The story of the 2016 Dakar? It’s pretty straightforward: for the first time in years there is no Marc Coma to set the benchmark. That means any one of ten riders will be unleashed for the win.
In a sport so obviously about speed, navigation and endurance, a natural leader of this pack of dogs is almost a prerequisite. Pack leader and five-time Dakar winner Coma is now watching them all from a helicopter as Sporting Director of the event. So with a wide-open field it could be the most exciting of Dakars.
Certainly Coma knows the event incredibly well and looks to have included plenty of challenges in the second week to make life hard for riders (route details at dakar.com), which includes one day where no mechanical work is allowed – at all. We’re predicting big speeds but speed in rally racing tends to mean crashes and navigation errors.
Riders most likely to In theory it should be Honda’s year – but many people said that last year. The HRC CRF450RR is an incredible machine and in Joan Barreda they certainly have a potential Dakar race winner. Arguably Barreda would have won in 2015 if he hadn’t made errors fighting for the lead with Coma. Things could be different with boss dog gone. Two factors stand against Honda: Barreda is insanely fast but, consequently, prone to crashing. HRC also has a great track record at the Dakar but do have a habit of pushing the machine development – and constant tweaking in this game comes at a price.
2015 World Cross Country Rally champion Matthias Walkner might have something to say about Barreda. He rides for arguably the best team, KTM Rally, with a proven, reliable and super-fast bike, and above all, an awesome line-up of team-mates. This is not the Tour de France where everyone works for one rider however. Alongside Walkner and released from Coma’s shirt tails we have: Jordi Villadoms, Toby Price and Sam Sunderland. Add in the KTM-supported new boys, upstarts from World Enduro no less, Antoine Meo and Ivan Cervantes. And that’s without mentioning the most successful female off-roader on the planet, Laia Sanz, also riding in the KTM team.
Machines for the job Since KTM acquired Husqvarna two years ago they’ve been slowly putting together the concept and finally the package of the FR450 which arrived in Autumn 2015. It’s as yet unproven in a Dakar.
Husky have every bit the measure of the KTM team rider line-up though: double World Enduro Champion Pela Renet, ten-time Dakar competitor and former KTM Rally Team pilot Ruben Faria and Dakar stage winner, Chilean local boy Pablo Quintanilla. In some ways they may be KTMs in different colours but this is a very separate team with very clear goals to win.
Question marks hang over the Yamaha effort. The WR450F enduro machine may be new but the Yamaha France-built bikes are not quite the factory effort they appear.
Fitting factory parts sent from Japan is not the same as a factory workshop developing and testing constantly, as is the case with Honda, KTM and Husqvarna. That’s not to knock the Yam effort but the days of success on an MX or Enduro machine with bolt-ons are probably gone. Yamaha’s main rider Helder Rodrigues wins stages, but the whole? Unlikely.
Brits are few and far between in 2016. The headline act is KTM’s Sam Sunderland. The Dubai resident had a strong 2015 before crashing and breaking his leg and collarbone at the Merzouga Rally just 80 days before the Dakar start. “My first thought was I’d knackered my Dakar,” Sam explained.
Intensive rehab in Dubai has been successful and as Bike went to press Sam remained hopeful he’d be fit enough to race: “I won’t be very bike fit but before my injury I had a lot of time on the bike with navigation and three races back-toback so I’m still confident in my riding. My main goal will be to finish. Dakar is a tough race even when you’re 100%.”
At the other end of the scale sits privateer Chris Cork who followed Sunderland’s lead and, ‘crashed on a wet slate and cracked a rib,’ in October. ‘I had to go back,’ says Corky, ‘the speed and the desert are like nothing else. It takes me days to get used to the speed of riding flat out everywhere.’ Jamie Smith is the third and final Brit in the 2016 Dakar.