Dakar 2019: Sam Sunderland: "I'm not going to play it safe!"

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Britain’s great Dakar hope Sam Sunderland says he’s ready and waiting for the start of the 2019 Dakar Rally which kicks off on 6th January.


The 29 year old who became the first Brit ever to win the arduous race in 2017 believes this year’s race will post a whole host of new challenges. Set to be over ten stages and exclusively in Peru, there’s close to 2000 miles of timed special stages 70% of which are sand meaning that not only will the riding be incredibly hard and tiring, but tactics will be paramount to success.

Speaking to MCN, Sunderland said: "I’ve been working my ass off over the last few months and I’m ready and feeling strong. I just want to get going. This years race is all in Peru so ten days all in the dunes, which is going to be physically tough and there will be a lot a strategy.”

Racing in sand means that apart from the rider opening the stage, everyone else will always have tracks to follow and that means chasing riders have the potential to make up time on riders in front.

To counteract the advantage or disadvantage of opening a stage, the race organisers have played with the format of this years race in a bid to keep things open and equal. The opening day riders will star in reverse order meaning the fast riders will set off last. On stage two, the cars will set off before the bikes and there will be mass starts in each class on stages five and nine. The eighth stage of the race will see the top 10 bikes, top ten cars and top five trucks all set off at the same time. There is also a Marathon stages where riders do not return the bivouac at the end of the stage which means they do not receive any outside assistance from their respective teams.

Speaking about the additional challenges, Sunderland said: “It’s going to be really physical, really tough and with a lot of unknowns. We’re just going to have to see how things play out  and take it one day at a time. I’m expecting a tough race and because there are a lot of unknowns the outcome will come down to one or two key moments. It’ll be down to where the hard navigation falls and whether you are opening the stage or able to follow because there will be the potential to make up a lot of time. There is also a lot of Fesh Fesh (deep sand with the consistency of talcum powder that is notoriously difficult to ride), in south Peru which is never fun!”

Despite the additional challenges and the fact that it’s going to be so physical due to the amount of time riding in big sand dunes, one thing Sunderland remains adamant about is the need to be pushing as hard as possible. As far as he’s concerned Dakar 2019 will not be about playing it safe.

“The race is so intense now with a lot of fast guys – you only have to look at my team as we’ve got the last three Dakar winners in it. Everyone is twisting the throttle.

"You can’t afford to play the safe game. Before when Marc Coma and Cyril Despres were winning they would play it safe because they knew that even if a young guy came out and won a stage by five minutes, there was a 90% chance that he wasn’t going to arrive at the finish. Where as now there are probably ten guys that can ride really fast and there is a good chance that three or four of them will finish. So if you play the safe game you won’t be on the podium, you probably won’t even be in the top five. I think the level is a lot closer so you need to push and try and pick your moments to really attack wisely – but that is not always easy."

The men to beat 

Sunderland’s list of rivals is long, made up of past winners, yound guns and veterans. With manufacturers like Honda, Yamaha, Sherco and Husqvarna all running official factory teams in a bid to end KTM’s utter dominance of the race that means they have been unbeaten during the last 17 Dakar’s.

Matthias Walkner
Red Bull KTM Factory Racing Team
Age: 32
Nationality: Austrian
Form: 2018 Dakar winner, 2nd in 2017
Career stage wins: 2

Toby Price
Red Bull KTM Factory Racing Team
Age: 31
Nationality: Australian
Form: 2016 Dakar winner, 3rd in 2015 and 2018
Career stage wins: 9

Adrien Van Beveren
Yamalube Yamaha Official Rally Team
Age: 27
Nationality: French
Form: Leading Dakar 2018 until crash on stage ten, 4th in 2017
Career stage wins: 1

Joan Barreda
Monster Energy Honda
Age: 35
Nationality: Spanish
Form: 5th in 2017
Career stage wins: 21

Kevin Benavides
Monster Energy Honda
Age: 29
Nationality: Argentinian
Form: Runner-up in 2018, 4th 2016 

Paolo Goncalves
Monster Energy Honda
Age: 39
Nationality: Portuguese
Form: Runner-up in 2015, 6th 2017, Ridden in ten Dakars.
Career stage wins: 3

Paulo Quintanilla
Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory Racing
Age: 32
Nationality: Chilean
Form: 3rd in 2016, 4th 2015
Career stage wins: 1

The Race

Date:  6th to 17th January

Stages: 10

Total distance: 3,440 miles

Timed Specials distance: 1788 miles

No. of bikes entered: 149

Percentage of route in sand: 70%


Start: Lima

Stage 1: Lima to Pisco Total 205 miles with 52 mile Special Stage

Stage 2: Pisco to San Juan Total 343 miles with 212 mile Special Stage

Stage 3: San Juan to Arequipa Total 495 miles with 205 mile Special Stage

Stage 4: Marathon stage. Arequipa to Moquengua Total 317 miles with 218 mile Special stage

Stage 5: Marathon stage. Moquengua to Arequipa. Total 482 miles with 214 mile Special stage


Stage 6: Arequipa to San Juan Total 521 miles with 197 mile Special stage

Stage 7: San Juan to San Juan Total 240 miles with 201 mile Special stage

Stage 8: San Juan to Pisco Total 358 miles with 223 mile Special stage

Stage 9: Pisco to Pisco Total 254 miles with 194 mile Special stage

Stage 10: Total 223 miles with 70 mile Special stage

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Michael Guy

By Michael Guy

Sports Editor, former 250-racer and adventure rider