After a strong but ultimately unsuccessful debut, Stuart Gregory is determined to go the distance in this year’s Dakar Rally.
On 5 January, the 2020 event blasts off for two weeks of racing through brand new territory across the Saudi Arabian Desert for the first time.
Port Edward motorcycle rider Gregory is one of two South African iron men returning and chasing a Dakar finish in the Malle Moto class, in which competitors must service their own machines out of a trommel carried between service bivouacs on the back of a truck.
“The Malle Moto class is the ultimate Dakar challenge — that is the hardest way,” Gregory admitted. “It was bad luck to retire last year and I have practiced and prepared hard — now I must just get to the finish,” he added.
Former Springbok 110m hurdles record holder Wessel Bosman (KTM Number 123) also tackles the Dakar Malle Moto class again this year: “I have been to the Dakar three times and still I have no finisher’s T-shirt,” he admits. “I am an adventurer trying to better my skills and fitness, but if I finish the Dakar, I will close this chapter.”
Southern Africa will be well represented with no less than ten competitors (two car drivers, a side-by-side racer and seven bikers) set to cross the Limpopo en route to the Jeddah start.
Topping the list, former car winner Giniel de Villiers races with Spain’s Alex Bravo in Hilux 304 this year in one of four SA-run Gazoo Toyotas out to defend their Dakar title.
2018 rookie winner Hennie de Klerk meanwhile teams up with Johann Smalberger in car 354, his all-new SA-built TreasuryOne Red-Lined Nismo Nissan Navara.
Stellenbosch driver De Villiers won his Dakar when the event first visited South America ten years ago, while his Toyota team won the last SudAm race in 2018 — a good omen, perhaps?
“We are getting closer to the old African Dakars again,” De Villiers pointed out. “We will be completely isolated — it’s been ten years since we last did that and the navigation will be interesting too. Our objective is still victory — we must win!”
De Klerk took a memorable rookie win on his first Dakar attempt two years back and he and navigator Johann Smalberger cannot wait to do it all again in Saudi Arabia.
“We’re racing in a new country with new challenges for the first time this year,” De Klerk took explained. ‘Most people will never see some of the places we will go to — if it was easy, everyone would do it, so we really hope it’s difficult — we want a top 20 finish.”
Another Southern African driver worth keeping an eye on is former SA rally champion and 2017 Dakar car rookie winner, Zimbabwean Conrad Rautenbach driving a Zephyr in the side-by-side class alongside Portuguese navigator Pedro Bianchi Prata.
“The secret to the Dakar is to pace yourself,” he confirmed. “In one second, you can hit a rock and it’s all over, so the key is lasting the two weeks. I believe we will be competitive, but I’m not one for second or third place…”
Also of South African interest on four wheels, Dubai-based British Sabertooth Racing pair Thomas Bell and Patrick McMurren will race a similar SA-developed Red-Lined Navara to the de Klerk machine and there’s also a most interesting dark horse in Frenchmen Mathieu Serradori and Belgian Fabian Lurquin’s SA-built Century Racing buggy.
On two wheels, Botswana’s multiple SA cross country champion and 2018 Dakar two wheel rookie winner Ross Branch leads the charge aboard KTM number 18 this year.
“The challenge is to read the road book and ride fast at the same time and I’ve trained hard for that,” Branch, who ended 13th on his Dakar debut last year, explains. “Saudi is new and exciting terrain — it looks amazing and should be difficult, which plays in my favour.”
Lesser known Dubai-based SA rally raid star and 2018 Indian Desert Storm and 2019 Dubai Baja winner, Aaron Mare, has been drafted into the factory squad to ride Honda number 26.
“I’m excited and honoured to be part of the factory team,” he confirmed. “This is a dream come true — I’ve worked hard to get here and I’m so grateful for the opportunity.”
Of great interest, two South African rookies are set to become the first African ladies ever to race the Dakar. Hard enduro expert Kirsten Landman will ride KTM number 117: “I’ve had to adapt to my heavier Dakar bike,” she says. “I will be riding fast and one small mistake can change everything, so the stars must align. Becoming the first African woman to finish on a bike would be fantastic!”
Taye Perry will make her Dakar debut on KTM number 120. “My goal is to finish my first Dakar, but I’m a competitor and I must prove myself,” she admitted. “I love long distances and plan to enjoy every second — being the first African woman to finish would be special, but I’m not focusing on that.”
Last but not least, Zimbabwean Graeme Sharp makes his Dakar debut aboard KTM 142. “Being the first Zimbabwean to race the Dakar on a bike is a humbling experience,” he owned up. “It is bigger than just me — riding for my country and doing something positive for Zimbabwe gives me strength.”