The first stage of the 43rd edition of the Dakar Rally 2021 in Saudi Arabia was held along the Jeddah-Bisha route on Sunday, January 3.
As in 2020, the Dakar contestants set off to conquer vast expanses of the Arabian Peninsula from the port city of Jeddah, which has spread its ancient streets and squares on the shore of the Red Sea. Only now the race is taking place with one important but: strict control due to the coronavirus pandemic, which excludes any contact of crew and team members with the outside world and limits intersections inside the bivouac.
The prologue that was held on January 2 in the vicinity of the second largest city of Saudi Arabia and its economic capital allowed the racers to feel the spirit of the Dakar, which general route will loop the kingdom and stretch for 8000 kilometers (4800 of which will be speed sections), and end in two weeks at the start point. These 11 kilometers of the zero stage allowed the organizers to “move” the newbies and give more experienced pilots the opportunity to take high places in the starting protocol of the first stage of the marathon. After all, the Dakar is not only an adventure, but also a struggle for results and prizes.
Saturday’s practice run helped the crews roll into the race and once again test their sports vehicles under conditions close to extreme. Among 321 vehicles announced for the Dakar, only 299 were allowed to start (including 23 Dakar Classic vehicles).
The organizers have prepared a completely new route in 2021. And one already doesn’t expect to meet familiar directions, as it was in South America in the last decade. The first stage in the direction to the southeast of Saudi Arabia passed almost the entire distance on a gravel surface and was fraught with danger in the form of stony areas. In such conditions it was important to save tires.
The truck category, which preserved all 44 trucks applied to the Dakar, was opened at 13:30 by the Belarusian crew of Siarhei Viazovich on MAZ. After 9 minutes the truck of KAMAZ-master team managed by Anton Shibalov, the fifth in the prologue, set off to conquer the 277-kilometer distance. Andrey Karginov and Dmitry Sotnikov took the start at 13:48 and 13:49, respectively. Airat Mardeev, who returned to the Dakar as a racing pilot a year later, crossed the starting line at 13:53.
Already at the first control point Anton Shibalov showed the best time. Crew No 501 kept the lead until the third time mark, leaving the chasers behind for more than a minute. However, sharp stones, which the organizers had warned about, got in the way of the truck. It took about 10 minutes to replace the punctured wheel.
Anton Shibalov, pilot of crew No 501: “We had a good start of the day, we drove well and steadily. There were a lot of stones. Although the organizers indicated that there would be 3 percent of them at the stage, it seemed that there were much more of them. Plus a lot of low trees and bushes that hurt trucks. Along the distance we caught up with Macik and one of the MAZs, signaled them, but they did not really try to let us pass. We had to follow them in dust along the winding stony canyons, where we caught a large stone. We saw it at the last moment, tried to go aside, but ran over it with the front right wheel. The replacement took about 10 minutes. We lost another five minutes for not getting into the right way. There was that kind of a trap, and Macik was also wandering around. We got out and went to the finish line.“
Then the high pace of passing the special stage was caught by Airat Mardeev, but problems with navigation in the second half of the distance threw the driver to the final tenth place. The victory at the first stage was won by Dmitry Sotnikov‘s crew – 3 hours 17 minutes 50 seconds. Stable speed and confident passage of navigational traps made the Russian crew the leader in the truck category.
Dmitry Sotnikov, pilot of crew No 507: “From the start we followed Andrey, constantly keeping him in sight. I think he saw us in the mirrors too. Together we fought with the dust that prevented us from getting close to other trucks. Little by little we began to catch up, we saw Andrey standing, but he showed that he did not need help. Then there was a difficult stony area, where some vehicles were at a standstill with punctured wheels or were driving very slowly. We had to be extremely careful. Then we met two lost crews, but we safely overtook them and continued our way to the finish line. About 50 kilometers away we drove up to Macik, we signaled him, but he did not let us ahead. We had to finish literally five meters behind him.”
The second best result of the day was shown by the Czech Ales Loprais on Praga (+ 7 minutes 56 seconds). Anton Shibalov finished third (+8 minutes 7 seconds). The winner of the prologue, Siarhei Viazovich, became the fourth (+10 minutes 45 seconds), the top five was closed by Martin Macik on his Iveco (+12 minutes 58 seconds). Airat Mardeev was 25 minutes 53 seconds behind. It is worth noting the debut of the three-time Dakar champion, the Chilean Ignasio Casale, who switched from a quad to the wheel of a truck and became the sixth in the first stage. More than half of the contestants faced tricky conditions of the Dakar and fell behind the leading group by more than an hour and a half.
Airat Mardeev, pilot of crew No 509: “We started far away, tried to get higher to be in our speed group. It took us a long time to overtake slow trucks, as there was little room for maneuver and thick dust interfered a lot. When we passed the rivals by, we began to catch up with the rest. We managed to overtake about 6-7 trucks. But 60 kilometers before the finish, we went a little to the side, got into the wrong way. We drove for a very long time, all the bindings and courses seemed to “beat”, but we could not find a way out. We had to climb up the ravine. We started looking for a road, returned several times. We spent about 25 minutes on this. It’s good that we took all the points and tried to attack the last 50 kilometers as much as possible in order to gain back the lost time. Today the pace has been generally good, but some work needs to be done. The new device in navigation added spice, it seemed that there would be less work for navigators, but it only became more difficult.”
The defending Dakar winner Andrey Karginov faced with technical problems. At the 121 kilometer, a fan of a water radiator crashed in his truck. The drive was destroyed. It took the crew about 80 minutes to handle with the unpleasant and difficult-to-repair consequences from the stone. The crew No 500 arrived at the finish line with a lag of almost an hour and a half.
Dunes await the rally caravan on Monday. At the second stage, Bisha – Wadi Ad-Dawasir (total length 685 km, 457 km of which will be SS), sandy hills will stretch for long 30 kilometers in the first part of the special stage. The winding route from the north to the south will lead contestants straight east through dry river beds. The finish line will be situated near the majestic Empty Quarter desert.
The truck category. Classification of the 1st stage. Top-10
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The truck category. General standings after the 1st stage. Top-10
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