2016 Dakar Rally Preview

MotorcycleUSA Staff | December 29, 2015

The 2016 Dakar Rally is approaching fast, with the opening Prologue near Buenos Aires scheduled for January 2. The subsequent two weeks will be broken into 13 stages, with a rest day on the 10th of January, taking riders on a winding path through Argentina and Bolivia. The original route included time in Peru as well, but in August the country decided to withdraw from the race due to forecasts predicting particularly nasty weather due to El Nino. The Peruvian government decided that it would be more appropriate to have all state services ready for action should a national emergency arise as a result of the weather.

2016 Dakar Rally Route This gave the event’s new Sporting Director, Marc Coma, himself a five-time Dakar champion, the challenge of rerouting the course to avoid entering Peru. By mid-September, Coma and his team had charted a new route, leaving the dates, number of stages and length of stages the same as originally planned. The type of terrain riders will face did change however, with fewer dunes and more technical track during the opening days en route to the rest day at Salta. Adding to the difficulty is the first marathon at Stage 4, a 267-mile special section that starts and ends at San Salvador de Jujuy. High altitudes and alternating rocky and sandy terrain challenge the riders during the first half of the initial marathon, while the second half is marked by a climb even higher as competitors enter Bolivia with the goal of reaching Uyuni. There is a second marathon stage is planned for after the rest day, and as always, there will be no assistance available to riders during either of the marathons.

Other features unique to this year’s event include the longest Fiambala dune section since the event moved to South America during Stage 10. It’s also the first event since the inaugural Dakar that won’t include a previous motorcycle class winner, ensuring that the Number 1 plate will go to a first-time victor in 2016.

Who has the best shot? The major players in the 2016 edition include factory teams from KTM, Honda, Yamaha and Husqvarna and its likely this year’s champion will be from among one of these squads.

KTM looks to defend its title and take a 15th consecutive Dakar victory in 2016. With Coma’s retirement from the event, Jordi Viladoms is now the most experienced rider on the team, competing in his 10th Dakar. His best result came in 2014 with a second-place overall finish. He was unable to follow that up in 2015 though and was forced to retire from the race after the seventh stage. The Red Bull KTM Factory Racing Team also includes Australian Toby Price, who debuted in the Dakar last year and took victory in Stage 12 and Austrian Matthias Walkner, also a Dakar rookie in 2015 who claimed victory in Stage 3. Walkner was forced to retire from the 2015 Dakar after Stage 7 but went on to win the 2015 FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship. French rider Antoine Meo is a five-time enduro world champion and new to the Dakar in 2016. Spanish rider Laia Sanz returns as well, the multi-time Women’s World Trials champion looking to improve on her ninth-place overall finish in 2015. Sam Sunderland was on deck to compete with the KTM factory team, but a late Cross-Country Rallies incident saw the UK rider break his right femur, an injury which has not yet sufficiently healed and leaves him sidelined for 2016.

KTM 450 Rally Team 2016

KTM 450 Rally team L to R – Antoine Meo, Jordi Viladoms, Laia Sanz, Toby Price, Matthias Walkner.

KTM not only claimed its 14th straight Dakar title in 2015, but also dominated the top-10 overall, claiming all but three positions between first and 10th. It remains the team to beat in 2016.

Honda came closest to upsetting KTM during last year’s Dakar, with Paulo Goncalves finishing second overall behind Coma. Big Red isn’t pulling any punches for 2016, with a strong rider line-up that includes Goncalves, Joan Barreda, Michael Metge, Paolo Ceci along with Dakar rookie, American Ricky Brabec. The 2016 Dakar will be Honda’s fourth consecutive event since reentering the Rally after more than two decades away from the event. Goncalves and Barreda are both likely contenders for the overall win this year. Barreda led the 2015 Rally through the opening seven stages before a string of disasters saw him drop down the rankings, beyond hope of victory. He has numerous stage victories to his credit over the past three years. Metge comes to Honda from Yamaha. The French rider was forced out of last year’s competition however, owing to an injury and mechanical issues. Paolo Ceci has been involved in the Dakar rally for 11 years with a number of different teams and brings a wealth of navigational and mechanical experience to the Honda team.

And finally, Brabec. The American rider has been dominant in Hare & Hound, Best in the Desert, and SCORE International races, including wins in the Baja 250, Baja 500 and Baja 1000. He rode for Team HRC as a wildcard in the 2015 Cross-Country Rallies stop in Abu Dhabi, where he placed fifth overall and won the junior category. He’s been preparing with the team in Europe recently, working to improve his navigational skill and familiarity with the CRF450 Rally machine and is the only American rider on the top-tier teams in 2016.

Team HRC Rally 2016

HRC Rally Team L to R – Ricky Brabec, Paolo Ceci, Michael Metge, Joan Barreda and Paulo Goncalves.

“For my first Dakar, I’m arriving with a great attitude and, to be honest, my expectation is just to finish solidly and keep my team-mates heading towards the top spots on the podium,” explained Brabec in a Team HRC press release. “It’s my job to make sure they don’t get left in the desert with any problems. I just want to finish well, help the team out and make my country happy once the rally is over.”

Yamaha brings its Yamalube Yamaha Racing Rally Team to the table in 2016, with riders Alessandro Botturi and Helder Rodrigues. Botturi has been battling the Dakar since 2012, where he finished eighth overall aboard a KTM. The subsequent years saw the Italian suffer a number of setbacks, with retirements two years in a row on a Husqvarna and then in 2015 another mechanical failure while with Yamaha. Rodrigues comes most recently from Honda, but the Portuguese rider is no stranger to Yamaha, competing for the blue brand in the FIM Cross-Country Rallies championship from 2010 through 2012. He claimed the Rallies championship in 2011 while with Yamaha and rejoined the team in April 2015. Rodrigues and Botturi have been working hard with Yamaha to develop the 2016 WR450F Rally bike and have achieved some notable results in the lead-up to this year’s event. Botturi claimed first place in the Merzouga Rally in Morocco, Rodrigues and Botturi finished first and second, respectively, in the Rally of Tunisia among other top-three results.

Yamaha Dakar 2016

Yamalube Yamaha Rally Team riders Alessandro Botturi and Helder Rodrigues.

The new Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory Racing Team includes two well-established Dakar competitors, Pablo Quintanilla and Ruben Faria, along with Dakar rookie Pela Renet. Quintanilla and Faria both come from KTM and both finished within the top-10 overall in the 2015 Dakar, Quintanilla taking fourth and Faria sixth. Considering Husqvarna’s intimate ties to KTM, it’s likely that the 2016 Husqvarna FR 450 will be similar to the machine Quintanilla and Faria are used to competing with. Renet may have a bit more of a learning curve, coming from the European MX ranks.

“The Husky is amazing,” explained Faria in a recent team press release. “The engineering team has done a fantastic job on the chassis and other details. This bike is the result of unbelievable teamwork and I am proud to be part of that. Training and riding with my teammates is also fantastic because we develop the bike together and each one of us gives important feedback to the team after riding in the same conditions.”

Husqvarna 2016 Dakar

Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory Racing team L to R – Ruben Faria, Pela Renet and Pablo Quintanilla.

There’s plenty of other riders that could make a bid for the podium as well. Stefan Svitko, the fifth overall finisher in 2015, returns aboard a KTM 450 Rally machine. David Casteu, the seventh-place overall finisher in 2015, is also competing on a KTM and brings more than a decade of rally experience to the table. Casteu’s countryman, Oliver Pain, celebrates his 10th Dakar anniversary in 2016, coming at this year’s event as a privateer aboard a KTM 450 Rally. Frans Verhoeven is back in the mix as well after announcing 2015 would be his final season. The 49-year-old rider is hoping to improve upon his 15th-place overall finish in last year’s Dakar with a YZ450 Rally.

With the absence of powerhouse riders such as Coma and Cyril Despres, the 2016 Dakar is shaping up to be a particularly exciting affair. Stay tuned to MotoUSA for daily updates from the 2016 Dakar.