Alanf’s blog…
Scattered thoughts

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The dangers of the desert…

Author: site admin
Category: Other Forms Of Racing

This past week the 2006 Dakar rally completed it’s 15 day, 5613 mile journey from Lisboa, Portugal to Dakar, Senegal.

This year’s rally was again a challenging one made up of 15 separate stages with the longest being 543 miles (874 km) in length and the shortest clocking in at only 68 miles (110 km). Sprinkled throughout these stages were special sections where the riders could forget about navigation and instead just race against the clock through the stage in an effort to cut the fastest time. As I mentioned in my Odds and Ends posting back in July, the rally entries were sold out six months before the race and among those registered were 240 people competing in the motorcycle classes. The vast majority of the bikes were KTMs, in fact, there were 106 of the Austria bikes entered while the second most popular brand, Yamaha, had only half that number. The rest of the field was made up of a smattering of Hondas, BMWs, Suzukis, Kawasakis and an Aprilia. Finally a mix of ATV and sidecars completed the field.

The big news before the race were some rules changes that the Rally organizers put in place in an attempt to make the rally safer after two high profile deaths on the factory KTM team in ‘05. Most of these new rules were aimed at improving the conditions for the motorcycle riders, including: 1) mandating a shorter fuel range and thus lighter bikes, 2) imposing a maximum speed limit of 100 mph (160 km/h) for the bikes which would be enforced via GPS, 3) instituting a mandatory 15 minute rest at fuel stops, 4) and changing the starting order for the longer stages so that the slowest riders go first and thus have the largest amount of daylight in which to finish compared to the faster riders who would need less time for the stage.

Despite the new safety precautions this year’s rally was again plagued with tragedy. First, during stage 9 of the rally, KTM rider Andy Caldecott had a fatal crash while running at high speed across the desert. This accident was particularly devastating for the KTM team because it was very near the location of and very similar to the accident in 2005 that killed rally superstar Fabrizio Meoni. The entire paddock was shocked by news of the Australian’s death and the 10th stage of the rally was cancelled out of respect for his fellow rider’s grief. Additionally, KTM effectively quit tracking the rally from a PR/marketing stand point after Caldecott’s death in an effort honor his memory (not to mention that their top two riders had effectively cemented their positions which took most of the excitement out of the rally anyway).

However, death didn’t just strike the riders this year. The biggest tragedy of the rally was that two children were struck and killed by rally cars in the final two days of the event. As a result of these fatalities the final stage, a loop around Lac Rose in Dakar, was un-timed and run only for ceremonial purposes. The actual scoring of the rally reverted back to stage 14.

Marc Coma on the Dakar podium

When the checkered flag flew and the numbers were crunched it was Marc Coma, the KTM mounted Spaniard, who won the motorcycle division with a time of 55:27:17. 1 hour, 13 minutes and 29 seconds back was fellow KTM teammate, Frenchman Cyril Despres, with a time of 56:40:46. The final podium spot went to Italian Giovanni Sala who brought his KTM home in third at 57:57:05, nearly two and a half hours behind Coma and over an hour behind Despres.

Other news worth mentioning is that Team USA rider Chris Blais, also on a KTM, came in fourth with fellow American Jonah Smith bringing his privateer KTM over the line in 17th place to finish up a fantastic Dakar premier. Also of note, Charley Boorman of Long Way Round fame was out early with a broken arm (or possibly even two) after a crash during stage 6. Nonetheless, a valiant effort by the Brit. All of the top eight were on KTMs with Portugese rider Helder Rodrigues preventing a complete sweep of the top 10 by the Austria company by finishing 9th on his Yamaha. As is typical for the Dakar, over half the bikes failed to complete the rally with only 93 of the original 240 making it to the finish in Dakar.

I see a few things from this rally worth mentioning:

The first is obviously the continuation of the recent trend of great rally riders being kill during the Dakar rally. As with the Isle of Man TT and the Macau GP, I firmly believe that any event has a right to run as long as the riders chose to race (and there aren’t contractual and/or championship obligations to do so). Still, it is becoming increasingly painful to cover such events when the best riders of each respective discipline are being killed each year. As the bikes get faster and faster the danger levels increase and I think even more needs to be done by the organizers to balance the challenges of the event with the safety of the riders and spectators.

Second, this year’s Dakar was a turtle versus the hare battle in which Marc Coma won the overall without taking a single victory in any of the individual stages. It is worth noting that the Spaniard’s ability to be consistently fast over the entire course of the rally was a more successful strategy than a rider like second place finisher Despres who won four of the stages (and was in the top three on seven different occasions) yet whose time when averaged out over the course of the rally still put him over 75 minutes behind Coma at the finish. Undoubtedly some of this was luck but then again, as the saying goes, perhaps the riders were making their own luck.

Third, I think this year shows the success of the Team USA Red Bull KTM team who started two years ago with the goal of building up an American rider to be a world class rally racer. After 15 stages, American Chris Blais was only 10 minutes behind third place rider Sala at the finish and thus tantalizingly close to a podium in only his second Dakar. His best stage finish was a fantastic second place on the 352 mile long day 8. Also impressive was rookie Jonah Street who also scored a second place stage finish during the rally, his coming during the next to the last timed stage on day 13. Clearly the Americans have rapidly risen from being also-rans to being front runners in the Dakar. Hopefully, this will increase both fan interest and media coverage in the event next year.

Finally, I want to mention that Charley Boorman started his rally with more than just the normal equipment carried by a contestant. He also brought along a film crew and a bunch of camera equipment. This goal was to make a documentary movie about his running the Dakar rally. Despite his injury in the middle of the event, his film crew continued on following the rest of the Dakar. I hope that this project comes to fruition, as I’d love to see a well done movie on the Dakar in the same vein as the recent Dust to Glory movie which captured the excitement of the ‘05 Baja 1000. Best of luck to Charley in this endeavor.

[image from the Official 2006 Lisboa Dakar web site.]

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