The 409 vehicles on the start list inaugurated the Dakar like never before. After departing Jeddah along the Red Sea for a northbound 225 km transfer, the starting shot for the qualifying stage was fired at the entrance to the Medina region.
The opening 19 km sprint was a sign of things to come: sandy tracks and dunes in an all-sand timed sector in which the entrants crowned and gobbled up dunes, sometimes even broken bones, and climbed to an altitude of close to 400 masl. On this power hike, competitors were expected to bring their A-game from the beginning.
The caravan then headed northeast for a 614 km liaison to Ha’il, where the grand start podium awaited the participants for stage 1B on a loop course.
Stat of the Day
You can’t write “Sanders” without “sand”! The Australian sensation of the 2021 Dakar again showed his talent in a short, sandy stage that also saw runner-up Pablo Quintanilla thrive in his new home at Honda.
Daniel Sanders, who claimed top rookie honours and finished just outside the podium last year, grabbed his maiden Dakar stage win in the opener. It was a first in more than one way, as the Australian also netted GasGas its first triumph in the most prestigious rally raid on Earth. As the icing on the cake, it was the first victory for the KTM 450, the latest showpiece of the Mattighofen factory, unveiled in Morocco last year. Spain’s GasGas is the 13th constructor to take a stage in the Dakar motorbike race. The rally had not feted a new winner since 2010 when Sherco and Aprilia opened their accounts.
A Crushing Blow
“Nacho” Cornejo’s 25th place on the day, far from the top 15, which allowed competitors to pick their starting order in the following stage, may seem cause for concern. His three Honda teammates all played the little game of the qualifying stage, but only Pablo Quintanilla, second, came out ahead. Indeed, Barreda and Brabec, 10th and 12th, respectively, will have to settle for scraps when the time comes to choose their starting position for stage 1B.
Nacho, instead, concluded that the only winning move was not to play! His sandbagging cost him some time (8′45″), but he will be racing from a vantage point. The biker who last year fought for victory until two days before the finish made no secret of his strategy at the bivouac in Ha’il.