Route: San Juan – Cordoba
Terrain: Mixed sand and dirt.
Words: Georgia Wells.
The penultimate stage of the 2018 Dakar Rally was seen by many as the last opportunity to really make up any time deficits – especially as the previous Stage 12 had been cancelled for safety reasons.
The incredibly deep and soft sand mixed with extremely fast dirt tracks made for spectacular viewing but meant that maximum concentration was necessary for the riders as they clocked speeds of 155km/h (96mph). No-one wanted to make a mistake so close to the finish line, and exhaustion coupled with temperatures of 41 degrees celsius made the total 907km very taxing indeed.
USA’s Ricky Brabec was only 52 kilometres into the stage when disaster struck. It was reported that his engine had failed and possibly burst into flames. The HRC Honda rider tried for 4 hours to keep his Dakar dream alive, but eventually had to admit defeat. This was a devastating blow for Brabec who had been sitting 4th overall in only his third Dakar.
It was disappointing for the factory Honda squad too, as they had hoped to bring home three riders in the Top 10. The vast majority of top teams nowadays try to do the entire rally on one engine as reliability has drastically improved, and it avoids having to take a 15-minute ‘engine change’ penalty. Often this decision pays off, but perhaps not in Ricky Brabec’s case.
KTM’s Toby Price opened the stage and got off to a flying start. The Aussie was looking comfortable and quick on the ever-changing terrain and he began to take chunks of time out of his rivals. Hot on his heels, however, was Antoine Meo. The Frenchman was pushing hard and taking risks, something which many didn’t expect to see.
Antoine had a massive crash in the closing stages of the 2016 Dakar, and sustained injuries which would see him out of action for a year and a half. But ‘The Alligator’ had snapped back to the sort of fighting form he possessed in his World Enduro days. The KTM pairing were causing problems for local man, Kevin Benavides, who had to ride hard to keep up and not lose too much time. But in the end it was Price who had the edge, winning the stage by 2 minutes.
Toby Price (AUS, KTM. 1st stage/3rd overall):
“It was a little bit tricky today but I made up some good time in the first part of the special. The bike went really well and I’m feeling good, one more day to go so it’s still not over, but it’s coming to a close pretty quickly!”
Matthias Walkner, who came into the stage with a 32 minute lead, made a clear decision not to attack en route to Cordoba and instead he focused on accurate navigation and getting safely to the end of the challenging day. The Austrian did enough to finish Stage 13 in 4th place and he will take a 22 minute lead into the final day of racing.
Behind the battle for the stage win there was a cluster of former Enduro riders enjoying themselves on the fast dirt tracks, including Sherco’s Juan Pedrero in 5th and GasGas’ Johnny Aubert in 6th. They were closely followed by Armand Monleon and top rookies Oriol Mena and Jonathan Barragan.
The final stage of this year’s Dakar will consist of a Cordoba-Cordoba loop, 100% dirt with around 40 riverbeds thrown in, and a total of just 286km.
For Kevin Benavides this very last stage poses a difficult question; go for the win or settle for the podium? Currently sitting in 2nd place, the Argentinian has a 5 minute advantage over Toby Price, but a 22 minute deficit to Matthias Walkner.
Pushing to make up ground carries inherent risk, and Kevin’s legions of fans will be desperate to see him get to the finish in one piece, they would be more than happy with a podium position. But the temptation of a victory in the world’s hardest race, especially on home soil, could be a hard one to resist.
With Brabec now out of the rally, will Honda encourage Benavides to hold his position and secure a good finish for the brand?
Speaking on Friday night, Kevin certainly hinted that he is up for the fight…
Kevin Benavides (ARG, Honda. 2nd stage/2nd overall):
“Today was a good stage with sand and mountain paths all the way to Cordoba. I’m happy to arrive in this city which brings me so much joy. Toby has been very strong today and I had a small crash, but no other problems. Tomorrow is the last day and I will not give up, I will continue with the same belief that anything can happen. The support of the fans gives me a lot of strength!”
Will the Dakar rollercoaster have one final twist?! Hold on tight….
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