Maps can be deceiving at first sight. What seemed an essentially coastal course turned out to be a surprising hodgepodge of terrains for competitors in the first stage of the Dakar. Even the last two winners of the Dakar, Nasser Al-Attiyah and Carlos Sainz, along with defending SSV champion “Chaleco” López, were blindsided by the rocky sectors near the end of the stage, leading to punctures that cost them several minutes apiece. The competitors only really felt the coastal wind on the liaison taking them to Al Wajh. The first to arrive will enjoy the refreshing breeze, but chilling winds await laggards who only reach the town in the evening or after nightfall.
One month after a hellish experience in the ice of the Arctic, Mike Horn made his debut as a co-pilot on his first Dakar. “I had the best time of my life,” was the impression of the South African adventurer at the finish of the first special running alongside the Red Sea, between Jeddah and Al Wajh. “The terrain was beautiful: mountains, rocky areas, river beds… 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.”
Alongside Cyril Despres, who is making his debut in an SSV as the team leader and mentor for the new Red Bull Junior Team, Mike Horn is also discovering the subtleties of navigation and the road-book. “I had to learn the road-book very quickly, but once you start you get used to it very quickly. I think with Cyril knowing the terrain quite well, it helped us to keep a very good speed and move away from the others before we ran into trouble.”
As regards the pace, the former Dakar winner on a bike nonetheless found it difficult to keep up during the first stage, due to his engine which developed a nasty habit of overheating on the second part of the special. “A lot of dust came into the ventilators and we had trouble cleaning it out,” said the Frenchman. “The engine wasn’t working smoothly from then on and we lost quite a bit of time. But that’s just part and parcel of the race. We’ve got a new machine and we have to keep on developing it.”
American Casey Currie thought he may have had won the first stage of the rally, but at the end of the day he finished a little over a minute behind the stage winner. It still leaves him in great position to caption the overall win at the 2020 Dakar. Stay tuned for more updates from the rally and watch to see if the Americans can bring back the crown.