The final round of the Cross Country Rallies World Championship in Morocco has become an unofficial testing ground for many of the teams and riders preparing for the Dakar Rally
in South America. In 2012 Honda commanded headlines by announcing its return to Dakar after a 24-year hiatus and introduced its new team and CRF450 Rally bike
to the world in Morocco. This year Honda
developed an updated mount and added new team members that may prove to give the long-standing Dakar champion, KTM
, a run for its money. KTM has also announced team changes and an updated motorcycle in order to protect its position on the top-step. How did the new Honda and KTM machines stack-up in Morocco and where does Yamaha
(Yamaha?) fit into all this? Read on to find out…
With an eye to break KTM’s then 11-year string of first-place overall finishes at the Dakar Rally, Honda re-entered the arduous event in 2013 with a newly developed CRF450 Rally bike and world-class race team. Team HRC debuted the mount in October 2012 and already looked strong with Helder Rodrigues finishing fastest in a number of stages at the Rally of Morocco and even holding the overall lead after Day 3. A DNF on Day 4 pushed him well outside the running for the Rally win, but Honda had made its point loud and clear.
During the 2013 Dakar just over two months later, Team HRC had some high points during individual stages though no wins, and the highest placed rider for the factory-backed squad after the 14-day event was Rodrigues in seventh.
Honda's newest CRF450 Rally bike debuted just prior to the 2013 Rally of Morocco. Paulo Goncalve rode the machine to victory and earned the Cross Country Rallies title.
After Dakar, Honda set to developing an updated version of the machine and after nine months of work the changes seem to have been extremely positive. In the run-up to the 2013 Rally of Morocco Honda revealed its revamped CRF450 Rally and boasted gains in “engine power” and “aerodynamic performance” thanks to information gleaned during competition. Specs provided by Honda are slim, claiming with cryptic aplomb the bike is somewhere “under” 330 pounds, produces “over” 57 horsepower and has a top-speed “over” 105 mph. Showa suspension, Nissin brakes, Pirelli tires and Honda’s Programmed Fuel Injection system are the only concrete components listed in the paltry spec sheet.
Katsumi Yamazaki, Team HRC Project Leader, offered these thoughts in the days before the 2013 Rally of Morocco: “Honda have developed a new bike which is completely different: a new engine, new chassis and new plastics. Our machine preparation is almost perfect so far. Good handling, good performance, good reliability, good design also.”
Team HRC also picked up two new, highly competitive rally racers mid-2013; Paulo Goncalves and Joan Barreda, both of whom ran Husqvarna 450s previously.
The new squad and CRF450 Rally did not disappoint through the first leg of the 2013 Rally of Morocco, with all five riders placing inside the top-10 and Barreda earning the stage win. Goncalves took over the top-spot in Stage 2 and through the subsequent four legs the two new Honda riders swapped the overall lead and runner-up position a host of times. In the final stage, KTM’s multi-time Dakar champion Marc Coma clawed his way up the ranks to finish second-overall, but Goncalves ended with the top prize and Cross Country Rallies World Championship title. Barreda finished third in Morocco and Sunderland took fifth.
The Team HRC victory is its first overall rally win since it revealed the new machine in 2012. It’s also worthy to note that the 2012 Rally of Morocco winner, Cyril Despres aboard a KTM, went on to victory at Dakar a few months later.
Here’s the Yamaha link. Despres has won the Dakar five times in his career. He took the top-step in 2005 and again in 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2013 all while riding with KTM. In May of 2013 though Despres left KTM and signed to ride with Yamaha. In his first outing with the Tuning Fork brand at the Rally dos Sertoes in Brazil, the French rider finished second overall behind Goncalves. As a brand, Yamaha has a storied history in the Dakar, earning the first ever rally win in 1979 with Cyril Neveu and dominating the ‘90s with Stephane Peterhansel, who won six races between 1991 and 1998. It’s clear that Yamaha is looking to make a bid for its former glory in the Dakar with Despres.
KTM has adapted with updates of its own, fielding a three-rider team including Coma, Ruben Faria and American Kurt Caselli. Francesco ‘Chaleco’ Lopez will also continue aboard a full factory KTM as well. Coma is a rally master, with five World Cross Country titles and three Dakar victories who was unable to compete in 2013 due to injury. Faria finished the 2013 Dakar second overall and Caselli, in his Dakar debut the same year, filled in for Coma and notched two stage wins. Lopez is a hearty competitor as well; the Chilean rider rounded out the 2013 Dakar podium.
The Austrian marque also revealed an updated version of the Factory 450 Rally bike prior to the 2013 Rally of Morocco, which team press states “is the result of dedicated work by KTM’s MSP and R&D and engineering experts who designed and built a completely new version from the ground up.”
Currently KTM has the record for most consecutive Dakar wins ever. Another overall victory in 2014 would mark the 13th Dakar in a row for the Austrian brand, but competition is likely to be more fierce than ever come January 2014.