Written By: Franco Theron - NamWheels
Motorsport enthusiasts could again sigh in relief as the 2021- and second Saudi-based Dakar Rally got underway today with the Prologue. Not relevant to the end result itself, the prologue saw competitors test themselves against one another as well as position themselves for the road order of the first official stage on 3 January 2021.
With the 2021 edition seeing multiple regulation changes in both the motorbike and car categories, competitors and teams are already hinting towards tactical warfare.
Yet, Southern-Africans already have reason to smile…
With tyre regulations being changed and limited in a bid to ensure safer and slower riding, the motorbike competitors will now be more hesitant to go full-throttle throughout the whole of every stage.
Neither the less, 2020 Dakar victor and the first person to break the dominance of the Red Bull KTM team, Ricky Brabec held nothing back. Storming into the Jeddah-based prologue, the American recorded the fastest time; six seconds faster than his Monster Energy Honda teammate, Joan Barreda Bort.
Ross Branch, also known as the Kalahari Ferrari, who joined the Monster Energy Yamaha squad for 2021, recorded the fourth-fastest time, some 14 seconds behind Brabec. The Botswanian is highly pipped to take at least one stage victory, if not challenging for overall victory.
The car category flamed up with news that new FIA Cross Country regulations have imposed speed restrictions on the T1 and T2 classes in a bid to cater for a more level playing field. Toyota, X-Raid and Prodrive competitors will therefore be allowed to race at 180km/h, while T3, T4, and T5 competitors will be allowed to race at 130km/h.
While three-time and 2020 winner, Carlos Sainz Snr (X-Raid Mini) hinted the overall fight to be between the X-raid Mini’s and the Toyota’s. Glyn Hall, Team Principal of Toyota GAZOO Racing South Africa welcomed these terms; stating that his team will now have a better opportunity to keep the Mini’s within their reach.
While the buggies of the Prodrive BRX’s and X-Raid Mini’s may only be two-wheel-drive, compared to the four-wheel-drive Toyota’s, the buggies do tend to have a speed and power advantage.
Accordingly, one of the 2021 favourites, Nasser Al-Attiyah (Toyota) took to the prologue today, recording the fastest time. However, the time was soon matched by the new South-African pairing of Brian Baragwanath and Taye Perry (Century Racing).
While this means that Al-Attiyah will open the tracks, the X-Raid Mini’s of Stephane Peterhansel crossed the finish line in 14th place, while Sainz recorded the 28th fastest time. Yet, the latter stated to have had a puncture.
Was this strategic or does Toyota’s new-found trust in their tyre capabilities prove to be the determining factor for 2021? Or are the X-Raid team playing tactical motorsport chess, knowing that Al-Attiyah would now have to open the road?
At the time of typing, the stage times were so extremely close, that all of the top 42 competitors, crossed the finish line within one minute from another.
Henk Lategan, in his first Dakar, recorded the seventh fastest time, while Giniel de Villiers came in 20th.
Sebastien Loeb, in the new Prodrive, built BRX Hunter also recorded the 11th fastest time, with team-mate, Nani Roma coming in 15th.
While it is still early days, tactics already seem to be the order of the day. Not much could be said about performance, as all teams are still cautiously finding their… wheels, whilst not giving away too much to their competitors.
However, with the 277km stage from Jeddah to Bisha now within reach, we can be certain of a highly competitive 12 stages.