The 14th and final stage of the 40th Dakar Rally unfolded without much drama and saw Red Bull KTM Factory Racing Team’s Matthias Walkner ride relatively conservatively to a safe ninth place in the stage, more than enough to let him claim the overall motorcycle title. It marked the first time an Austrian had earned the crown, though it was KTM’s 17th consecutive Dakar motorcycle title.
The relatively short loop course began and ended in Córdoba, Argentina, with 166 kilometers of liaison or transfer section and 120 of timed special stage for all-out racing. Navigation would still be called for, however, and the twist for the final stage of the nearly 9,000-kilometer event saw an inverted start order with the faster riders starting last, each 30 seconds apart. But the top 10 started 50 minutes afterward at two-minute intervals for the 10th-through-sixth-placed riders and three-minute spreads for the fifth- through first-place riders to provide less traffic for the top 10 to fight through and let them fight among themselves. (The last bike of the “slow” group started just five minutes ahead of the first of the “slow” cars; Walkner, being the fastest motorcycle, set off 30 minutes after the fastest of the “slow” car group and 15 minutes before the slowest of the “fast” cars. Added incentive?)
Sitting fairly solidly in second overall, Monster Energy Honda Team’s Kevin Benavides put on a show for his fellow Argentineans aboard his works CRF450 Rally. Second to last of the 85 surviving bikes to start (ahead of only Walkner), he quickly made up ground and set fastest time at each waypoint, finishing the comparatively short sprint in one hour, 26 minutes and 41 seconds. That guaranteed him second overall as he beat Walkner’s teammate and 2016 Dakar winner Toby Price by 54 seconds while the overall leader took it easy, finishing with the eighth-fastest time of 1:32:19. Overall, Walkner’s provisional final time was 43:06:01 followed by Benavides at 43:22:54 and Price on 43:29:02.
Walkner was naturally ecstatic and exclaimed, “It’s unbelievable! I can’t describe how it feels. This year’s Dakar has been so difficult, easily the toughest rally of my career. Navigation has been tricky pretty much every day. At the beginning of the race, all the top guys were so close with not much time between us. I just tried to keep on doing well each day without making any mistakes. Things were so tight right up to my stage victory. After that I aimed to finish each day safely and get to the end of the rally without losing my advantage. Luckily, the tactics worked out, and I’m here at the end now as the winner and it feels unreal. Thank you to my team and everyone that has supported me. We did it!”
A happy Benavides summed up the past two weeks saying, “It’s been a great Dakar. I’m really happy and I felt great. It’s been really tough. We fought right up until the end. We always had a great strategy. We were always on the podium and even leading the race at one point. It’s a shame about what happened in stage 10, but we have to keep looking forward. We’ve finished second overall and we have won the final stage, which we knew we could.”
Third overall for Price was more than he could’ve predicted and his ride made many forget that this was his first big race since crashing out of the 2017 Dakar, as he’s spent all year since then recovering. He shared, “The final stage is over and it went really well. I’m happy to get to the finish line; that was always the main goal right from the start. I tried to push today to make up the time on Kevin, but halfway through I knew five minutes was just too much [to make up in such a short stage] and so I just aimed for a safe finish.
“To finish the Dakar is an achievement in itself. To come away at the end of this year’s race with a podium is unbelievable, especially after the year I’ve had. The whole team has come together and worked so hard; none of us could do it without them. I’ll concentrate on the 2018 season now and try to get a little stronger and come back here next year looking for the top step.”
With Brabec’s disappointing exit yesterday, four American remained and on the day, SCORE Baja rivals Shane Esposito and Mark Samuels went back and forth almost the entire stage. Once back in Córdoba, Esposito learned he had the upper hand, the privateer Duust Rally Team rider and his rented KTM 450 Rally Replica edging Samuels for 13th place in 1:38:13. Samuels ended up just behind in 1:38:22 aboard his factory-backed MEC Team Honda CRF450 Rally. Overall, though, Samuels had a better finish, 21st, in 49:17:07 while “Espo” claimed 25th at 50:43:45.
Both, however, were behind the third American rookie, Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory Racing Team’s Andrew Short and his works FR 450 Rally, who rode to a conservative 25th in the stage while nursing a possibly broken ankle and a respectable 17th overall in 47:19:43.
“I’m so happy to make it to the finish,” Short declared. “That was a very tough 14 days of racing. I hurt my ankle yesterday and only just made it to the finish. Today’s tracks were a lot smoother. There was a lot of dust everywhere, and I think most people were taking things a little easier.
“I had some crashes over the course of the event, but it hasn’t dampened my spirits. It’s always been a dream of mine to compete in the Dakar and it’s been interesting how I’ve handled the challenge. We’ve had some adverse weather, but that hasn’t been as bad as I had expected; I was okay at the altitude too.
“I knew I’d have some crashes, but to have four at high speed is something I didn’t expect. The speed is something that’s surprised me a little. I’m okay in the dunes and the off-piste stuff, but on some of the tracks you’re riding at full throttle for what seems like hours.
“I thought my overall pace would be a little better, but I’ve come away from the event having learned a lot, and I know what I need to work on to improve. I’m looking forward to the rest of the season now and then hopefully I’ll be more prepared for the 2019 Dakar.”
The 20th rider to leave the start this morning, Bill Conger, got his rented Klymciw Racing Team Husky FR 450 Rally successfully to the finish after DNFing his first attempt six years ago. Perhaps feeling the excitement at his accomplishment, he notched his best stage finish of the race, setting the 56th fastest time and easily holding onto his 66th overall in 69:46:13.
And once again, KTM Factory Racing Team/KH-7’s Laia Sanz deserves mention, the versatile Spanish woman proving to be in a class of her own. Eleventh in the final stage, she finishes 12th overall provisionally—coincidentally where she ended up after the first stage—in 46:02:03.
“I am so happy to get to the finish; I am really pleased with my position, too,” she said. “It has been a very tough rally. I had two big crashes, which luckily didn’t cause too much damage to me or the bike. I am exhausted now but feel good because I am here, safely at the finish. I want to thank all the team for their help and now it’s finally time to relax!”
And that’s something that all of the 191 competitors (as well as their support staff and organization) deserve. In the end, 85 motorcycles (a 61 percent finishing rate), 32 ATVs (65 percent), 49 cars/side-by-sides (48 percent) and 25 trucks (57 percent) finished the nearly 9,000-kilometer trek from Lima, Peru, to Córdoba. Though some contemplate retiring, you can bet most are already planning for another run in 2019. But will anyone be able to prevent KTM from winning 18 in a row?
|Ranking||Rider Number||Rider||Team||Overall Time||Overall Time From Leader||Penalty|
|1||2||Matthias Walkner||Red Bull KTM Factory Team||43:06:01||00:01:00|
|2||47||Kevin Benavides||Monster Energy Honda Team||43:22:54||00:16:53|
|3||6||Toby Price||Red Bull KTM Factory Team||43:29:02||00:23:01|
|4||19||Antoine Méo||Red Bull KTM Factory Team||43:53:29||00:47:28||00:01:00|
|5||3||Gerard Farrés Guell||Himoinsa Racing Team||44:07:05||01:01:04|
|6||40||Johnny Aubert||GasGas Motorsport||44:59:54||01:53:53||00:20:00|
|7||61||Oriol Mena||Hero Motosports Team Rally||45:28:53||02:22:52|
|8||10||Pablo Quintanilla||Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory Racing||45:30:06||02:24:05|
|9||29||Daniel Oliveras Carreras||Himoinsa Racing Team||45:43:21||02:37:20|
|10||68||Jose Ignacio Cornejo Florimo||Monster Energy Honda Team||45:48:37||02:42:36|
|17||54||Andrew Short||Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory Racing||47:19:43||04:13:42|
|21||64||Mark Samuels||MEC Team||49:17:07||06:11:06||01:00:00|
|25||103||Shane Esposito||Duust Rally Team||50:43:45||07:37:44||02:05:00|
|66||105||Bill Conger||Klymciw Racing||69:46:13||26:40:12||00:05:00|