Dakar 2023’s opening week has been a stunning success for South African men and machines, with incredible results across all categories. SA-built cars lead three of Dakar’s four car categories to the traditional midway rest day, as South African riders led the way among the two wheelers too.
2022 car winners, Qatari Nasser Al-Attiyah and navigator Mathieu Baumel’s Gazoo Racing Hilux leads a proudly South African built Toyota 1-2-3 overall. Five SA Hiluxes occupy the top six after the first half of the race. South Africans, Brian Baragwanath and Leonard Cremer’s Century also leads the T1.2 4×2 class. German Daniel Schröder and his South African navigator, Ryan Bland, also lead the amateur T1.1 4×4 car class in their South African built PS Red-Lined VK50 .
Sunday was a red letter day for Southern Africans on two wheels too. Botswana star Ross Branch stormed to victory amongst the bikes. SA rookie Michael Docherty was sixth to take the day in the amateur R2 class and slash his rookie class second overall to just five minutes behind leader Neels Theric. 33rd overall, Charan Moore took yet another Malle Moto win to consolidate his lead in the no service class.
CARS: SOUTH AFRICAN DOMINATION
Navigation and opening the road up front appeared difficult on Sunday. Saturday’s car top five languished well down the order at mid distance. 31st place starters Carlos Sainz Sr. and Lucas Cruz’ Audi RS Q e-Tron led the way from overall leader Al Attiyah, and Sebastien Loeb in his Prodrive Hunter. Loeb later overtook Al Attiyah for second.
Sainz’ woes continued as a speeding penalty cost him an almost certain stage win. Loeb therefore won the stage ahead of Al Attiyah and penalty-stricken veteran, Carlos Sainz Sr. in third. SA duo Henk Lategan and Brett Cummings were fourth as top ten runners, Romain Dumas and Max Delfino Dumas ended ninth, with Baragwanath 20th and Giniel de Villiers and Dennis Murphy’s Gazoo Hilux 21st.
So, Al Attiyah leads a Toyota 1-2-3 by an hour from Lategan and rookie Moraes. Loeb has clawed back to fourth, seconds clear of de Villiers. Le Mans winner Dumas makes it five SA Hiluxes in the top six from Martin Prokop’s Ford Raptor in seventh and Baragwanath and Cremer’s SA-built Century that leads the T1.2 4×2 class in eighth overall. Schröder and Bland’s SA Red-Lined also leads the amateur T1.1 4x4s.
Looking back at the first week, the petrol-electric Audis hit the ground running. WRC legend Sainz took both the prologue and day 1 in the Audi. Al-Attiyah then won Day 2 as Sainz stayed ahead overall. Guerlain Chicherit’s Hunter took Day 3 as Attiyah in 13th moved into a lead he would not relinquish. Loeb then bounced back from his trouble the previous day to win on Wednesday.
Al Attiyah then consolidated his lead with double wins Thursday and Friday. Toyota GR Hilux duo, Saudi hero Yazeed Al Rajhi and Dirk van Zitzewitz hit back from a horrid week to win on Saturday before Loeb benefited from Sainz’ penalty to take a second win on Sunday.
Of the pros, Serradori sits 12th, Al Rajhi provisionally 17th, Prodrive trio Chicherit in 16th, Vaidotas Zala 39th and Orlando Terranova has retired. Sainz’ progress is scant reward after Dakar’s first week was particularly cruel to the highly vaunted petrol electric Audi team. He sits 37th overall with Ekstrom struggling and Stephane Peterhansel out after a disastrous first week.
BIKES: SA HEROES BRANCH, DOCHERTY, MOORE WIN
Sunday was also splendid for Southern Africa on two wheels. Botswana’s Ross Branch put a torrid first week behind him to take a storming win on his Hero. He ended a minute and 33 seconds clear of Mason Klein’s KTM, Daniel Sanders’ GasGas, Pablo Quintanilla and Adrien van Beveren’s Hondas, and SA rookie and R2 amateur class winner, Michael Docherty on his FK Husqvarna.
Branch and Docherty were in the mix from early Sunday, with Ross second behind Klein, and ahead of Sanders and Docherty. Branch moved into the lead as Pro riders, van Beveren on a Honda and Hero man Seb Bühler moved past Docherty as the morning wore on, but Iron Mike fought back to end sixth.
South Africa’s no service Malle Moto Original class leader Charan Moore meanwhile enjoyed another productive ride to 33rd overall. Compatriots, Malle Moto duo Stuart Gregory was 80th, rookie Stevan Wilken 86th, and Iron Lady heroine Kirsten Landman 89th.
The bike race has delivered exceptional racing with eight winners in eight days of racing. Toby Price’s KTM took the prologue before Ricky Brabec won day 1 on his Honda and then Klein took Monday’s race to lead overall. Sanders won on Tuesday, as Joan Barreda’s Honda then took Wednesday ‘s win as Sanders led overall.
Adrien van Beveren won Day 6 as the consistent American Skyler Howes took the overall lead on his Husqvarna. His teammate Luciano Benavides took Friday’s win as Howes stayed ahead overall. Saturday’s bike race was cancelled, before Branch made it 8 out of 8. Klein moved a mere 40 seconds clear of Howes overall, with Benavides, Price, Quintanilla, and van Beveren within 5 minutes of the lead.
Michael Docherty got off to a flying start early in the week, mixing it up with the pros up front, before struggling a little on the tough third and fourth days. He regrouped and forged back to second among the rookies. A fired up Sunday run saw him back up front to end sixth as he climbed to a provisional 21st overall at the rest day.
Charan Moore took control of Malle Moto from the get-go, winning the no service class on the prologue and four of the first seven days to emerge a comfortable original leader on Friday before Saturday’s stage was cancelled. 33rd on Sunday, he won Malle Moto again to sit 31st overall. Ross Branch suffered a dreadful midweek, before winning on Sunday to claw back to 35th overall.
Although exhausted by Friday, amateur SA Malle Moto duo Stuart Gregory and Kirsten Landman starred throughout. They sit 10th and 12th in the no service class, and 68th and 77th overall. Rookie Stevan Wilken had a clean run until a fall on Friday, but he bounced back to 80th overall.
Dakar has also been cruel to the bikers. 2022 winner Sam Sunderland and SA amateur Bradley Cox crashed out on Day 1. Sunday winner Brabec went out Monday and Hero rider Joaquim Rodriguez was one of ten bike retirements on Thursday. Sherco pro Rui Goncalves went out Friday, while Dakar has not been kind to troubled Hero duo Branch and Seb Bühler, among others.
EPIC ACTION IN ALL DAKAR CLASSES
Elsewhere, Christina Gutierrez Herrero took the T3 side-by-side prototype prologue. Red Bull teammates Francisco Lopez Contardo won Day 2, Mitch Guthrie day 3 and Austin Jones day 4. Guthrie won Thursday, and Seth Quintero Friday before Guilaume de Mevius broke the Red Bull stranglehold on Friday. Guthrie took a third win on Saturday and Joao Ferreira took the Sunday win.
Overall, de Mevius and Francois Casalet’s GR Racing leads a Red Bull throng of Jones, Quintero and Contardo after form man Guthrie fell well down after several issues. 7th placed South African crew Eben Basson and Abertus Pienaar enjoyed a strong week to lead the T3 rookies in their GR Rally, with compatriots Geoff Minnitt and Gerhard Snyman 14th in their HBE Can Am.
Rokas Baciuska leads Marek and Eryk Goczal in the T4 side-by-sides. Baciuska won the prologue before teen sensation Eryk Goczal took Day 1 and dad Marek Goczal won Day 2. Cristian Batista won Tuesday, Eryk Goczal Wednesday, and Baciuska took Thursday’s stage. Marek won Friday, Baciuska Saturday, and Jeremias Gonzalez on Sunday. Mozambican Paulo Oliveira and Miguel Alberty sit 26th overall.
Dominant throughout the early days, Frenchman Alexandre Giroud took control of the quads. He then rolled back the throttle to control the pace over Pablo Copetti, Friday winner Moreno Flores, Saturday and Sunday winner Manuel Andujar, and rookie Juraj Varga overall.
Ales Loprais, Petr Pokora and Jaroslav Valr’s Praga leads the trucks overall from Martin van den Brink and Janus van Kasteren’s Ivecos. Martin Macik’s Iveco took the Prologue and Day 1 before Loprais won on Monday. Gert Huznik’s Iveco won on Tuesday before retiring on Wednesday when Macik won again. Loprais, van den Brink, van Kasteren and Macik took the next four stage wins
Monday’s rest day will bring a much needed recharge to the four-wheeler crews after eight gruelling days of racing, while the bikers will enjoy their second day off in three. The action resumes on Tuesday with a rather different and mainly gravel 358 km long track. Tuesday’s stage will be the ninth of 14 stages to Haradh, where a few dunes will test crews toward the finish.
Words: Motorsport Media