The 2021 Dakar Rally is in the books, and despite there being a worldwide pandemic still lived up to its name. There were plenty of highs and lows in all of the categories with the winners being decided on the final stage of the event.
30 years after his first victory on a bike on the Dakar, Stéphane Peterhansel has added a 14th title to his collection and his 8th behind the wheel of a car, becoming the only driver to have won on three continents. At the finish in Jeddah, Kevin Benavides has also written himself into the history books as the first South American winner of the bike category, whilst one of his countrymen, Argentinean Manuel Andújar, was victorious in the quad race. As in 2019, the lightweight vehicle category was dominated by another Latino, Chilean “Chaleco” López. As for the 100% Kamaz colored podium in the truck race, its first step has been conquered by Russian Dmitry Sotnikov.
After 12 stages and more than 8,000 kilometers covered in total since 3rd January, 193 vehicles (in comparison to the 286 starters) completed the 43rd edition of the Dakar, the second organized in Saudi Arabia. The rally’s final general standings include 63 bikes, 11 quads, 49 cars, 41 lightweight vehicles, and 29 trucks. What’s more, 19 competitors who had to withdraw from the competition prematurely took advantage of the Dakar Experience formula, allowing them to continue the adventure to Jeddah.
Finally, the Dakar Classic category, which for its first edition welcomed vehicles from the 20th century enrolled in a race for consistency, has been won by Marc Douton behind the wheel of a Sunhill Buggy.
Bikes: consecration for Benavides
It was perhaps not his bleached blond hair that made the difference, but Kevin Benavides has changed and has achieved consecration on the Dakar for his fifth participation. After a very noticeable debut on the rally with a finish just at the foot of the podium in 2016, the Argentinean overcame disillusionments, especially in 2018 when the title seemed to be within his grasp until a navigation error proved fatal to his hopes near Salta, his home town.
This year once again, a nasty fall broke his nose and damaged his ankle, but could not stop him from taking control of the category on stage five. Pushed off the leader’s throne the very next day, Kevin was able to bide his time and regained the lead when his team-mate Nacho Cornejo exited the rally prematurely… to win the Dakar, you also need a bit of luck.
The first South American winner in the category then withstood the attacks during a very tense finish, in which Sam Sunderland remained a threat until the last few kilometers of the penultimate stage, as did Ricky Brabec, who finished less than five minutes behind him with victory in the final special. Right at the end, the American ensured the first one-two finish for Honda since Cyril Neveu and Edi Orioli in 1987, making the winged-logo brand’s rally a very good job.
The same can be said of the performance displayed by Lithuanian Arūnas Gelažninkas, who won thanks to a lead of one hour over the previous title holder Emanuel Gyenes in the “Original by Motul” category, for unassisted bikers.
Quads: first for Andújar
Argentina has two reasons to celebrate this year’s Dakar. This is not surprising, because the quad race has already been dominated on six previous occasions by the nation’s light blue and white colours since the official creation of the category in 2009.
However, among the pretenders for the crown, most of the smart money had been put on Nicolás Cavigliasso. Despite a slower start than when he won the race in 2019, the returning former winner seemed to be following an ideal strategic road-map as he led the general standings on the rest day.
Nevertheless, a broken engine on the marathon stage put paid to his hopes. Manuel Andújar, already with a stage win in the bag at this point and perfectly placed to take advantage found himself in the right place at the right time to take control of the rally. The final podium in the category was completed by Chilean Giovanni Enrico and Americano-Argentinean Pablo Copetti, making this edition a veritable ‘Fiesta Latina’!
Cars: “Mister Dakar” in full control
There are no easy triumphs on the Dakar, but Stéphane Peterhansel has shown himself to be the only one who can lay claim to being a past master in winning the race. The appetites for success were voracious on the starting line, with pretenders declaring their hunger for the title or others for the podium, such as Yazeed Al Rajhi, Sébastien Loeb, Giniel De Villiers, Martin Prokop, Yasir Seaidan, Mathieu Serradori and Bernhard Ten Brinke, to name but a few, all with the utmost sincerity. Nonetheless, “Peter” took the lead during stage 3 and the fight for the title was whittled down on the following day to a three-way battle between the occupants of last year’s podium.
The setbacks encountered by Carlos Sainz meant this soon turned into a duel between Mini number 302 and the Toyota Hilux driven by Nasser Al-Attiyah. The Qatari’s quest for supremacy was persuasive, winning 6 specials in total (including the prologue) on his tour of Saudi Arabia, exerting constant pressure on his rival.
However, the Frenchman never faltered and his lead of 4’50’’ increased to almost 18 minutes during the only stage he won this year, three days from the finish. This was sufficient to make sure of his 14th title.
The “inverted” podium that Carlos Sainz regretted after the rally’s end will delight the X-Raid team, while it will be difficult to console Toyota, despite the 4th place achieved by Jakub Przygoński, who equalled his performance of 2019. On the contrary, the 5th place obtained by Nani Roma will be of genuine encouragement to the Bahrain Raid Xtreme team for their debut on the rally.
Lightweight vehicles: “Chaleco” the boss
For his tenth Dakar, Chaleco López had to overcome a horde of quick-paced newcomers to the category. Among them were Seth Quintero, who won two stages, Kris Meeke, who did likewise, or also Cristina Gutiérrez, who became the first woman to taste stage victory on the Dakar since 2005.
Nonetheless, in the face of adversity, the Chilean veteran called upon all his experience to know when to make a special effort when it was needed. Chaleco López featured on the podium on four specials including the prologue and displayed excellent consistency until the start of stage six, during which he suffered mechanical problems.
After losing an hour, this significant setback put him thirty-six minutes behind his successor at the top of the general standings, Aron Domżała, before the rest day. Yet this turned out to be of little concern to López, who reacted perfectly to win the following three specials and climb back to the category’s summit three days before the end of the rally.
From then onwards, López protected his lead, observing the missteps of his rivals Seth Quintero, Aron Domżała or Austin Jones, to grab a second crown after his triumph in 2019.
Trucks: consistency pays for Sotnikov
Since 2017, Dmitry Sotnikov has always won at least one special and was a legitimate favourite in the truck race this year. While last year his team-mate Andrey Karginov displayed imperial form with seven stage successes, in Sotnikov’s case it has been his consistency that has paid dividends on the 43rd Dakar.
On the 12 stages on the program, the Kamaz crew always finished in the top three, except for fourth place last Thursday, which was its worst result. While Karginov lost more than 1 hour and 30 minutes on the first special, Sotnikov climbed to the top of the general standings and did not budge thereafter, leaving anything but a few crumbs of comfort to his rivals, particularly Anton Shibalov, who all the same won two stages.
Despite his considerable lead of 40 minutes, Sotnikov made sure he reached the finish before him. This triumph gave Kamaz an 18th title on the Dakar and the fifth in a row, equalling the record established by the blue truck team between 2002 and 2006, as well as by Mercedes from 1982 to 1986. Czech driver Martin Macík, who won three stages on this Russian dominated edition, will be attempting to put a spanner in the works of Kamaz next year.
Performance Of The Day
It would have been wiser to take him seriously. Seth Quintero had already visited the competitors on the Dakar 2020, while awaiting his 17th birthday in order to take his driving test, and promised to return to display his talents the following year.
He kept his promise with style. Although the RedBull team driver, trailing Austin Jones by ten minutes but with the leader of the general standings in his sights, lost the chance of winning the lightweight vehicle category during stage nine, the overall performance of the “Californian Kid” demands respect. By becoming the youngest ever stage winner on the Dakar, and what’s more on two occasions, Quintero spectacularly wrote his name into the history books of the rally-raid discipline.
A Crushing Blow
Since 2019, Yamaha has always had at least one of its riders in the top 10 on the Dakar. This year, the constructor from Iwata witnessed five early exits from the rally for its official riders.
The nightmare started already on the second stage, with Andrew Short’s mechanical problems, followed by Jamie McCanney, also let down by his machine. On the rest day, Ross Branch, Franco Caimi, and Adrien Van Beveren were still present, but as soon as the rally resumed, the Japanese brand waved goodbye to the Argentinean.
Following a fall, a blocked chain, and tears of frustration on that same day, Ross Branch experienced similar rotten luck the next stage. At that point, the hopes of the team with a triple forked logo rested upon the shoulders of Adrien Van Beveren. As a precaution, Yamaha changed the Frenchman’s engine, even if this meant a 15-minute penalty.
Though this strategy seemed to work until the start of the final special, the man from Hazebrouck was forced to throw in the towel after losing 30 minutes trying to rectify mechanical problems. Van Beveren was the leading French representative among the elite riders until his withdrawal; following his premature exit, the best-placed Gallic rider now occupies 22nd place, namely newcomer Camille Chapelière.
Stat Of The Day: 19
19 years ago, Marek Dąbrowski took part in his 3rd Dakar on a bike, which he completed in 21st place. He had also just celebrated the birth of his son Konrad. The baby from then has now grown up and has inherited from his father, as well as from Dąbrowski senior’s accomplice Jacek Czachor, a passion for the Dakar.
He has also doubtlessly learned some tricks of the trade that help him to shine, because the young man has just completed his first Dakar in 28th position in the general standings… which is no mean feat! The most thorough archivists have investigated whether such precociousness has occurred before in the bike category, the most physically demanding on the Dakar, but their search has been fruitless so far. It is a safe bet that the young gem from Warsaw, who is about to start university, is already arousing the interest of professional teams and will be a talent to watch out for.
The Makings Of A Classic
On his first attempts at the start of the 1980s, the car finisher Yves Sunhill did not manage to guide the buggies he created to Lake Rebta, the pink lake. Forty years later, for the first edition of the Dakar Classic, two of his specimens have reached the shores of the Red Sea in Jeddah in a very honourable manner, with the vehicle driven by Marc Douton winning the race for consistency.