PHOTO CREDIT: Red Bull Content Pool.
Written By: Franco Theron - NamWheels
The 2021 Dakar Rally is now at its midway point and much can already be taken from the first week of racing. In both the motorbike- and car categories, the fight is extremely tight.
Honda, Yamaha, and KTM seem to be inseparable with the top 5 times overall after every stage, being within seconds from one another. While Yamaha is still to win a stage in this year’s Dakar, it is Ross Branch and Andrien van Beveren, who can be said to be the most consistent of all the current top riders.
In the car category, the X-Raid Mini’s seemed to play a very strategic game early on, but Toyota fought back with an even better approach. After stage 4, the lead between the Mini of Stephane Peterhansel (Mini) and Nasser Al-Attiyah (Toyota) was a mere 5 minutes.
Stating that the marathon stages, leading up to-and continuing after the rest day, would be the stages to attack, Al-Attiyah knew well that these stages were two of the most technical and demanding of the edition.
Leading up to the rest day, this is how the motorbike and car categories got on.
Honda going strong
Stage 4 winner, Joan Barreda Bort (Honda) started the stage first and evidently did not hold back. Having taken his 27th Dakar victory, the Spaniard was keen on climbing his way back into the overall contention. So to was his teammates, Kevin Benavides and Jose Ignacio Cornejo Florimo. Yet, by the second checkpoint, Barreda Bort seemed to have lost a chunk of time to the stage leaders’ duo to a navigational error. Similarly, the Yamaha of Van Beveren fell into the same error.
For most of the stage, the Honda’s of Cornejo Florimo and Benavides led the stage, with overall contender, Xavier de Soultrait (Husqvarna) threatening the leading times.
Benavides did, however, take the stage lead from his teammate during the end of the stage, with Barreda Bort seemingly losing more time as the stage progressed. In the end, Benavides won the stage ahead of Cornejo Florimo to make it another Honda 1-2 stage win.
Ultimately, this also propelled Benavides into the overall lead, ahead of de Soultrait.
Signing for the Monster Energy Yamaha Rally team after two highly successful first years in the race, Ross Branch proves to once again be the ever consistent, smiling rider.
Even more importantly, the Botswanian has remained within or close to the top 5 overall positions, even though the leaders around him are trading positions constantly. Whilst Yamaha has already seen one retirement early on, Branch proves to be the leading Yamaha rider: besting even his highly experienced teammate, van Beveren.
This can mainly be attributed to a cautious approach and one without too many navigational errors.
Branch is also now positioned as the sole Yamaha in the top 10 and with a shot at overall victory. A mere 8:24 behind de Soultrait and 6:18 behind Cornejo Florimo, Branch is perfectly positioned to attack on Saturday. However, Kevin Benavides on the Honda seems to have found his rhythm and is now almost 11 minutes ahead.
Toyota vs Mini
Just before the start of stage 5, Peterhansel was handed a one-minute penalty for unknown reasons. This would bring the leading two competitors of Peterhansel and Nasser Al-Attiyah to within four minutes.
Opening the stage for a third time in succession, Al-Attiyah lost time to Peterhansel at the start, but quickly gained on the Frenchman to trail him by a mere 23 seconds at the 155km mark. However, by the next 197km mark, this gap grew by two minutes.
Peterhansel reached the finish to put almost 3 more minutes into his lead over Al-Attiyah. Yet, this was not quick enough to win the stage, meaning that he will not open the road on Saturday, but rather the Toyota of de Villiers.
Will Toyota play a tactical game with Peterhansel, come Saturday?
South-Africans flying the flag high
It was a win-lose situation for Toyota and South-Africa. While bad news came through for Lategan, Giniel de Villiers managed to take stage honours today, recording the fastest time at every checkpoint.
Erik van Loon (Overdrive Toyota) was hot on his heels, until Brian Baragwanath (Century Racing) and Martin Prokop (Benzina Orlen) took over the contention for second on stage.
Baragwanath looked set to make it a first stage win, until de Villiers once again bested his finishing time by a full 5:45 minutes, with Prokop finishing in third.
It would therefore be a good day for South Africans as it would record a 1-2 stage finish.
Sainz unable to defend his 2020 title?
As of 2020, a three-time Dakar winner, the multiple World Rally Champion, Carlos Sainz, seems to be unable to repeat success at this years’ edition. The Spaniard lost half an hour to the leading pair of Peterhansel and Al-Attiyah on stage 3, when he made a navigational error and again lost considerable time on the fifth stage.
Racing through the first checkpoint at 43km, he already lost 28:40 minutes to the stage leader, Giniel de Villiers (Toyota Gazoo Racing) and more importantly, around 20 minutes to his two overall contenders.
Magical rookie Lategan
Henk Lategan (Toyota Gazoo Racing) already proved his worth in only his first year of Dakar racing. The two-time South-African cross-country driver and former rally-ace not only challenged his much more experienced teammates in the third and fourth stage, but managed to finish stage 3 in second position, whilst just being pipped by Peterhansel in the following stage to end in third.
Starting third on stage 5, the same navigational headache as for Sainz and Sebastien Loeb (BRX) seemed to haunt the young South-African. Soon thereafter, news came through that the Lategan and his co-driver were taken to the start of the stage again for medical treatment as they rolled their Hilux in the stage.
This is a huge blow to the race as Lategan’s form started to rival stage winning times. Would he have raced on, the South African would have certainly ended the race as the top rookie?
Certainly, a big learning curve, may this be a future Dakar winner in the making?