This past weekend marked the halfway point of the 2015 Dakar Rally. I spoke with Martino Bianchi, general manager of Team HRC, whose riders are first and third, respectively. Joan Barreda has led the overall classification since stage 2. After stage 7, he had a six-minute, 28-second advantage over four-time race-winner Marc Coma (KTM). Barreda’s Honda teammate, Paulo Goncalves, was third, plus 10 minutes, 59 seconds.
“We met the first target,” Bianchi said. “We are leading, and all the factory riders, plus the three riders of Honda South Americana, are still in the race.” Of the original 168 entries, more than one-third have already retired, so this is a great achievement.
Chilean Pablo Quintanilla (KTM) and Australian Toby Price (KTM) close out the top five, 25 and 29 minutes behind the leader. The winner of stage 6, Helder Rodrigues (Honda), is sixth overall. The lone female, Laia Sanz (Honda), is 14th.
Yamaha’s factory riders are struggling. “It’s a new project,” Alessandro Botturi said. “We started with higher expectations. I’m 11th overall, but it’s so hard. I jumped on the new WR450F only in October. We didn’t have enough time to test, and the bike lacks rigidity.” His teammate, Michael Metge, is 17th. Olivier Pain, third overall last year, is 21st.
The first part of the race was tough, especially stage 2, Villa Carlos Paz to San Juan, in Argentina, where the riders covered 322 miles of timed section battling torrid temperatures and extremely challenging terrain. After winning the opening stage, promising Brit Sam Sunderland crashed his KTM on the second day and injured his shoulder.
The third stage, San Juan to Chilecito, saw a newcomer, three-time FIM MX3 World Champion Matthias Walkner (KTM), claim his first stage win. Supported by Dakar legend Heinz Kinigadner, the Austrian showed his talent, although he lacks navigation experience.
Barreda won the fourth stage, from Chilecito to Copiapo, when the caravan climbed the Andes to 15,500 feet at Paso San Francisco, which connects Argentina and Chile. Coma claimed his first stage win the following day, a 285-mile-long special that led the riders to Antofagasta across fast roads and fine, powdery sand known as “fesh-fesh,” where even supreme bike control does not guarantee success. When the route climbed the Pacific coast north toward Iquique, Rodrigues was the fastest rider on the rocky terrain. In stage 7, Barreda crashed, breaking his handlebar. Goncalves won, with Coma second.
On Sunday, the bikes were scheduled to cross the Bolivian border for the first of two marathon stages, during which no assistance is allowed at the bivouac. If the weather is good, a départ en ligne (mass start) on the spectacular Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt lake, was planned for the first time since the rally moved to South America.
For now, the battle is between Barreda and Coma. Barreda is very fast, but he crashed a lot in the past. He has matured in both navigation and riding technique, so he could be a contender for the first step of the podium. Coma, meanwhile, knows how to win Dakar. He is confident that the sub-seven-minute gap to Barreda is not a huge obstacle. “The race is still long,” he said. “There is no strategy at the moment. I will do my race.”
For the final verdict, we must wait until January 17, when the caravan returns to Buenos Aires after covering more than 5,500 miles.