The world's toughest rally

A behind-the-scenes look at Honda's Dakar victory

Photos: Honda

"Winning is the result of the balance of three elements: motorcycle, teamwork and rider. These three factors must fit together at the same time to achieve a goal," explains Taichi Honda, HRC Offroad Race Operations Manager.

Taichi Honda's comments came during this year's Dakar Rally, where the Monster Energy Honda Team won the motorcycle category for the second year in a row with the CRF450 RALLY.

Since Honda's return to the Dakar Rally in 2013, the young Japanese engineer, then 37, has had the task of bringing the Japanese manufacturer back to the top of the podium at the rally. Honda had previously secured its place in the Dakar Arena after four consecutive victories from 1986 to 1989 with the custom-made NXR motorcycle series.

"To succeed in such an extreme and challenging race as the Dakar Rally, you need experience and technical know-how that you cannot buy. These elements have to be acquired on the ground," said Honda-san in Jeddah. "The rally only takes place once a year. It is like the opposite of Russian roulette. You only have one chance to get it right. Season after season, we collected data from a wide variety of terrains and the most unpredictable racing situations. There were a few years when the performance of the riders was there, but the motorcycle or the team performance was not 100 percent. In other years it was the other way around. Last year the whole package of motorcycle, team and rider fit and we won. The goal for the Dakar 2021 was to repeat our success, because winning once is great, but winning twice, you make history with it."

The Motorcycle

In a two-week rally with the most challenging terrain and conditions, it is crucial to find the best compromise between the performance and resilience of the machine. "All the data we've collected at our races in South America since 2013 was the basis for fine-tuning the motorcycle and the decisive step to victory," Honda said. With the third chapter of the Dakar in Saudi Arabia, teams and racers discovered a new terrain and a slightly different racing philosophy.

Honda won in 2020 with Ricky Brabec and used the collected data to further develop the motorcycle. "We worked on resilience, keeping an eye on the different terrains and tracks, but also the fact that the race has become more demanding in terms of fuel consumption, so we have further developed fuel mapping for more efficient use," Honda continues. "The suspension has been improved and we have been working on the load capacity of the engine."

Maintenance is a key factor for both the team and the riders, who must not only be good riders and navigators, but also good mechanics who can work on the motorcycles during the stages. "Over the years, the CRF450 RALLY has been simplified to facilitate maintenance. When we came to the rally in 2013, we didn't know that, so we had developed the motorcycle 'too far'," Honda admits. "Season after season, and with increasing experience, we have succeeded in making the machine much more maintenance-friendly. I remember the nights in South America when we didn't finish working on the motorcycles until midnight!"

The team

A clear vision, an efficient structure, a strong and common strategy; these were the three pillars that took Honda as a team to the next level: not just to win once with Ricky Brabec in 2020, but to repeat the success with Kevin Benavides in 2021.

"Everyone on the team knew what to do, because there was a clear program and a pre-planned agenda," Honda added.

The new additions to the team, such as Ruben Faria, who joined the team manager in 2020, and the restructuring of the team with Helder Rodrigues as race strategist, Johnny Campbell as driver consultant and strategist, and a clear structure in which each driver had their own mechanic and assistant, brought calm and comfort in a race characterized by unpredictable, extreme and harsh conditions for the vehicles, the body and the spirit of the athletes.

"The next day, after Ricky Brabec's victory at dakar 2020, we started preparing for the 2021 race," team general manager Ruben Faria said.

"It was a great achievement for Honda and the Monster Energy Honda team, but in our hearts there was great sadness at the death of Paulo Gon'alves. He was part of the team, he was one of us, a teammate and a friend," Faria said in Jeddah before the rally started. "We had only one goal in mind: to win the Dakar 2021 for a double celebration; repeat the success for Honda and for the memory of Paulo. The whole team shared this vision."

The preparation for the 2021 racing season was severely affected by the pandemic that paralyzed the world. Unlike in previous years, the motorcycles were assembled and prepared in Japan and then shipped to the team's workshop in Barcelona, where the mechanics worked for another month before the machines and accompanying vehicles were shipped from the port of Marseille to Jeddah on 3 December.

As a safeguard due to the pandemic, the team opted for a strict protocol to have the best chance of a safe and smooth running of the rally. "We decided to reduce the number of employees to a minimum without compromising efficiency," explains Faria. "For example, we had two engineers from Japan, instead of six or seven as in previous years. The crew consisted of 24 people, including the four riders: one mechanic per motorcycle plus one chief mechanic, two engineers, the suspension technician, one helper per driver and then the logistics coordinator, the spare parts manager, two physiotherapists, race strategists and the press officer."

Everyday life during the Dakar

As soon as the rally started, everyone could get into the rhythm of the hard daily routine. "The Dakar Rally is a unique, life-changing experience, both for the drivers and for the team," explains Johnny Campbell, the King of Baja, who has been a participant in several Dakar events (including as a Honda factory driver when Honda returned to Dakar in 2013) and is now a racing strategist on the Monster Energy Honda team.

"When you sign up for the Dakar Rally, you leave your comfort zone to experience life and experience an incredible human and professional adventure," Campbell continued. Johnny works closely with all the drivers, especially Ricky Brabec and Nacho Cornejo. "Everyone has a specific task in the team, but we move as a unit: in the bivouac we live shoulder to shoulder with our teammates. We sleep dust-encrusted in tiny tents without air conditioning. Bitterly cold nights pass into brooding hot days, and the journey from one stage to the next is long and arduous."

In the middle of the night, the alarm clock rings. "We get up in front of the drivers for an hour and a half," says Eric Siraton, Ricky Brabec's mechanic. "Every day is different, but when you consider that the first driver leaves between 4:00 and 5:00 in the morning, we usually get up around 3:00 a.m. to 3:30 a.m." As soon as the drivers leave, depending on the length of the route, there is either a breakfast or we jump directly into the car to drive to the first supply point or to the next bivouac and set up the boxes. On average, it's a five- to six-hour drive."

Arriving in the bivouac, the mechanics eat and then wait for the arrival of the drivers, which usually happens between 12:30 and 15:00. "As soon as the drivers arrive, there is a technical briefing and then we start working on the motorcycles," Eric continues. "If there is no specific problem, we only dismantle half of the motorcycle, which can take two to three hours. If a problem has occurred, it can take much longer."

Since the roadbook is only handed out 20 minutes before the start of the stage, the riders can relax after the technical meeting and work with the physiotherapist. Miguel Angel Domenguez and Filippo Camaschella are the two physiotherapists who work with the riders for an hour and a half every day to help them recover after a day of driving – the longest was the strenuous fourth stage, in which they sat 856 kilometers in the saddle. He has experience in Formula One, while Camaschella is a member of the motocross team of the HRC team that won the World Championship with Tim Gajser in 2019 and 2020.

"As soon as the drivers arrive, we give them a special drink for rehydration, then shower them, eat lunch, and then we do a 90-minute session with TECAR therapy to regenerate the cells and stimulate microcirculation," says Angel Domenguez. "Then we continue with physiotherapy and cryotherapy. I always have the equipment for this."

"We work the whole body," says Camaschella. "Our work really helps to speed up recovery and prevent injuries. Kevin Benavides, for example, suffered a deep cut to his nose in a fall and injured both ankles. After our meeting, he felt much better and was able to start the next day in a much better condition."

It is a stress test like no other, the toughest rally in the world, and the pain tolerance of the drivers is impressive, supported by the constant physiotherapy.

"As a team win for a double celebration"

Honda's great work as a team led each of the four riders to win a stage and they fought for the overall victory until the tenth of 12 stages. The fall of Nacho Cornejo on the tenth stage showed just how merciless the Dakar is, and an error on the eleventh stage was enough to knock Joan Barreda out of the competition when he missed a refueling stop on the special stage from al-'Ula to Yanbu.

"At Honda, we had a very special moment with all four drivers as potential winners. We didn't get a stable order. The strategy was free," kevin Benavides explained. "I knew the second week was going to be even more exhausting. Looking back, it was a crazy race with constant surprising twists. I won the ninth stage, but my brother fell and I was very worried about him. Then we had nacho's fall when he led the overall standings, and Joan had to give up on the eleventh stage, just one day before the end."

"Navigation was the key to winning the Dakar 2021. This was the toughest rally I have ever seen, with a constant fight and so many leadership changes," admits Benavides, who won his first Ever Dakar victory on Friday, January 15, 2021. "The pressure was high the whole time. This uncertainty motivated me. It was an exciting adventure, but one for which you need a whole team."

The road to victory

There was a moment on stage 12 when Kevin Benavides thought he had lost the race. "I was about to find my track, but at kilometer 14 I made a mistake and had to turn around and try to get back on track. I was worried that it might have cost me the win," he said on the finish line. "It is impossible to drive a perfect Dakar. I made my mistakes and experienced pain, but the will to win finally prevailed. It wasn't until the very last metre that I realised I had won."

Pointing his finger at the sky and hugging the entire team, lined up next to each other at the end of the last special stage, Kevin Benavides dedicated his first Dakar victory to a person "who was always with him: Paulo Gon'alves."

After 12 days, over 4,500 kilometres of racing and almost 50 hours on the motorcycle, the Monster Energy Honda Team achieved its second win in a row, this time with Kevin Benavides, and with the Dakar winner of 2020, Ricky Brabec, in second place. They finished with a difference of less than five minutes.

"To win the Dakar, you have to be a complete driver, but you also need a complete team, and all our guys have developed all the necessary skills over the years," said Faria, the team's general manager. Single fighters alone cannot win the longest, toughest and most prestigious off-road race on two wheels; that requires a team.

Honda worked as a team, suffered and eventually won. All 24 team members pursued their individual dream with a common goal in mind: to bring Honda back to the top of the podium at the Dakar.

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