVK, KTM at 3:24.04