2018 Dakar Rally Motorcycle Preview: Will KTM Claim 17 Straight?

2018 Dakar Rally Motorcycle Preview: KTM's Sam Sunderland
KTM's Sam Sunderland

2018 Dakar Rally Motorcycle Preview

For those into off-road motorcycle racing, January means much more than the start of the New Year. This month also hosts the world’s most grueling race, the Dakar Rally.

This year’s Dakar Rally begins Saturday, January 6, and runs through Saturday, January 20,. The 40th edition of the infamous dirt race will take motorcycle riders nearly 5,200 miles through 14 stages, with about 2,609 of those miles timed specials.

Like last year’s Dakar Rally, the 2018 event will begin in Lima, Peru, and travel through Bolivia before ending in Cordoba, Argentina. It will also feature two marathon stages where riders will have zero access to pit crews.

2018 Dakar Rally Motorcycle Preview: KTM's Sam Sunderland
KTM’s Sam Sunderland

This year’s grid features 167 motorcycle entries, including five Americans: former Monster Energy Supercross pilot Andrew Short (factory Husqvarna); Ricky Brabec (factory Honda); Mark Samuels (factory-backed Honda); Bill Conger (privateer, Husqvarna); and Shane Esposito (privateer, KTM).

All eyes will be on the Red Bull KTM team of Sam Sunderland, Toby Price, Matthias Walkner and Antoine Meo as KTM looks to claim 17-straight Dakar Rally victories. The men who split 10 of those wins were Dakar legends Marc Coma and Cyril Despres. Coma isn’t competing, but is the Sporting Director of Dakar Rally. As for Despres, he will once again be competing in a Peugeot on the car side.

Sunderland enters the 2018 Dakar Rally with the number-one plate aboard the all-new KTM 450 Rally, which was highly revised over last year’s model. KTM says a new engine and management system provides more accurate throttle response; a new chassis and swingarm provides sharper handling; and newly designed fuel tanks and bodywork ensure the bike feels slimmer and is more maneuverable.

Last year Sunderland only claimed one stage victory, but after winning stage five he took the lead and eventually the 2017 Dakar Rally overall win – a first for a British rider. The 28-year old, who resides in Dubai, was also the first Brit to win a Dakar stage since John Deacon (1998).

Sunderland, who was joined on the overall podium at 2017 Dakar Rally by teammate Walkner and KTM-supported rider Gerard Farres Guell, is not set to replicate his 2017 performance.

“I am feeling really positive. I’m feeling really fast and strong on the new 450 – my fitness is good at the moment and I have no injuries. We have had the final shake down test on the new bike and it went very well,” Sunderland says.

“There’s always a lot of work and preparation in the last couple of months on the run up to Dakar. Trying to balance all the factors of testing, training and traveling always makes for a busy time before Dakar.

“Now I would like to be able to reward the team for all their hard work with a good result, which is what I’m working towards. We were able to do that at the bike’s first outing in Morocco when Matthias took the win. Everyone in the team is focused on Dakar.”

2018 Dakar Rally Motorcycle Preview: KTM's Matthias Walkner
KTM’s Matthias Walkner

But his teammate Walkner will put in every effort to claim his first Dakar win, hoping to better his second-place finish last season: “It’s been a long year and a season of ups and downs for me. To finish the championship on a high and on a bike that suits me so well is a massive confidence boost. My feeling on the new bike allows me to push that little bit harder and it has taken my riding to the next level.

“Nobody can predict what will happen at the Dakar, but the team have done an amazing job preparing the bike for the event and I am feeling really good. Hopefully all that hard work will pay off and we can come away with another win for KTM. Before that there’s much more training and riding to do, to be in the best shape I can before the start of the race.”

As these two will without a doubt battle, two Americans will be watched closely for podium finishes – or a first-time victory for an American: Andrew Short and Ricky Brabec.

Short transitioned from the AMA Supercross and Motocross series to join the the Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory Racing Rally team for the 2018-2019 seasons. Short, who spent 16 years competing in MX/SX, decided to switch to the rally team after competing in the 2017 Sonora Rally in Mexico; he finished third overall.

2018 Dakar Rally Motorcycle Preview: Husqvarna's Andrew Short
Husqvarna’s Andrew Short

Short will pilot an FR 450 Rally in 2018 Dakar, and ride alongside two-time FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Champion Pablo Quintanilla.

Speaking ahead of Dakar, Short said: “I’m really excited about taking the start of my first Dakar. After racing motocross and supercross for 16 years as a professional experience becomes automatic year after year. Being a rookie for rally racing I can admit the anticipation and nerves are higher than normal.

“Since I took the decision to switch into rally racing a few months ago, I did everything possible to better prepare myself for the Dakar challenge. My goal is to keep my mind calm during the next few days and be ready to take in all the new experiences. I want to learn and improve as the race goes on. The cold and the heat and the sand dunes will be the biggest challenge for me and not so much the sand dunes. I’m really excited for this challenge and I believe it’s going to be a life experience. I want to get to the end of this race so that I can get better for the future.”

Brabec is the other top American rider in 2018 Dakar. Last year he claimed his first stage victory at Dakar aboard the Honda CRF450 Rally. He is fresh off the wins at Sonora Rally and second place a the Vegas to Reno desert race, where he finished behind teammate Joan Barreda.

2018 Dakar Rally Motorcycle Preview: Honda's Ricky Brabec
Honda’s Ricky Brabec

“A few days before the 40th edition of the Dakar and we are here in Lima setting up,” Ricky Brabec says. “The team is looking good. Our bivouac situation is really nice; our bikes are perfectly built. We had a shakedown and testing which went well. Now with just a day to go we are going to rest and have a last team meeting.

“The team will be on their own for the next sixteen days racing through the South American desert. Hopefully we can place the Hondas on the top of the podium or the top three or top five. We’ll do our best and fight our hardest to get up there and make Honda proud.”

The race begins Saturday, January 6. Stay clicked to Ultimate Motorcycling for daily reports and results.