2011 Dakar Rally Recap

January 18, 2011
Bart Madson
By Bart Madson
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Bashing away at the MotoUSA keyboard for nine years now, Madson lends his scribbling and editorial input on everything from bike reviews to industry analysis and motorcycle racing reports.

Marc Coma still enjoys a comfortable margin after finishing second in Stage 11.
Cyril Despres - Dakar finish
Marc Coma (top) and Cyril Despres (bottom)
remain the Dakar Rally Kings, alternating wins
in the last six rally raids.

The 2011 Dakar Rally wrapped up on January 15, with Marc Coma taking his third overall victory in the motorcycles and Nasser Al-Attiyah claiming the overall in the cars. For the third year Dakar took place in South America, with the 2011 rally raid featuring notable rules changes, including a 450cc displacement cap for motorcycles. Now that Dakar is in the books, here’s a list of our highlights from an eventful rally raid.

Coma & Despres Still Rally Kings

KTM once again topped Dakar courtesy of Marc Coma and Cyril Despres. The dominating riders maintain one of the greatest rivalries in the rally’s history, with the duo splitting the last six Dakars. Not only have the Spaniard and Frenchman claimed three wins apiece in the last six years, each year they steal the crown from each other.

Despres will have plenty of motivation for 2012, having suffered a controversial penalty this year after leading in the early stages. The Red Bull KTM rider was stiffed with a severe 10-minute penalty after not following protocol when he retrieved thermal gloves from the bivouac. While Coma went on to win the rally by 15 minutes, the punishment to Despres skewed strategy for the remaining rounds and proved too big a hurdle to overcome. It’s a pity too, as literal seconds separated the front-running pair throughout the opening stages. Maybe next year…

Move to 450 Displacement a Success

KTM still dominated with its new 450 Rally machine thanks to Coma and Despres, but other manufacturers finally stepped up with something for the Austrian marque. The move to 450cc displacement, so controversial when it was first announced, was finally applied without exception for the expert riders (last year KTM riders could run restricted versions of the dominating 690 Rally). Without question the move proved successful at achieving greater parity in the rally paddock.

A total of four manufactures gathered stage wins at this year’s Dakar. Paulo Goncalves broke the ice in Stage 5, scoring BMW’s first Dakar stage win in the motorcycle class in more than a decade – the Bavarian marque once a major player in the two-wheeled class. Stage 6 saw Yamaha’s Helder Rodrigues take the victory, with Aprilia’s Francisco Lopez Contardo, aka Chaleco Lopez, taking top honors in Stage 7. American Jonah Street nabbed another win for Yamaha on Stage 9. Other notable performances include David Casteu, who managed a third-place finish in Stage 2 aboard a Sherco.

Francisco Lopez - Stage 8
Chaleco Lopez kept the Aprilia running at a podium pace all the way up to the final stage, eventually finishing fourth.

As far as the overall was concerned, Lopez was the closest to the front-running KTMs – keeping them honest until electrical gremlins saw his podium hopes dashed on the final stage. Instead Rodrigues claimed the final spot on the rostrum for Yamaha. Seeing new riders and new machinery in the Dakar podium is different. And different is good. Of course, KTM might disagree…

American Competitors Emerge

Chris Blais was the last American podium contender at Dakar, but Jonah Street and Quinn Cody are developing into serious Dakar threats. Street has been logging promising Dakar showings for years now. Only a nasty engine snafu, which Street diagnosed and repaired himself during Stage 7, spoiled his running for a possible top-five overall pace. Losing hours with his Stage 7 woes, Street redeemed himself with his Stage 9 victory.

As for Cody, the Baja specialist notched a laudable rookie showing at Dakar. While not a stage winning threat in 2011, the Californian rode a steady pace with his consistency earning a strong ninth-place in the overall (the same position Blais finished in his first Dakar, evenutally improving to fourth and then a podium third in 2007). The unofficial rookie of the year at Dakar, Cody logged not only the top American finish but also tallied the best Honda result. Expect both Americans to improve in 2012.

Americans Quinn Cody  left  and Jonah Street - Dakar 2011
Americans Quinn Cody (left) and Jonah Street (ridght) logged promising performances in 2011, Street with a stage win and Quinn the top finishing American in ninth overall.

Same-Day Dakar Coverage from Versus Commendable

The Dakar website provided great up-to-date coverage of the rally, but the Versus network deserves kudos for its same-day television coverage. In an American television schedule that struggles to show top international races, like World Superbike, on a same-day basis, Versus delivered timely coverage of all 14 grueling days of the Dakar. The half-hour updates were informative and concise, delivering everything a casual American audience would want.

And the high-def camera work deserves praise as well. The action closeups of the riders/drivers were incredible (did anyone else see the Al-Attiyah / Carlos Sainz Volkswagen side-to-side scrap, with roadside fans ducking for cover!). But the wide angle scenic shots of the South American landscapes were our favorite – making the Dakar Rally coverage on Versus must watch, or at least must DVR, television.

South America Now Home to Dakar

Purists may scorn the new Dakar venue, but South America seems like the new rally home for good. While a name change should perhaps be considered, the Argentina/Chili route holds its own. The rally path meanders across thousands of miles of terrain, the variety of which simply can’t be found in the North African desert. Not the least of these changes is the 15,800-foot elevation crossing of the Andes into Chile. Dakar may one day resume some semblance of its traditional Paris-to-Dakar route, if so, we reckon the South American Rally will keep on rolling as its own stand alone event.

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