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Sam Sunderland

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On Monday, Sam Sunderland was at the top of the leaderboard in the 2018 Dakar Rally, on his way to securing KTM’s 17th-straight Dakar Rally victory. By the next day however, Sunderland’s fortunes were much more different, with the treachery of the Dakar showing itself.

Taking a massive crash during on Tuesday, Sunderland’s Dakar Rally was over, thus ending his hopes for a back-to-back winning of the iconic off-road race.

The crash occurred during the timed “special” of Stage 4, with Sunderland’s KTM 450 Rally apparently crashing into a large hole. The crash was so severe, Sunderland worried that he had broken his back, with him unable to feel his legs after remounting and riding several more miles.

Thankfully, Sunderland has been cleared of any life-changing injuries, having suffered “only” two crushed discs in his spinal column.

Track days are winding down, the new machines for next year have already been revealed, and the cold of winter is upon us. For the motorcycle industry, this is the low-point of the season.

There is something to look forward to in the off-season, however, and it’s the Dakar Rally.

In just about one month’s time, the world’s top off-road racers will take part in what is called the most grueling motorcycle race on the planet.

The 2018 Dakar Rally is the 40th edition of the iconic rally raid, and once again it will take place far from its namesake, with competitors racing through Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina.

This year’s route will take racers to the Pacific Ocean, through the Huacachina sand dunes, and beyond, until they finish in Córdoba.

The 2017 Dakar Rally is done and dusted. The competitors are either already on their way home, or now spending a well-deserved vacation in South America, after tackling what is easily the most difficult motorcycle race on the planet.

The Dakar is of course iconic and well-known for its difficulty, where it is not uncommon to see riders perish on its course, but this year’s rally raid was billed as one of the most challenging editions of the Dakar Rally ever.

When a man like Marc Coma – a man who has won the race five times – tells you that, your default mode is to believe him.

Tackling that challenge were 143 riders, of which only on 96 made it all the way to Buenos Aires. And while KTM has been the dominant manufacturer for the past 15 years, the 2017 edition saw early on that any of the major four brands could have a hand on the trophy in Argentina.

Of course we know that KTM made it to a sweet 16th victory, sweeping the podium no less, but the results sheet betrays what happened on the course. As such, I wanted to share some notes I have from the 2017 Dakar Rally.

That’s it. The 2017 Dakar Rally is finally over, with Stage 12 concluding today in the capitol city of Buenos Aires, Argentina. With a short 64km timed special, the results were unlikely to change much, barring some sort of unexpected catastrophe.

Anything can happen in the Dakar Rally, and in what was billed as the toughest edition of this iconic race, we bet there were still some nervous hands during today’s session.

Two stages of the 2017 Dakar Rally had already been cancelled, and we had already seen top riders withdraw from this competition, namely KTM’s Toby Price, who dropped out while leading the Dakar, and Husqvarna’s Pablo Quintanilla, who withdrew while in second place.

As such, there was much delight when KTM’s Sam Sunderland not only finally finished his first full Dakar Rally, but did so by standing on the top step. Finally bucking his bad luck, Sunderland does so by also being the first British Dakar Rally winner, in any category.

The victory is also KTM’s 16th-straight Dakar Rally win, marking the occasion with an all-orange podium, as Matthias Walkner and Gerard Farres finished second and third behind Sunderland overall, respectively.

In fourth place is surely a frustrated Adrien van Beveren, the Yamaha rider finished just 48 seconds behind Farres, which is extra disappointing considering the one-minute penalty he received during Stage 11.

That is a tough break for the factory Yamaha team, though it shows that the Japanese manufacturer is a true contender now in the Dakar Rally.

The same can be said of Honda Racing, with the Monster Energy Honda Rally team showing tremendous potential as well, throughout the 2017 Dakar Rally.

If it had not been for a one-hour time penalty for a refueling mistake during Stage 4, Honda would have had two riders, Joan Barreda and Pablo Gonçalves, in winner’s contention. They finished fifth (+43 minutes) and sixth (+52 minutes) behind Sunderland, respectively.

We can expect Honda to be a strong contender in future editions of the Dakar Rally, and despite this year’s result, the racing through the rally raid showed that KTM’s dominance is no longer assured.

There are four manufacturers now capable of winning this iconic race, which bodes well for the future.

The penultimate stage of the 2017 Dakar Rally, Stage 11 was the last true opportunity for riders to make a run at the leaderboard, as Saturday’s stage involved only a 64km timed special.

With 286km of sand and dunes to navigate, it was once again the Honda riders that headed the pack. Leading from start to finish, Joan Barreda took his fourth stage victory (don’t let the Dakar video fool you with its lies), followed by his teammate Paulo Gonçalves, for another Honda one-two stage victory.

The result moved both Honda riders to well under their one-hour time penalty from early in the race, showing the strong pace and program that HRC has put together for the Dakar Rally.

Yamaha Racing too showed it promise, with Adrien van Beveren taking the third spot in the day’s honors. That result moves him, and Yamaha, closer to a podium in Buenos Aires (though not into third place yet, as the Dakar Rally video says).

Meanwhile at the top of the overall leaderboard, we saw the KTM riders doing a more conservative race, managing the half-hour gap to their would-be usurpers.

Sam Sunderland extended his lead by several minutes, finishing fourth for the day. With teammate Matthias Walkner finishing the day 10th, Sunderland extended his overall lead by several minutes.

Going into Buenos Aires, we don’t expect the overall order to change much. Though, we should warn, the Dakar is notorious for its sudden challenges.

Racing returns to the 2017 Dakar Rally, with Stage 10 taking the competitors from Chilecito to San Juan. The day had two timed special stages, with 449km of terrain to cover while under the stopwatch.

One of the last days to make time on the leaders, we saw some heroic rides from farther down the time sheet, while the top riders kept it conservative.

Of course, the big news of the day was the retirement of Pablo Quintanilla, who fainted during the stage, and gave up his #2 spot in the overall standings. This was a huge blow to Husqvarna’s Dakar hopes for 2017, as Pierre-Alexandre Renet is now the team’s top rider – 6th overall after today.

Fortunes were mixed for the Honda boys as well, as Joan Barreda took another stage win, and climbed to fifth overall. Barreda is now less than hour back from overall leader Sam Sunderland, which should be a topic of conversation after Honda’s one-hour time penalty for an illegal fueling.

The day would have been a one-two for Honda, but Michael Metge missed allegedly missed a waypoint, and was handed another one-hour time penalty for it.

Metge’s ride still was important for HRC though, as the French rider helped Barreda, after the Spaniard made a navigation error – like any good water-carrier does.

Stage 10 was billed as the most difficult stage of this year’s rally, and for Yamaha’s Adrien van Beveren it certainly was. Making mistakes on the course, Van Beveren finished 17th on the stage, which dropped him to 4th overall. He will need to make up over three minutes to get back into podium position.

For KTM, it was solid day of time management for Sam Sunderland, who finished in 12th, over 17 minutes behind Barreda. But, because his nearest rivals didn’t fare the day as well, Sunderland actually extended his overall lead by almost 10 minutes.

Sunderland now commands a 30-minute lead over teammate Matthias Walkner, and a 38-minute lead over fellow KTM rider Gerard Farres. For as much contention as there has been for the 2017 Dakar Rally leaderboard, it is looking very possible that we could see KTM sweep the podium when we get to Buenos Aires.

Tomorrow sees the Dakar Rally heading closer to the finish line, with 288km planned for the penultimate timed special. Riders will have to contend with their last set of sand dunes, which will come early in the stage, before hitting more “rally” styled roads.

This will likely be the last chance to see movement in the leaderboard, though never say never.

Stage 8 of the 2017 Dakar Rally continued to the marathon stage of the iconic race, where only racers can work on their machines, without the help of their mechanics.

Thus, Stage 8 tests the durability of one’s machinery, as well as one’s ability to ride conservatively -it is worth mentioning then that there are only 110 remaining motorcycle competitors remaining in The Dakar.

Don’t tell that to Honda’s Joan Barreda though, who once again blitzed the stage leaderboard. The Spaniard is surely unable to overcome his one-hour time penalty, but one has to wonder where Honda would be without it, as Bam Bam has impressed this edition of the Dakar Rally.

Stage 8 was originally planned to be 492km of two timed special stages, but flooding saw the course shortened by 72 km. With the day starting in Bolivia, the riders finished Stage 8 in Argentina, the final country of this Dakar Rally.

Despite Barreda’s result, KTM’s Sam Sunderland retains his overall lead, after finishing the day in third – just under four minutes back from Barreda. Matthias Walkner managed to squeeze his KTM between Barreda and Sunderland though, which moves him into fourth overall.

Wednesday’s Stage 9 was set to be a long day, with two timed specials totaling 406km. There have been some question marks though, as many of the team’s support crews have been stuck en route to the bivouac – roughly 200km away – because of landslides.

With the traveling circus quite spread out, there is some talk of safety concerns. As such, Stage 9 has been cancelled by the ASO.

This means that there are only really two more stages where the leaderboard can be affected, which is not a lot for the five riders who remain in reasonable contention. As such, expect to see some hard racing on Thursday and Friday.

After seeing Saturday’s stage cancelled, and with Sunday set on the schedule as a rest day, the 2017 Dakar Rally returned to racing-proper on Monday, with Stage 7.

Today’s special was originally conceived to be 322km long, but again the weather played a factor, and the timed section was cut down to just 160km. Sand dunes were the order of the day, which posed a challenge to some of the riders, both in navigation and time management.

For Honda, the day was very good, with American Ricky Brabec taking the day, followed closely his teammate Paulo Gonçalves. Sam Sunderland finished the day third, allowing him to maintain his overall lead in the standings. With three Hondas in the Top 5 though, the day truly goes to HRC.

Brabec’s win also continues the trend of a different rider winning each stage thus far of the 2017 Dakar Rally, an unusual circumstance in a race that usually sees a rider or two consistently rising above the rest of the field.

On that note, Xavier de Soultrait continues to impress on his Yamaha, fifth for the day, sixth overall, and still in the hunt for the overall win. Yamaha also can rely on Adrien van Beveren, who sits third overall, just behind Husqvarna’s Pablo Qunitanilla.

With three manufacturers in the Top 3, there will be a great deal of intrigue for the Dakar trophy, as we head into Argentina.

Monday night starts the marathon stage, meaning that only competitors can work on their machines in order to prep for Tuesday’s Stage 8. Without the help of their mechanics, we can expect some shake-up in Tuesday’s results from bike failures.

Weather has been pounding drought-stricken Bolivia recently, adding a further difficulty to the 2017 Dakar Rally. After seeing Stage 5 shortened because of the weather, Stage 6 was cancelled outright.

The ASO issued the following statement about the cancellation: “Considering the extreme climatic conditions and that some drivers are still on the stage course, considering that is impossible to bring the vehicles of all participants back to the bivouac and prepare the next stage in the best conditions, and considering that people of the organisation in charge of the reco of tomorrow’s stage course informed that the road is unpracticable, the 6th stage (ORURO-LA PAZ) has been cancelled.”

Stage 6 was supposed to be the longest day for Dakar competitors, with a planned 527km timed special section. That’s obviously no longer the case, with teams instead traveling by road via the liaison route – effectively giving Dakar racers the weekend off, with Sunday already scheduled to be a break from competition.

Stage 5 of the 2017 Dakar Rally was billed as another brutal challenge for the competitors still remaining. The high-altitude terrain of Bolivia certainly lived up to that expectation, but today’s special was cut in half, with severe weather interrupting the day’s gauntlet.

As such, only 219km of the planned 447km special were ridden, but that “short” distance was enough to once again upheave the overall standings, with several riders losing time from navigational errors and penalties.

Sam Sunderland took the top honors for the day, breathing hope back into KTM’s 2017 Dakar Rally. Sunderland’s victory may have only been by seven minutes, but the gaps were with the right people, as he now stands 20 minutes ahead of Pablo Quintanilla – the previous overall leader.

Quintanilla finished the stage in seventh, losing some time on a navigational error out of a river bed. The Chilean’s conservative approach perhaps did him well though, as his fellow Husqvarna teammate Pela Renet lost over 45 minutes looking for the waypoint around the 152km mark.

With less to lose, the Honda riders pushed hard in Stage 5, though it can’t be said that the results benefited from their gamble. Only Franco Caimi (Honda South America Rally Team) and Paulo Gonçalves (Monster Energy Honda Team), put a Honda in the Top 15 of the day’s rankings.

Gonçalves sits 10th overall for his efforts, one hour and eight minutes behind Sunderland, which could create some interesting “what if” thoughts for the HRC squad, after yesterday’s one-hour time penalties for fueling in a prohibited zone.

Not much has been said this year about the Yamaha Racing effort, but Stage 5 saw a strong performance from Adrien van Beveren, who finished third for the day and seized the same position overall. At just 16 minutes back in the overall standings, Van Beveren is very much in the hunt for this year’s Dakar.

Yamaha’s Xaiver de Soultrait is also in the hunt, sitting 36 minutes back in sixth place. With two KTMs, two Yamahas, and a Husqvarna all with a reasonable hand on the winner’s trophy still, this is certainly shaping up to be an interesting Dakar Rally.

Tomorrow sees the circus traveling the capital city of La Paz. With 527km of special planned, we expect to see more shuffling of the leaderboard.

The 2017 Dakar Rally starts today, and over the next 13 days we will be bringing you all the news of this grueling race for cars, trucks, quads, and of course motorcycles.

Toby Price is favored to win in 2017, the Australian once again on a KTM 450 Rally. He won’t have an easy time of it though, with riders from Honda, Husqvarna, Yamaha, and even within his own KTM Racing team all having a shot at this year’s addition.

To hoist the winner’s trophy though, riders will be tested over 12 stages, seven of which have timed sections of 400km or more. As fans should be well aware of, anything can happen over those 12 stages.

For 2017, the Dakar Rally will start in Paraguay for the first time ever (the race’s 29th host country), before it heads to Bolivia, and then ends in Argentina.

Six days will be spent above 3,000 meters in elevation, and Dakar Sporting Director Marc Coma says it will be the most grueling Dakar Rally ever – as a five-time winner himself, Coma’s words should be taken with a heavy burden.

To get you in the mood for the 38th running of the Dakar Rally (the 9th in South America), we bring you a bevy of photos of the bike that everyone wants to beat: the 2017 KTM 450 Rally.