Honda’s Dakar Challenge Vol. 3
Results Out of Reach and Unlucky Penalties (2016-2019)
Fourth Year of Dakar Still a Challenge
The Dakar was at a turning point. Two of the top riders, who were both victors in the motorcycle class, had announced their retirement from the Dakar to seek other challenges. Without Cyril Despres and Marc Coma in this year’s edition, it meant that whoever wins would be the first new winner in 12 years.
Also, an unexpected feature was that the planned course over the Atacama Desert in Chili was re-routed at the last minute due to heavy rainfall washing parts of the route away. The new route was set in Argentina and Bolivia with approximately 9000km over 15 days. The competitors were facing unexpected difficulties adding another aspect to the Dakar challenge.
Clinching overall 2nd, but not winning the previous year, TEAM HRC was determined to reach the top of the podium in its 4th year.
The five TEAM HRC were; Joan Barreda (Spain), Paulo Goncalves (Portugal), Michael Metge (France), Ricky Brabec (USA) and Paolo Ceci (Italy).
Also riding the CRF450 RALLY were four riders for Honda South Africa Team; Kevin Benavides (Argentina), Javier Pizzolito (Argentina), Jean Azevedo (Brazil) and Adrian Metge (France).
Weather played a large part since the start. While the first stage starting from Rosario was canceled due to the hard rain, Stage 2 and 3 Special Stages were also shortened.
Crossing the border from Argentina to Bolivia was Stages 4 and 5, the Marathon Stages that were the highlight for the first half of the 2016 Dakar.
The 5th stage in Bolivia was set at an altitude of 4580 meters, the highest ever in the history of the Dakar. The average altitude was 3500 meters which also made it hard for the riders, but in these conditions, the Honda riders performed exceptionally with Goncalves winning the stage and Barreda in 4th, only 2 minutes 27 seconds behind. Rooky Benavides from the Honda South America Team was also successful in this stage, marking 6th position.
However, in the following Stage 6, Barreda’s CRF450 RALLY suffered issues and stopped. He managed to reach the bivouac with difficulty but the gap from the race leader was a vast 5 hours putting Barreda out of the top contenders. Due to this incident, Barreda retired from this year’s challenge the next day.
Goncalves, on the other hand was keeping a good pace, widening the gap between the 2nd rider in the 7th stage, but luck changed when he fell in the 8th stage and damaged his navigation system. This caused him to drop back to second place, 2 minutes 5 seconds behind the race leader.
Stages 9 and 10 were Marathon Stages and the first day was harsh with temperatures over 50 degrees. Goncalves in second place now chasing for the lead was yet again in trouble when a branch pierced his radiator and lost engine coolant. The bike had totally over-heated by the time he reached Check Point 2 and it was impossible to continue the race.
Under this desperate situation, the organizers made the decision that the heat was too intensive to continue the race safely, and the course beyond CP2 was canceled. This was lucky for Goncalves for he only dropped to 3rd position, where the race could have ended for him.
However, to catch up to the lead Goncalves continued to push hard in following stages, and in Stage 11, he fell and was forced out of the race due to injury.
The 2016 season was hard for the Honda teams, but the good news was that both rookies, Kevin Benavides and Ricky Brabec rode the CRF450 RALLY to the finish line in an overall 4th and 8th.
Dakar 2017: Promising Performance Dampened by Penalty
Learning more and more about the challenge, difficulties, and possibilities of the Dakar from the nightmare experience in 2016, the Honda team was back for its 5th year of challenge in 2017. The CRF underwent a revision, solving problems from the previous year and evolving for an easier ride feel, while the team structure was also strengthened.
Monster Energy joined the team as main sponsor, and the team was now “Monster Energy Honda Team” for the 2017 challenge. Adding to Bolivia and Argentina, Paraguay was a new country to the route set in the South American Dakar, and the demanding race was carried out in three countries with a total distance of approximately 9000km.
Riders for the new Monster Energy Honda Team were; Joan Barreda (Spain), Paulo Goncalves (Portugal), Ricky Brabec (USA) and Michael Metge (France). Kevin Benavides who successfully rode for the Honda South America team in 2016 was also to be part of the Monster Energy Honda Team but due to an injury in training, was forced to resign from the challenge.
A big feature of the 2017 Dakar was that half of the event was raced at high altitudes. Starting from hot and humid Asuncion, the route elevated the competitors into high altitudes in the 3rd day, with temperatures dropping quickly from over 40 degrees to around 5 degrees. Both the riders and bikes had to cope with the cold and also the limited oxygen.
The updated CRF450 RALLY had speed and advanced navigation capabilities, and combined with Barreda who had learned to ride tactfully, at the end of Stage 3 he had a comfortable 10 minute advantage over the second place runner. Also with other riders in good positions (Goncalves 3rd, Brabec 9th, and Metge 19th), the Honda team was fighting fit with an ideal back-up from teammates.
However, on the 4th day, when the rally entered Bolivia where the high-altitude battle lay ahead, the luck changed for the 2017 Monster Energy Honda Team.
This day’s Special Stage was in two parts on each side of the Argentinian-Bolivian border with a natural zone between the two countries. At this natural zone, the Monster Energy Honda Team refueled their bikes but later were penalized for “refueling in an unauthorized zone,” with a harsh one-hour penalty. This happened due to the difference in the understanding of regulations, but it was a huge factor that influenced the result of this year’s rally. For the top runners, even minutes or seconds can be punishing in the modern Dakar. An hour was a lot of catching up, but the rally was still in its early stages and there was still a chance to fight back.
The team maintained high spirits to overcome the penalty, but the weather proved unkind. Until the start of the Dakar, Bolivia was suffering from drought, severe enough that the government had announced a state of emergency. Soon after the Dakar had kicked off however, the drought was over and heavy rain continuously fell. As a result, stages 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 all set in Bolivia were shortened or canceled, reducing the total distance of Special Stage by 30 percent. This was not good for the Monster Energy Honda Team, limiting the chance to claw back the one-hour penalty by the last day.
Yet again, the Monster Energy Honda Team was not able to conquer the Dakar. But looking back at the 2017 rally, although Brabec left the race at Stage 10 due to mechanical trouble, Barreda finished in overall 5th, Goncalves 6th, and Metge 14th despite the heavy penalty.
Still not on the highest position of the podium leaves the challenge to continue again. But Honda definitely proves a point with its performance in 2017.
Monster Energy Honda Team Achieved Second Place in 2018
In the 40th edition of the Dakar Rally, Monster Energy Honda Team raced across Peru, Bolivia and Argentina with Joan Barreda, Kevin Benavides, Ricky Brabec, Michael Metge and Jose Ignacio Cornejo. Paulo Goncalves had had to drop out of the rally because of injury.
The stage 6’s special stage was not completed in full after race authorities deemed the first stretch unsafe for racing. There was no Stage 9 to ride. The organization decided to annul the final special stage to be disputed on Bolivian soil after heavy flooding and swollen rivers wreaked havoc in the area. The race organizers took the decision to annul the annul Stage 12, citing safety reasons.
Joan Barreda took the lead in Stage 2. His fortunes fared less well in Stage 3. After setting out first and opening the track, by the time the day was done he had finished the special stage in 30th place. He stormed through Stage 5 and recovered 14 minutes between himself and the leader. In Stage 7, he was triumphant in the special stage despite crashing en route. In Stage 11, he had retired from the rally. After having suffered several falls in some of the earlier stages of the rally and punishing his body severely, he made the decision to completely withdraw.
Mission accomplished for Kevin Benavides in Stage 3 of the rally. The rider, who posted second on the day, ascended the overall rankings to second spot just three minutes adrift of the current leader. In Stage 6, a dazzling performance by the rider earned him the overall leadership of the race. After two weeks and 8000 kilometers, the team achieved second place in the rally with Kevin Benavides. Another success for the team in the Dakar Rally, equalling the same feat of Paulo Goncalves in 2015.
After a last-minute injury had forced Paulo Goncalves to retire, his replacement in the race, Jose Ignacio Cornejo, proved to be one of the revelations of the rally. He regularly posted top fifteen places before finishing in tenth place overall.
Kevin Benavides, Paulo Goncalves, Joan Barreda, Ricky Brabec and Jose Ignacio Cornejo, the five Monster Energy Honda Team riders go on to defend the colors of Honda in the forthcoming Dakar Rally 2019.
2019: Fast Enough to Win but Misses by the Finest Margin
Dakar 2019 was hosted within one country: Peru. Competitors started from Lima, the capital city, and battled over a route covered by desert and dunes for 70 percent of race distance. 137 riders competed in the two-wheel category.
Monster Energy Honda Team was represented by five riders: Paulo Goncalves, Joan Barreda, José Ignacio Cornejo, Ricky Brabec and Kevin Benavides. In the previous edition, Benavides was in contention to win until the end, by unfortunately finished runner-up, Honda's best result since returning to the rally as a factory team. Missing out on the overall win by the slimmest of margins, the team renewed their enthusiasm to win the 10 stage, 5,500 km 2019 event.
Barreda won Stage 1, with Brabec two places behind. These two riders were fast again on the following day, with Brabec 2nd and Barreda 3rd. At the end of Stage 2, Barreda led overall, Brabec 3rd.
Stage 3 was decisive in each team rider's fate. Benavides had started 8th, yet finished the stage in 3rd, merely two-and-a-half minutes behind the stage winner, takig him from 8th overall to 2nd. And it was his 30th birthday. On the other hand, Barreda rode steadily through the first 143km of the 331km special stage, but he had fallen into an inescapable ravine due to ill visibility, forcing him to leave the race at this early stage.
In this edition, the marathon stage was set for stages 4 and 5. Over the two days, teams are forbidden from supporting their riders or maintaining the bikes, and riders had to solve their own problems. In hindsight, Dakar's marathon stage has been the turning point for many a rider. The special stage in Stage 4 took riders from Arequipa to Moquegua over 405km. Brabec took the stage win and overall lead, setting the fastest times over every timed checkpoint. The following day was Brabec kept his overall lead through the route set over the Illo dunes. At this halfway point, Benavides had also improved his standing from 6th, nine minutes behind the leader.
Stage 6, kicking off the second half of the rally and the longest stage in the 2019 edition, covered 838km including liaison. The route took riders over four dune areas including the dunes of Tanaka on the Pacific coast. Many of the top contenders had trouble finding the way-points (GPS positions that riders need to reach), with Brabec finishing the stage in 6th place, and receding to 4th overall. Benavides on the other hand finished the stage 2nd, taking him up to 4th overall. The start of Stage 7 was delayed due to thick fog, and after riding through rough sandy conditions, Brabec took 3rd for the stage, reinstating him as race leader. Cornejo was the team's strongest rider for the stage, finishing 2nd, a mere two minutes behind the leader.
With the remaining two stages back to Lima, Cornejo was Honda's best performer, finishing 7th overall. Cornejo proved his supremacy in the sand, finishing 2nd in Stages 5 and 7, and was also 2nd in the final stage while fighting for overall rankings. His goal was to finish within the top 10. Benavides finished 12th overall with the three hour penalty at the Stage 8.
With the remaining two stages back to Lima, Benavides was Honda's best performer, finishing 5th overall. Cornejo proved his supremacy in the sand, finishing 2nd in Stages 5 and 7, and was also 2nd in the final stage while fighting for overall rankings. His goal was to finish within the top 10: He finished 8th overall.
Goncalves retired in Stage 5. MEC HRC's Daniel Nosiglia rode his CRF450 RALLY to 2nd in Stage 9, a personal best. He completed the Dakar 2019 in 10th place.