Reigning champion Toby Price has won the opening stage of the 2020 Dakar Rally.
Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team mates Matthias Walkner and Sam Sunderland followed Price home in third and fifth places respectively, with Luciano Benavides putting in an impressive ride, opening much of the stage to finish eighth.
A gruelling route
The opening day of the 2020 Dakar Rally presented riders with a huge challenge right from the start.
Comprising 433km of liaison and a 319km timed special, the gruelling route led competitors north from Jeddah along the Red Sea coast to Al Wajh.
With a mixture of fast, rocky pistes and soft sand dunes, the first day of racing in Saudi Arabia gave the riders a taste of what is to come in this new chapter of the Dakar.
Carrying the number one plate, reigning champion Toby Price had the advantageous position of being the 23rd rider to enter the day’s stage.
The Aussie star immediately pushed hard from the start, posting the second-fastest time to the first waypoint.
A small issue with his navigation equipment looked set to reduce Toby’s pace with a seized road bookmaking navigation difficult.
Thankfully he was able to tag on to the back of team mate Walkner and the pair brought their KTM 450 RALLY machines home safely and in good time, with Price fastest overall.
"I had a really good day today up until about 140km where my road book started to play up a bit. Something had got in there and jammed the rollers and so I was left without a roadbook for a while," Price says.
"Luckily, I caught Matthias after he lost a little time and I was able to stay with him towards the finish. My result looks good on paper, but it turned out to be quite a tricky day. I’m also opening the stage tomorrow, so hopefully, that’ll go well, too," he added.
2018 champion Matthias Walkner also made a great start to his 2020 Dakar campaign, safely completing the long stage in third place.
After dropping down to fifth midway through the timed special, Walkner was able to regroup and push on toward the finish to ultimately clock in just two minutes and 40 seconds behind teammate Price.
"It took me a while to get used to things today, maybe because so many things are different here in terms of the terrain and navigation. For the first 80km, I took things quite steady, it was quite stony and easy to make a mistake," Walkner added.
"After that, I found my rhythm, especially in the dunes, and was able to make up some time. I was quite surprised with third position although it doesn’t give me the best start for tomorrow, but I’m happy and we’ve got a long way to go," he says.
With the organisers really testing all riders’ navigational skills throughout the stage, Sam Sunderland knew a solid ride while maintaining a consistent pace would be key to a strong finish.
A small crash in a slower rocky section couldn’t slow the 2017 Dakar Champion’s progress and he was able to carry on to complete the stage as fifth fastest, just over five minutes behind Price.
"Well, they certainly threw us in the deep end for our first day here in Saudi. We had a big mixture of terrains including dunes, river beds, and really technical, stony places," says Sunderland.
"I did have a small fall early on but luckily I didn’t hurt myself or damage the bike. It was tricky to adapt to the new roadbook and terrain but that is the same for everyone. I’m happy to get the first day done, but we’ve still got a long way to go," he says.
Making his way to the head of the field by the first waypoint, Luciano Benavides rode a fantastic stage one, opening the remainder of the stage.
Despite laying the first tyre tracks in the Saudi sand, the young Argentinian maintained a solid pace, making very few errors to post the eighth-fastest time at the finish.
Now with a strong start position for tomorrow’s 'Super Marathon' stage, Benavides is confident of another good result.
"I had an amazing day today – after the first checkpoint I found myself opening the stage. It was such a good way to start the event as it was my first time opening a stage at the Dakar," Benavides said.
"I had to ride through a lot of dust at first to pass 10 riders in front of me, after that I felt really good and was able to finish the special without making too many mistakes. The bike felt incredible in this terrain so I’m really happy and looking forward to tomorrow," he added.
KTM Factory Racing’s Mario Patrao successfully completed stage one in 41st position.
Stage two of the 2020 Dakar Rally, the shortest of the event, Leaves Al Wajh and heads north to Neom. Covering a total distance of 393km, the stage includes a short 26km liaison and a timed special of 367km.
The day marks the first half of the event’s 'Super Marathon' stage – riders will only have 10 minutes to work on their bikes at the bivouac after the day’s racing.