Don’t win. That’s the winning strategy for 2019. Stage wins mean you lead out on the next day and that costs time as the navigation is so damn tricky. So go fast, but don’t be the fastest. But even doing that isn’t easy…
Stage 7: Sunderland’s second win
When you’re 20 minutes off the lead, you have no choice, especially this late in the rally, and so Sam Sunderland simply had to attack on stage 7 if he was to be in with a chance of the rally win as the rally comes to an end. The Brit flew, won the day and did a great job of halving his deficit on the lead, although that could be undone, of course, given the subsequent responsibility/handicap/millstone that comes with opening the next stage.
Such is the one-up one-down nature of the rally, this stage was Pablo Quintanilla’s turn to lead off (having won stage 6), and like the rest he too struggled to navigate from out front over virgin terrain, losing over 21 minutes to Sunderland. That struggle swapped, for him, a 4:38 minute lead overall into a near-10-minute deficit, dropping him from leader into fifth place overall. This in turn put Ricky Brabec into the overall lead with a handsome 7.47 minute buffer over new second place Adrien Van Beveren, with Toby Price third and Sunderland back into fourth.
Stage 8: Brabec’s exit
Stage 8 was Sunderland’s to open – with all the potential for navigational turmoil and huge time losses. Only he didn’t open, as issues with his Iritrack saw his start delayed and he didn’t get going until later. Honda HRC clearly weren’t entirely convinced this was coincidence as they reported, ‘Nacho (Cornejo) was forced to open the way given that Sunderland claimed to have bike issues and consequently started later’. So Honda HRC was left with the unenviable position of having Cornejo and Brabec lead out – but the pair planned to work together to hopefully speed-up navigation and minimize their losses. That didn’t happen as Brabec ‘lost power’ on his Honda at kilometre 56 and was out. Same as last year – three days from the end, then 52km into the stage, this time 56km – Brabec was understandably ‘without words’. Terrible luck
Meanwhile another KTM rider was in a situation of having to scorch a fast time regardless of the consequences; this time it was Matthias Walkner who also needed get himself closer to the lead. Quintanilla also had to charge to make back those lost 15 minutes, and he did. Finishing just 45 seconds behind Walkner the Chilean is back in second place overall. So come Stage 9 will Walkner and Quintanilla work together as Cornejo and Brabec had intended in Stage 8? Not in the same team, but both bikes out of Austria…
Now this should have left Van Beveren with the lead, only the Frenchman picked the wrong day to get lost too, lucky to lose just 11 minutes on the day’s winner. All of this left Price ‘holding the baby’. Despite clearly riding in excruciating pain with a wrist injury (he picked up a month before the rally), the 2016 Dakar Rally winner jumped from third into the lead.
How do you win?
So here’s the conundrum. How do you win by placing second or third, especially when you need to make up time? For Price, now, the job is to try and mark his rivals, maybe best done by sitting on Quintanilla’s tail, to protect his 1-minute advantage. Quintanilla, meanwhile, needs to take that minute – and a bit more for safety – back from Price, but without taking the win. Walkner and Sunderland still need to grab back six minutes each, but doing so probably puts them in the course opener position for the final stage, which could cost them the overall win… Van Beveren with a near-10 minute deficit probably doesn’t have any tactics left other than go for the win on Stage 9 and try and hope for the best on the final day if he is leading out (or have an Iritrack issue).
RUST predictions for the rally victor: Arguably any of the top-five could still win the rally. But best placed is Toby Price, he can watch the others and adjust his strategy to suit. His only point of weakness is his wrist – he has to nurse that. And really, a 1-minute advantage isn’t that much, one slight navigational error could put paid to his chances. The man to watch, then – Quintanilla. Hopefully, for him, he can pace himself off Walkner (who needs to charge) to put time into Price, but not leave himself too close to the front as to be opening on the final stage… Hmm, Price versus Quintanilla for the win…?
Sam Sunderland has been penalized an hour (on the morning of Stage 9) as the rally organisers were clearly as skeptical as Honda HRC about his Iritrack issues, the race direction say he modified his Iritrak system to forego opening the course… That’s Sunderland’s hopes for the win dashed. So too Honda HRC’s as their remaining nearly-a-contender Kevin Benavides (in sixth overall) was observed to be carrying additional route notes on his bike in stage 8 and has received a three-hour penalty for that. Pays not to play games with the ASO…
Dakar Rally 2019
Overall positions after eight stages (of 10)
1. Toby Price Red Bull KTM 28:53:08
2. Pablo Quintanilla Rockstar Energy Husqvarna +01:03
3. Matthias Walkner Red Bull KTM +06:35
4. Sam Sunderland Red Bull KTM +06:38
5. Adrien Van Beveren Yamalube Yamaha +09:54
6. Kevin Benavides Monster Energy Honda +21:41
7. Andrew Short Rockstar Energy Husqvarna + 39:27
8. Xavier de Soultrait Yamalube Yamaha +46:17
9. Luciano Benavides Red Bull KTM + 1:04:24
10. Jose Cornejo Monster Energy Honda +1:05:44