2022 Dakar Rally Wrap-Up
- Publication: Harden Offroad, Inc.
- Original Publication Date: June 2022
Close Racing, Controversy, and a Big Win for the Organizers
The dust has barely settled on the 2022 Dakar Rally, and already the teams are looking forward to next year with a clear understanding the sport of rally racing has changed, and in a big way. The recent rules changes governing the navigational elements of the rally were the big story this year, making for one of the most mentally challenging Dakar’s ever. Factory GasGas racer Sam Sunderland racked up his second Dakar overall victory (and GasGas’s first), followed by Monster Energy Honda’s Pablo Quintanilla and Red Bull KTM’s Matthias Walkner. Sam’s win is well deserved and clearly showed his ability to manage extreme pressure to the end, winning by just 3:27 seconds over Pablo after almost 39 hours of special tests. The other big news, of course, was the Americans' performance. For the first time, four American riders battled for stage wins and top overall positions, with Monster Energy Honda’s Ricky Brabec coming home top American, 7th overall just 4 seconds ahead of Monster Energy Yamaha’s Andrew Short in 8th, with U.S. Dakar rookie phenom BAS World KTM Racing Team Mason Klein following suit in 9th. The other top American Rockstar Husqvarna’s Skyler Howes ran as high as fourth overall and was in excellent position to contend for the win before withdrawing because of injuries sustained in a hard crash at the end of Stage 5. As usual, a thousand stories came out of this year’s Dakar Rally. Here are the top stories from my perspective:
Ricky Brabec - Top American For the 3rd Year Running
- The overall level of competition. Typically, at any given Dakar Rally, three to perhaps a maximum of four riders at the start can be viewed as prohibitive favorites to win the race. This year, as many as eight and possibly ten different riders could legitimately win the race if things went their way. It has as much to do with the global stature of the event drawing the best off-road racers from all over the world as it does the current scope of factory involvement. Whereas in years past, two or three manufacturers put forth serious efforts, no less than seven factories were competing this past year. These included KTM, Husqvarna, GasGas, Yamaha, Honda, Sherco, and even Hero, who by some good fortune of the starting order won Stage 3 of the rally. In addition to the factory teams, satellite teams such as the BAS World Team that Mason Klein rode for put forth extremely professional efforts on very similar equipment to the factory teams. The switch several years ago to 450cc based production machinery certainly has paid off with more manufacturer involvement lowering the hurdle for a competitive entry.
- New Rules. Several rules have been changed recently regarding the navigational elements for Dakar, none more challenging than the new rule implemented this year of providing the roadbooks just before the start of each stage. The Roadbook is the rider’s bible and the most critical element in rally racing. The word “Rally” means to find the way. The Roadbook is how you do it. No longer would riders be able to study the roadbook all night before each stage developing a mental picture of the route the following day, drilling down on potential navigation challenges and dangers. While I thought this might be a significant issue, each of the riders I spoke to after the rally said it wasn’t a big deal. Mason Klein told me he had plenty of time to do a quick review and even mark up some of the trickier sections as he loaded the book into his bike each morning. Skyler Howes reported the same and went even further stating it didn't matter because it was the same for everyone. What did create major headaches was locating some of the hidden waypoints in the open dune sections. With extremely tight radiuses around each waypoint, the riders often spent a lot of time circling to find a waypoint losing large chunks of time, especially to riders who started behind and were mainly following tracks. In addition to the waypoint issue, there was more CAP averaging than usual this year. CAP averaging requires the rider to pick a point on the horizon and ride in the general direction of a compass point (0-360 degrees) noted in the Roadbook for specific distances. Sometimes those notations were followed by other notations that superseded them. This is what led to Ricky Brabec’s debacle on Stage 1 losing almost 50 minutes to the field as he struggled to find the way that started with a Cap average note. The fifty-minute loss put him in such a deep hole it would be impossible to recover from.
- Overall Strategy. Dakar, in recent years, has become more of a challenge of mitigating loss rather than trying to consolidate large gains. Leading a stage, or “opening the road," as we would say, is often a considerable penalty. With three-minute start intervals between the top riders, a 10th place starting position can effectively pull back 30 minutes on his competitor that started first by just following tracks and picking off riders till he gets to the lead. Meanwhile, the rider who started first is doing the backbreaking work of navigating the route (with no tracks to follow) and has lost 30 minutes by the time his counterpart in 10th catches up. For riders starting further back the gains can be even more impressive. Because of this, there is little incentive to win stages and why it is better to be more strategic each day in your overall placing. This was such a big issue for Mason Klein that the factory teams went to the organizers and got them to change the rules early on for Mason so he would have to start up front even though he was competing in the Rally 2 class. The Rally 2 Class was a separate class below the factory Rally GP race class and was supposed to start from 30th position back each day no matter how they did in the preceding stage. If the rule was not changed Mason most likely would have won, this year’s Dakar by a mile. To Mason’s credit when he realized what an advantage it was to start back each day, he did not argue the point and let the rule be changed on the spot. As he told me after the race, “I didn’t want to win that way”. While the new rules have led to some exciting racing from a spectator perspective, with continuous changes to the leaderboard, the top racers are starting to feel like they are being “gamed” a bit, and it will be interesting to see what happens in the future.
Andrew Short Put In His Best Dakar Ride Ever
- The Route. While there was much talk before the rally that this year would be a race of “sand and more sand," meaning many dune crossings, this did not play out. This year’s rally was very high speed, which had some racers complaining that they needed to make it more technical. In talking to the U.S. riders, they seem to take the approach “it is what it is". Since everyone is racing the same route, it should not be an issue. However, it will be interesting to see how the organizers respond to next year’s route layout and what changes they may try to make.
- The U.S. Contingent. The biggest news coming out of this year’s Dakar was the arrival of the American’s. And while the best finishing American was 7th, the strength and depth of field of American riders at the event has never been higher. Ricky Brabec will be the first to admit this was probably one of his toughest Dakar’s ever. The fact he lost so much time the first day of the rally was a punch in the gut. As I have reported elsewhere, it is very hard as a racer to know at the start of the race that your chances of winning are small because of some minor technical issue or a crash, but you must put in the hard work of riding to the finish. The difference between Dakar and other racers is that in other racers, that feeling last’s one day, or until the next moto or the following weekend. At Dakar, you must live with it for 12 straight days and thousands and thousands of miles. Not a very comfortable feeling but one that Ricky would not shy away from and testament to the strength of his character that he soldiered on and fought hard each day for a top finish and still came home Top American. I’m sure he will learn from this and be back and stronger than ever.
Skyler Howes Was Set For a Great Finish But Sustained a Hard Crash
Andrew Short finally had his equipment hold together and put in rock-solid performance. I think Andrew learned a lot from this year’s Dakar and will only be better prepared next time around. It's incredible to think he finished just 4 seconds behind Ricky after 12 days and 5200 miles of racing. Incredible! Of course, the biggest disappointment was when we got the news Skyler Howes had to withdraw while running in 8th place overall, just 15 minutes out of the lead. Skyler had run a very strategic race up to that point and positioned himself to contend in the back half of the race. It just goes to show that Dakar can bite you at any time. When you ride hundreds of miles day after day, all it takes is the smallest of errors and it all goes away in an instant. The good news is Skyler is healing up nicely and preparing for his next rally in Abu Dhabi in March. We wish him well. This leaves young Mason Klein, who finished 9th overall, winner of the Rally 2 class, and Top Rookie in his first Dakar rally finishing just in front of former Dakar Champion Toby Price. I first met Mason three years ago when he approached me about rally racing and told me it was his dream to do Dakar someday. Mason was barely 17 years old at the time, but something about his sincerity made me take notice. After the 2022 Dakar Rally, everyone around the world is taking notice. Mason put in a fantastic ride. He rode smart, fast, and consistent. The pressure did not seem to bother him, and after talking to him at length after the rally, he appears to have a good head on his shoulders for handling the politics and controversies that pop up in the bivouac from time to time. He has a bright future ahead of him and hopefully will be picked up by one of the factory teams this year.
American Rookie Phenom Mason Klein Put The rally World on Notice.
Dakar is the biggest racing spectacle on the planet. Its tradition now to start each new year watching the drama play out over the first two weeks in January. The skill level, intensity, and sheer speed the riders possess is something to admire and respect. The commitment and dedication to make it to the finish line legendary. The relentless pressure impossible to put in words. Fortunately, we had no significant injuries or deaths this year, which is always a bonus. If things continue to evolve as they have, we can expect to have even more to root for from an American perspective. After all, we invented desert racing; now it’s time to show the world we haven’t forgotten what that means.
Pro 2 Class Winner/Rookie of the Year - Mason Klein