The world’s greatest desert race is about to start. The Dakar Rally kicks off on January 3 in Saudi Arabia, with both small changes and big changes that could make a big difference to this year’s race.

Safety First

The biggest news for 2021 are the requirement for new safety gear, the limit on rear tires, and speed limits.

Starting in 2021, Dakar racers will be required to wear an airbag vest. These aren’t new to racing; MotoGP riders have been using them for years. Although there are different manufacturers, they all work basically the same way. An onboard sensor detects when the rider has crashed, and the airbag instantly inflates, cushioning the body core before impact.

The new Tech Air Off-Road airbag vest from Alpinestars was certified by the ASO just before this year’s rally started.

Most likely, most racers will be using the Alpinestars Tech-Air Off-Road jacket, which has just hit the market in time for Dakar, but perhaps we’ll hear of other systems in use as the rally goes by.

In the past few years, there have been several high-profile crashes at Dakar, including veteran racer Paulo Goncalves’ fatal wreck in 2020. Hopefully the airbag vests will prevent any more racers from dying.

However, the organizers aren’t putting all their faith in the airbags. While danger is ever-present at Dakar, high speeds make everything worse. If you’re going faster, you’re more likely to get seriously hurt when you crash. That was allegedly part of the reason for limiting the riders to 450s a few years back, but it didn’t work, as they’re running the race basically as fast as the old big-bore machines did. In fact, in recent years, there’s been considerable grumbling that the rally has changed into a WRC-style event with wide-open stages. More technical tracks, like Dakar originally featured, require a focus on navigation, causing slower speeds.

Toby Price is still the man to beat at Dakar, even if he wasn’t the 2020 champion. But, how many motorcycle races does his banged-up body have left? Might we see a move to cars, after 2021? Photo: Facebook

For 2021, we’re supposed to see a renewed emphasis on mapwork. The ASO (Dakar’s organizers) also promised that last year, and there definitely was a difference in the course. If that’s renewed this year, then in theory, things will be safer.

There’s also going to be a 90 km/h speed limit in some special sections. This not only has the potential to slow down the maddest of hoons from flogging their bikes too hard in the desert, it also has the potential of upsetting the rankings. As it is, riders end up with penalties for speed infractions every year. Added speed regulations also means the possibility of more penalties, which means more possibility of an upset.

Finally, there’s a limit on the number of rear tires that riders can use this year. From start to end of the 4800-km, 12-stage rally, the riders can only use six rear tires, which are marked ahead of time. Use an unmarked tire, and you get a 30-minute penalty. For a few riders, that’s going to mean greatly reduced speeds, as riders need to make their rubber last. Of course, it also potentially means horribly unsafe conditions as well. There’s no doubt riders will be pushing their knobbies far beyond what’s sensible. (It also opens the likelihood of skullduggery, with riders changing tires while other racers to stay in the race.) Inevitably, someone is going to end up repeating Andrew Short’s Stage 6 heroics from last year, finishing a stage with no rear tire at all. However, the fastest of the fast (Toby Price, especially) are known for making their tires last, so this may have less impact than you’d think.

Tough-as-nails Stefan Svitko is back with Slovnaft racing. He is always around the top 10, and could be the canniest privateer at Dakar. Photo: Red Bull

Other Changes

There are some other changes that aren’t exactly safety-related, but could make a difference this year.

For 2021, riders will not be allowed to wrench on their bikes at gas stops. Will that make a difference? It’s likely at least one rider will be forced to make DIY repairs on the clock this year. That could be bad news if the timesheet is tight! There’s also a limit on the number of allowable piston replacements for 2021, which could make it difficult for teams that rely on regular top-end rebuilds that might have previously skated under the rules. Most importantly, there’s another big change to the roadbook rules. In 2020, teams didn’t get the roadbook until 20 minutes before the racing start on half of the days of the rally. In 2021, that’s going to be the case for every day.

No doubt the top teams are desperately trying to figure out how to get around this, as having “mapmen,” whose job was to scan the day’s roadbook and figure out optimal routing, was the key to victory in the past. Obviously, that hurt small-budget teams that couldn’t afford such niceties. Now, everybody’s on equal footing here.

Laia Sanz is coming into the race as she recovers from Lyme disease. She is mentoring a new racer and may be on more of a support mission this year. Photo: Facebook

The Route Itself

There’s an easy parade stage on January 2, and the racing starts for real on January 3. This year’s route runs counter-clockwise, starting and ending in Jeddah.  The longest special comes on Day 11, with a 511-km special on the penultimate stage. The longest total stage is Day 4, at 813 km long, including a 337-km special.

Although the race follows a similar circular route through Saudi Arabia as last year, it’s far from the same course.

The Riders

This year, 108 riders were signed up to race, and despite interference from COVID-19, it seems almost all the riders, and all the front-runners, should be on the starting line.

Because the Andalucia race was the only proper international desert rally before COVID-19 shut everything down, most riders are more-or-less in good shape going into this year’s race. Gas Gas factory rider Laia Sanz is the major exception here; she’s just getting over Lyme disease, and she also got banged up crashing at the 2020 Dakar. She’s still the fastest female rider at Dakar, most likely, but this year she’s got Josep Garcia riding with her, and it’s possible she’s going to be focused on training him in the ways of the rally, riding more strategically than normal.

Adrien Van Beveren returns as the most senior veteran on the Yamaha squad. Could this be the year his bad luck turns to gold? Photo: Facebook

Aside from that, you’re probably looking at the typical battle between the Honda, KTM, Husqvarna and Yamaha factories for the podium. Defending champ Ricky Brabec (Honda) won the Sonora Rally in Mexico, in March; his biggest competition will likely be Toby Price (KTM).

Yamaha could have the most interesting team to watch, as it looks a bit different from the 2020 squad. Andrew Short, who raced with Husqvarna for years, signed with the Yamaha factory squad last winter. Ross Branch, who performed so well aboard a semi-privateer KTM in 2020, is also riding a Yamaha factory bike. Yamaha needs a boost, and maybe some new blood is the answer? Adrien Van Beveren is still there, as well as the usually-reliable Franco Caimi. Jamie McCanney, who had a solid finish last year, returns for Yamaha.

Honda’s going with the same squad as last year, with Joan Barreda, Kevin Benavides and José Ignacio Cornejo teamed up with Brabec. Pablo Quintanilla and Luciano Benavides are the only riders on the official Husqvarna factory team.

Ross Branch, who had a breakout year in 2020, is signed to Yamaha for 2021. That team needed fresh blood, but will the Kalahari Ferrari be the missing piece for success? Photo: Facebook

Along with Toby Price, Sam Sunderland returns for KTM, as well as Matthias Walkner. Daniel Sanders, a hotshot from the ISDE Trophy scene and plenty of success in WEC and Australian off-road and enduro racing, makes his debut for KTM. He’s also going to be interesting to watch as he learns the secrets of rally raid.

Hero returns with Joaquim Rodrigues, CS Santosh and Sebastian Buhler. Sherco’s back this year as well, after announcing a parting of ways with TVS. Lorenzo Santolino, Rui Goncalves and Harith Noah will ride the French machines for 2021.

Watch the F5irehose!

Egle will be providing Dakar updates at ADVrider this year, but if you want to watch it even more closely, you need to head over to the Racing forum and watch the F5irehose thread. Beware, it can take over your life. But if you’re home under COVID-19 lockdown, it might be just what you need.

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