Wheels24 contributor, Ferdi de Vos, gives an insightful behind-the-scenes look of Mike Horn and Cyril Depres' Dakar challenge.
They say it gives you wings, but the Red Bull athletes Cyril Despres and Mike Horn gave it horns at the 2020 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia to (unofficially) win Stage 5 from Al Ula to Ha’il in the SSV side-by-side buggy class.
Unofficially? Yes, regrettably so, as the five-times Dakar bike champion and the world-renowned South African born adventurer had to withdraw from the rally after the modified 1.0-litre Renault Twingo turbo engine of their specially built OT3 by Overdrive buggy cried enough in the third stage of the event.
This year, Despres took on an entirely new challenge by entering the side-by-side class for this year’s Dakar and roped in his good friend Horn - fresh from an epic 1 650km trek across the Arctic Circle alongside Børge Ousland of Norway – to be his co-pilot for his twentieth participation in the tough endurance race.
From ice to sand
After crowdfunding his first Dakar entry in 2000, Frenchman Despres has proven himself to be a worthy competitor with victories for KTM in the Dakar motorcycle category spread across Europe, Africa and South America (2005, 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2013) and car race wins for Peugeot at the Silk Way Rally (2016 and 2017).
Horn’s adventurous life has seen him complete amazing feats, such as traversing the Amazon River on a hydrospeed board back in 1997, undertaking an 18-month solo journey around the equator without using any motorised transport, and being the first man to travel to the North Pole during winter, without dogs or motorised transport, in permanent darkness.
Only last month he reaffirmed his place as the world’s top adventurer by completing an epic 76-day trek across the Arctic Circle, despite running dangerously low on supplies and sustaining frostbite on his hands and nose. He then exchanged the harsh Arctic cold for the heat of the Saudi desert to participate in the biggest challenge motorsport has to offer: the Dakar.
A new adventure
While Despres has a double mission - to mentor and coach Red Bull Off-Road Team USA in addition to racing the world’s toughest rally - Horn had to quickly learn how to navigate in his first-ever Dakar, and while he may have traversed formations at land’s end, he soon found out reconnoitering the desert is not easy at all…
On the first stage running alongside the Red Sea between Jeddah and Al Wajh, the pair finished 24th, a full 51 minutes behind the leaders, yet despite engine overheating problems and navigation issues, Horn said he had the best time of his life.
Horn said: "The terrain was beautiful: mountains, rocky areas, riverbeds… and then the most amazing passage through the dunes. That’s where you really see the variation of the terrain that makes this rally so special."
Horn also discovered the subtleties of navigation and the road book, saying: "I had to learn the road-book very quickly, but once you start you get used to it very quickly."
Image: Flavien Duhamel/Red Bull
Losing more time
We again caught up with him at the end of the second stage from Al Wajh to Neom after they finished eighth in their class, 22min behind the leaders. While persistent overheating problems slowed them down, Horn admitted an error in navigation near the end of the stage cost them more time.
Still, he said, it was 'a unique opportunity to learn while participating and become part of the adventure'.
He added: "To be able to participate means you’re emotionally and intellectually involved in what is happening."
Image: Flavien Duhamel/Red Bull
However, the next day, on the loop around Neom, things went horribly wrong when the engine of their buggy finally expired after 273km of racing. They were forced to retire from the event but was allowed to resume the race in the Dakar Experience format.
After taking a day’s rest while their vehicle was repaired, the pair started the fifth day’s special of 353km at the back of the buggy field. It seems Horn spent many hours on their day off sharpening his navigational skills as the pair virtually immediately took the class lead and never relinquished it.
Despres and Horn finished the stage 40 seconds ahead of the Poles Aron Domzala and Maciej Marton, with Zimbabwean Conrad Rautenbach and his Portuguese co-driver Pedro Bianchi Prata third, 4min adrift.
But with Despres and Horn not participating anymore, Domzala has officially been credited with the stage win, with Rautenbach second. The Red Bull pair followed up their good form in Stage 5 with two fourth positions in the next two stages. With seven of the 13 stages completed the American Casey Currie and ex-South African Sean Berriman are leading the SSV class.