The 2021 Dakar Rally is in the books. So who were the big winners, who were the big losers, and what guesses can we make about the rally’s future?

Honda’s big year

Honda factory rider Kevin Benavides won the rally this year, with teammate Ricky Brabec in second. Almost as importantly, a couple of other Honda riders were in the hunt until the final stages. It’s a big change from the rally’s South American days, when riders like Paulo Goncalves and Joan Barreda would put in solid riding but were let down by their machinery. This year, Honda had no embarrassing bike problems. The combination of new team management and careful mechanical updates is working out very nicely.

And now, the word on the street is that Honda’s looking to cut its team budget. Barreda is supposedly considering retirement after a head injury, so Honda might save some money by not replacing him, or replacing him with a new rider on a smaller contract. Whatever happens, hopefully the Honda team can stay competitive. The team has been a major disruptor in the past few years, even if its results were uneven until 2020. Honda gave both up-and-coming and established riders a different option for a properly-backed factory ride, instead of everyone fighting for a spot on a KTM. It’s also changed up the Euro-centric Dakar formula; Benavides is from Argentina, Brabec is from the US. That goes a long way to boosting the Dakar in North and South America.

Toby Price put in a gutsy ride in Stage 8, finishing second on a shredded tire. Then, in Stage 9, he was out, with a broken collarbone in a bad crash. Overall, KTM’s rally was filled with that sort of bad luck. Photo: Instagram

Tough times for KTM

It just wasn’t KTM’s year. Things started off bad when Matthias Walkner lost his clutch in the sand dunes in Stage 2. He managed to finish the stage, but in any normal year, the hours he lost would have ruled him out of contention for a top-10 finish.

That was a tough blow, but to make things worse, Toby Price (arguably the team’s top rider) was almost forced out during Stage 7, when his tire picked up a massive gash in the sidewall during the first part of the marathon stage. Incredibly, Price finished second in Stage 8 on that damaged tire. Unfortunately, at Dakar, fate doesn’t care what sort of heroics you’ve performed; Price crashed in Stage 9, breaking his collarbone.

That left Sam Sunderland and rookie Daniel Sanders as KTM’s best hope at a podium. At the end of it, Sunderland finished third, a great result when you consider his banged-up wrists. Sanders finished a very respectable fourth on his first outing. Because so many top riders fell out of the top-10 due to injuries and breakdowns, Walkner managed to finish ninth overall.

KTM definitely would have liked the win, but considering everything working against them, the team has nothing to be ashamed of, and the future looks very bright. Sanders appears to be the real deal, and if Price, Walkner and Sunderland all return next year, every one of those guys is capable of a podium spot. Don’t expect Honda to keep its win streak going indefinitely.

The Kalahari Ferrari! Ross Branch was definitely the Yamaha team’s best hope this year, but unfortunately, his bike broke down and took him out of the race. Photo; Yamaha

Yamaha’s embarrassment

At the start of the race, Yamaha looked like it should put up some solid results. Jamie McCanney, last year’s top rookie was back, along with Adrien Van Beveren and usually-solid Franco Caimi. And, there were two significant additions: Andrew Short moved over from the Husqvarna factory team, and Ross Branch came on board, moving from Bas Dakar.

Short had incredibly bad luck on Stage 2, forced out of the race when he received bad fuel from the rally organization. No worries, Yamaha still had four solid riders left, right? Surely, a top-10 finish was in reach, if not a podium?

Wrong. All of Yamaha’s other riders were forced out due to mechanical problems. That’s incredibly embarrassing, and it shows Yamaha’s weakness. For the past decade, its bikes just haven’t been as tough as the competition from KTM. Now, Honda’s also beating Yamaha on reliability.

Yamaha’s engines weren’t as big a problem in South America, when the rules around engine overhauls were more permissive, and the top riders were more likely to take the time penalty for a full engine swap. Now, Honda and KTM’s bikes are lasting the full race with minimal engine tinkering, aside from routine maintenance. Yamaha’s bikes are breaking down.

Can Yamaha overcome this? Hard to say. It doesn’t have the same backing as the KTM and Honda teams, maybe not even the Husqvarna team, because Yamaha is really an effort of  Yamaha France. Unless Yamaha finds some funds for bike development, it will have to rely on expert mechanicking and luck to stay competitive. It’s too bad, as the team is loaded with good riders, but they’ll never see much success if their bikes keep breaking down.

Note that Yamaha does have the money to be successful in Dakar’s ATV segment. The mother corporation has the cash, it just needs to open the purse strings and fund the team with money from Japanese HQ.

Second-tier success

The main factory teams at Dakar are KTM, Honda, Yamaha and Husqvarna. Generally, those are the teams you expect to see in the top 10.

In 2021, we saw considerable success from the second-tier factory teams and the top privateers, though. The biggest success story was Skyler Howes, who sold everything he owned to return to Dakar, after a good result in 2020. In 2021, he managed to finish an impressive 5th overall on the Bas Dakar team, the top privateer. He’s shown he deserves a seat on a factory team, if there’s an opening (like, say, at Honda?).

Lorenzo Santolino also put in a good race for Sherco, ending in sixth, Sherco’s best result in many years (maybe their best ever? Much respect to them!). Uber-privateer Stefan Svitko finished eighth, riding a KTM under his own Slovnaft banner, and Martin Michek took another KTM to 10th overall, for the Orion team.

It shows just how strong the KTM 450 Rally is, considering that the privateers who run it are beating factory bikes. But, that wasn’t the only reason the privateers and smaller factory teams did so well. The mapping rule changes were also a big part of that.

In recent years at Dakar, the richest factory teams employed “mapmen.” The mapmen analyzed the roadbook for potential shortcuts, giving their riders ways to shave seconds or minutes off their day. In 2021, rule changes made mapmen basically useless, as racers didn’t receive the roadbook until minutes before the stage start. That meant navigation was just as important as raw speed, something hammered home as factory riders frequently lost big chunks of time as they made nav errors. This gave the second-tier teams a chance at parity.

Ricky Brabec battled back from a bad nav error in the opening stages to finish just barely out of first place. If Honda keeps the team well-funded in 2022, expect him to be competitive again. Photo: Facebook

Changes for 2022?

This was the Dakar Rally’s second run through Saudi Arabia, and like last year, the route was thrown together in a bit of a hurry—maybe even more of a hurry. Thanks to COVID-19, the rally mappers had very little time to physically run the route, and instead did a lot of preparation through satellite maps. Thankfully, it did seem to work out very well.

A few months back, you might remember a rumour going around, saying Dakar was looking to expand to other countries in the Middle East. COVID-19 derailed that plan, but hopefully, the pandemic will end in coming months. Don’t expect new countries added for 2022, though, as that would mean an awful lot of stuff would have to come together in a short amount of time.

What other changes might we see? I’d say the airbag vests are here to stay, with no major complaints in 2021 when that rule was implemented. The limit of six rear tires for elite riders (time penalties tacked on for any rear tire change after that), well, that rule was unpopular for sure, but that doesn’t mean it’ll go. Toby Price’s situation in Stage 7, riding a shredded rear tire, might not have changed without the tire limit, as he was on the marathon stage when that happened anyway.

As mentioned above, roadbook rule changes made mapmen irrelevent, and gave second-tier riders a much better chance. Expect this rule to stick around for 2022, with organizers likely making an attempt to emphasize navigation skills even further, to slow the racers down. Even though they’re only on 450s, they’re going flat-out, and that’s causing crashes. The org wants to make things safer, so expect them to slow the race down by making nav work harder.

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