Matthias Walkner (Red Bull KTM) won – an Austrian rider on an Austrian bike, to seal KTM’s 17th successive Dakar victory. In fact four of the five top finishers were riding KTMs. With a near 40-minute lead going into the final four stages Walkner could afford to use up some of his advantage as a safety buffer, riding safe, but with Dakar you don’t know until you cross the last finish line…
Day 11 Belén – Fiambalà
A 40-minute advantage is all very well and good but with two back-to-back marathon stages to contend with and a fair chance of messing up on navigation no racer would take that advantage for granted, it would need defending. And Walkner defended it well. In the Stage 11 where cars and bikes mixed it on the same track, Walkner raced after Stephane Peterhansel in his Peugeot car and tailed him to make sure he stayed on track – a savvy way to minimise mistakes. Meanwhile teammate Toby Price let rip, as did Kevin Benavides (Monster Energy Honda) – the latter desperate to cut into Walkner’s advantage. And he did, while Price scored his first stage win of the rally, Benavides cut Walkner’s lead to 32 minutes; if the Argentinian could do this every stage and if Walkner made a mistake or two, it was still mathematically possible the win could go to Honda. Big news of the stage though was the withdrawal of Joan Barreda (Monster Energy Honda) who had started the day in second place. Alas, his tally of injuries had caught up with him. Barreda had injured a wrist before the rally, then injured his knee in Stage 7, collected a concussion in Stage 10 and eventually stopped mid-stage on day 11, plain exhausted.
Day 12 Fiambalà – San Juan
For the second time in this year’s rally a stage was cancelled (although the cars and trucks continued). The reasons were many and the overriding reason unclear. Fog meant the medic’s helicopters couldn’t fly in the morning. Rain swelled the river crossings making the possibly unsafe for the bikes, and finally riding behind tracks in the sand and dust of the second part of the stage was thought to invite disaster. Frustrating no doubt for Benavides, relief for Walkner. Nonetheless, as always there’s little actual rest as the riders still had to transfer to the Stage 13 start.
Day 13 San Juan – Córdoba
Part two of the Marathon had been avoided but Stage 13 offered a colossal challenge – a 907km day with 424km of times stage (broken into two parts) – plenty of potential there for disaster. And disaster indeed struck as fourth-placed Ricky Brabec (Monster Energy Honda) was forced to retire with electrical problems. Meanwhile Price and Benavides made a repeat of their attack plan and again finished 1-2, again with about 2 minutes separating them. And again Walkner played it safe, rolling in 11’32 behind Price, reducing his lead to 22’31.
Day 14 Córdoba – Córdoba
Last day, and not the hardest one, just 116km of liaison and a 120km special. At Walkner’s carefully calculated safe pace he’d get home safe, only complete disaster would deny him victory. And so it was, the Austrian sacrificed 5’38 to the storming Benavides, but that left him 16’53 to the good at the end of the rally. Yep, Benavides took the last stage of the rally – his first this year – and ran home a well-deserving runner-up while Price’s end of rally speed-up gained him third, ahead of teammate Antoine Meo.