Organisers promised a navigational test and so it proved — and then some — as most of the top ten qualifiers struggled to find their way.
BISHA – The first proper day of racing at Dakar 2021 proved a true test of mettle on Sunday.
Most competitors who qualified well on Saturday, ran into significant navigational issues, almost from the get go. That handed the advantage to those who had been patient — or indeed had issues in the Prologue, as Carlos Sainz, who started 28th, won the day in the cars. Toby Price won a just as dramatic first day on two wheels for KTM from a ninth place starting slot.
Pole man Nasser Al Attiyah’s Gazoo Toyota Hilux, second starter, Brian Baragwanath’s Century Corvette and third man away Yazeen Al Rajhi’s Hilux all immediately ran into trouble in the first sector of the 277 km run from Jeddah to Bisha. Organisers promised a navigational test and so it proved — and then some — as most of the top ten qualifiers struggled to find their way.
The exceptions were Sheikh Al Qassimi’s Peugeot, Orlando Terranova’s Mini and Jakub Pzygonski’s Toyota, who remained in the top ten. They were joined there by the Mini buggies of Sainz and Peterhansel, who moved up from 19th to fight for the lead, Viadotas Zala’s Mini, Martin Prokop in a Ford Raptor and Giniel de Villiers having a good run in his Gazoo Racing Hilux. All of them had started some way back in the field, while Shameer Variyawa was also running well in another Hilux.
Other top ten qualifiers fared even worse, as Heinrich Lategan’s fourth factory Hilux and Sebastien Loeb’s new Hunter BRX dropped out of the early top fifty after losing their way in the Arabian Desert.
Sainz ultimately beat Peterhansel by just 25 seconds, with Prokop third from Frenchman Mattieu Serradori and local Saudi hero Yazeen Seidan in a pair of SA-built Centurys. Al Qassimi was sixth from de Villiers, Nani Roma eighth on the Hunter BRX’s debut Dakar stage and Przygonski.
Al Attiyah recovered to challenge for a provisional top ten slot ahead of Variyawa and another Century driven by Brazilian Marcelo Gastaldi, and Lategan and Baragwanath provisionaly 13th and 17th.
Even before the cars hit the stage, the drama had started from the get-go among the bikes. The four riders who qualified up front all got lost before the first checkpoint. Honda riders, pole man Ricky Brabec lost 13 minutes, second starter Joan Barreda ten and third and fourth men, KTM rookie Daniel Sanders and Botswana Yamaha hero Ross Branch nine minutes each. They regrouped and rode on as Branch ended up 15th, Sanders 18th and the others 20th or worse.
Price, Kevin Benavides who ended second for Honda after starting seventh, and KTM men Matthias Walkner and Sam Sunderland, who started 18th and 26th respectively, and ended third and fourth, had the advantage of following their rivals tracks to help find the way early on.
The same went for Lorenzo Santolino on a Sherco, Husqvarna man Xavier de Soultrait and Franco Caimi’s Yamaha, all of whom started outside, but ended up well within the top ten.
In other action, lady racer Cristina Guittirez-Hernando led WRC star Kris Meeke and Jose-Antonio Hinojo Lopea in the Light Cars at mid distance a the time of writing. Anton Shibalov’s Kamaz was ahead of Maertin Macik’s Iveco and Aliaksei Vishneuski in a MAZ in the Truck race. Alexander Giroud meanwhile overhauled Giovanni Enrico and Pablo Copetti to win the Quads.
So both the Dakar car and bike order were comprehensively shaken up when first competitors on the road got lost en masse and it seems several others struggled to find the right track.
That left questions whether Dakar organisers had taken too big a step straight into their new digital navigation system. Or are the crews just not used to it yet? One thing is for sure, patience on the Prologue paid off as all of most of Dakar’s the top qualifiers suffered on the first day, leaving the backmarkers to take the first day glory.