JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia, Jan 2 – The Dakar Rally kicks off on Saturday in Saudi Arabia, the second time the world’s most gruelling event in motorsport’s calendar has been held in the kingdom amid continued accusations of “sportswashing”.
Launched in 1979 between Paris and the Senegalese capital Dakar, the celebrated endurance challenge moved to Saudi Arabia for the first time last year after a decade in South America, sparking angry reaction from human rights organisations.
Dakar Rally organisers defended their choice of Saudi Arabia as hosts.
As part of its “2030 vision” to increase its openness, the country has recently held high-profile football and boxing matches and will also hold its first Formula One grand prix in 2021.
Among the drivers, however, “sportswashing” — using sport to divert attention away from human rights issues — was not on the agenda.
Defending champion Carlos Sainz summed up the general mood of relief in being able to actually race after a season ruined by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m happy to be here after such a difficult year,” said the Spaniard, a three-time Dakar winner.
The Dakar gets under way with Saturday’s prologue ahead of 12 stages, with a rest day on January 9.
It starts and ends in the Red Sea city of Jeddah.
Qatar’s Nasser al-Attiyah, like Sainz also a three-time winner (2011, 2015, 2019) said it was “very important to be here and to race”.
“Our target is to win… It’s my dream to win again,” said the Qatari whose busy 2021 also includes targetting a seventh Olympics and going better than his skeet shooting bronze in London in 2012 with gold at the Tokyo Games postponed a year because of Covid-19.
The 43rd Dakar sees a new class joining the collection of cars, bikes, quads, trucks, buggies and SSVs – with the Dakar Classic category limited to vehicles from the 1980s and 90s.
– Safety measures –
The Dakar is no stranger to tragedy, with last year’s rally claiming the lives of motorcyclists Paulo Goncalves and Edwin Straver.
In total, 26 participants, including 21 motorcyclists, have been killed since the inaugural rally in 1979.
A raft of new safety measures include compulsory airbag vests for motorbike riders, warnings that will notify competitors in the approach to potential dangers with designated “slow zones” limiting the speed to 90km/h in especially tricky sectors.
Defending motorbike champion Ricky Brabec became the first American to win Dakar last year, breaking KTM’s 18-year winning monopoly as he streaked to victory on his Monster Energy Honda Team bike.
The 29-year-old was in confident mood after a “wild year”, saying he was “comfortable” with the unforgiving Saudi desert terrain because it was so similar to his Southern California base.
“Where I live, my hometown looks more or less similar to almost everything we covered last year,” he said.
“I can go as fast as we need to go and not really think about what’s ahead of me because it comes natural from the training at home.”
Levelling out competition are two further rule changes.
Firstly, roadbooks used to navigate each stage will be distributed 20 minutes before each daily start rather than the night before, allowing competitors much less time to map out their route.
And secondly, riders in the bike class will only be able to use six rear tyres, with tyre management usually playing a decisive role in how hard bikes can be pushed in the quest for glory.
“I’m not sure that’s a good way to go about it,” Brabec responded, before adding: “Strategy is definitely going to come into play. We’ll see how it goes when we get to our sixth tyre.”
Brabec will be up against a formidable array of previous winners in Australian Toby Price (2019, 2016), Briton Sam Sunderland (2017) and Austrian Matthias Walkner (2018)
“There’s a lot more than four riders who can win the Dakar,” said Brabec. “It’s going to come down to the last couple of kilometres.”
Price acknowledged that it was a “tough class”.
“There are 10 solid dudes in there who can get the win,” the Australian said.