Teams and riders in the Dakar caravan spent Sunday working on their bikes and preparing for the second half of the 8000 km trip on a north-south trajectory from Lima to Santiago, Chile after what has been an eventful first eight stages that has left all options open.
The 2013 edition of the Dakar Rally was always going to be eventful for the KTM factory teams right from the moment it was clear that Marc Coma stalwart team member to his biggest rival, Cyril Despres of France would not be competing. Coma was ruled out of contention around a week before the start of the rally when doctors declared he was not fully recovered from a shoulder injury incurred in a crash during the Morocco Rally. It was a bitter disappointment to the Spanish rider, and that left the team and fans alike bereft of what is always a magnificent fight between these teammates who are recognized as the two best riders in the world.
When the field of almost 200 riders left Lima on January 5 on the trek south, there was everything to play for. Organizers promised that the first half of the rally – four stages in Peru, a brief foray into Chile then across the Andes into Argentina – would be tough and there were certainly plenty of surprises as lead riders jockeyed for positions with both speed and tactics. Despres, a superb tactician, was playing his cards close to his chest and expected to make a break on Stage Seven, the first half of the two marathon days where riders were not allowed any outside assistance from their support teams. Then Despres had some mechanical issues and rode a good part of the seventh stage without his fifth gear, eventually struggling home in thirty-fourth place.
With one more day of the marathon to go the team decided to take some radical action. Thanks to the support and generosity of KTM supported rider Marek Dabrowski and the Orlen Team, Cyril was offered the generous ‘loan’ of the engine from Marek’s bike. What followed was a remarkable display of team spirit as Cyril and the riders of the KTM factory teams set about working through the night to switch engines on the two bikes.
Cyril Despres: “Already the decision to swap engines was a difficult one, but once we made it we actually had to put the plan into action. You could see that the other riders were a little surprised when we started work! Some people say that the Dakar isn’t the same anymore, but I tell you that night was the real spirit of the Dakar.”
Cyril got back in the race for Stage Eight, ironically shortened to half the planned timed special because of heavy overnight rain, with the intention of making up lost ground. Then, in an extraordinary turn of events, many of the leading group got lost in the last part of the special and this worked in Cyril’s favor. After adding the mandatory 15 minutes penalty for having changed his engine Cyril heads into the second half of the rally in fifth place with a deficit of around 24.5 minutes on the current overall leader, Frenchman David Casteu, and everything is still to play for.
Despite the setback for Despres, the KTM factory riders are doing exceptionally well so far. Ruben Faria is second overall and KTM rider Chaleco Lopez of Chile is third overall. There are six KTM riders in the top 10 and 11 in the top 20. American KTM factory rider Kurt Caselli, who was drafted in at the eleventh hour to ride in place of the injured Coma has been doing brilliantly and picked up his first stage win in Stage Seven. Team manager Alex Doringer was quick to praise both the team spirit and the efforts of all the factory riders.
Doringer: “There has been great teamwork and team spirit and the Ruben and Joan Pedrero are doing a great job. I am really pumped to see how well Caselli is doing as a newcomer and the Factory B Team (Darryl Curtis and Riaan Van Niekerk of South Africa and ‘Kuba’ Przygonski of Poland) are all doing great. We all know that the Dakar is not won in the first half; it’s won in Santiago at the finish line. Tomorrow will be long, difficult and fast. This should suit Cyril and I think he will be pushing. That means taking some risks but I am convinced that the he and the team will continue to do well.”
All seven official KTM factory riders – Despres, Faria, Pedrero, Caselli, Curtis, Van Niekerk and Przygonski – are in the top 20, together with another four KTM riders.
Stage Nine continues in Argentina and takes riders from Tucuman to Cordoba and they will ride for 852 km including another long timed special of 593 km – the longest stage in the 2013 edition that will deliver plenty of challenges to the remaining 139 riders.