“Winning is the result of the balance of three elements: bike, team operations and rider. These three factors need to match at the same time to accomplish a goal” explains Taichi Honda, HRC Offroad Race Operations Manager.
By Maria Guidotti. Rights-free for editorial use
Taichi Honda’s comments were made during this year’s Dakar Rally, where the Monster Energy Honda Team won the motorcycle category for the second consecutive year with the CRF450 RALLY.
Since Honda’s return to the Dakar rally in 2013, the young Japanese engineer, at that time aged 37 years old, was tasked with returning the Japanese manufacturer to the top step of the podium at the rally. Honda previously enshrined its place in Dakar folklore following four consecutive victories from 1986 to 1989 with the purpose-built NXR series of motorcycles.“To excel in such an extreme and hostile race as the Dakar Rally, you need experience and technical knowhow that cannot be bought. You need to gain it on the ground” explained Honda-san in Jeddah. “The rally is once per year, so like the opposite of Russian roulette, you have only one chance to do it right. Season after season we collected data from the different terrains and the most unpredictable race situations. There were some years where the riders’ performance was there, but the bike or the team performance were not at 100 per cent. Other editions, it was the other way around. Finally, last year the whole package of bike, team and rider was there and we won. The target for the 2021 Dakar was to repeat ourselves, because winning once is great, but winning twice, it really sets it in stone.”
On a two-week rally with the most demanding terrain and conditions, finding the best compromise between performance and durability of the machine is crucial. “All the data we collected as we were racing in South America since 2013 was the base to fine tune the bike and make the winning step” said Honda. With the third chapter of the Dakar in Saudi Arabia, teams and racers discovered a new terrain and a slightly different race philosophy.
Honda won with Ricky Brabec in 2020, and used the data collected to further develop the bike. “We worked on the durability keeping in mind the different kind of terrains and paths, but also the fact that the race had become more demanding in terms of fuel consumption, so we further developed the fuel mapping for more efficient use” Honda continues. “The suspension was updated and we worked on engine durability.”
Maintenance is a key factor for the team as well as for the riders, who in addition to being skilled riders and navigators have to be good mechanics able to work on the bikes during the stages. “Throughout the years, the CRF450 RALLY has been simplified to make maintenance easier. When we joined the rally in 2013 we didn’t know, so we ‘overbuilt’ the bike” Honda admits. “Season after season, with experience the machine has become much easier to maintain. I remember those nights in South America where we finished working on the bikes at midnight!”
A clear vision, an efficient structure, a strong and shared strategy; these were the three pillars that took Honda as a team to the next level: not only to win once with Ricky Brabec in 2020, but to repeat the success with Kevin Benavides in 2021.
“Everyone in the team knew what they had to do with a clear program and agenda planned in advance” continues Honda.
The arrival of new members to the team such as Ruben Faria, who joined as team manager in 2020, and the reorganisation of the team with Helder Rodrigues as race strategist, Johnny Campbell as riders’ advisor and strategist, and a clear structure where each rider had his own mechanic and assistant person, brought calm and comfort in a race that features the more unpredictable, extreme and tough conditions for the vehicles, the body and the mind of the athletes.
“We started to work at the 2021 edition the day after Ricky Brabec won the 2020 edition” explained team General Manager Ruben Faria.
“It was a huge accomplishment for Honda and the Monster Energy Honda Team, but in our hearts we were also sad for the loss of Paulo Goncalves. He had been part of the team, he was one of us, a teammate and a friend” confessed Faria in Jeddah before the start of the rally. “We had only one target in mind: winning the 2021 for a double celebration; repeating the success for Honda and for Paulo. All the team was one in this vision.”
The preparation of the 2021 racing season was heavily affected by the pandemic that shut down the world. Differently from the previous years, the bikes 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 the assistance vehicles were shipped to Jeddah from Marseille harbour on December 3rd.
As mitigation measures due to the pandemic, the team decided to adopt a strict protocol to give the best chance of a safe and smooth running of the rally. “We decided to reduce to the minimum number of staff, without sacrificing efficiency” explains Faria. “For example, we had two engineers from Japan instead of six or seven as in the past editions. The crew featured 24 people including the four riders: a dedicated mechanic per bike plus a chief mechanic, two engineers, the suspension technician, a helper per rider and then the logistics coordinator, the person responsible for the spare parts, two physiotherapists, race strategists, and the press officer.”
A day in the life
Once the Rally started, everyone could get into the rhythm of the hard daily routine. “The Dakar Rally is a unique, life-changing experience, for the riders as well as for the team” explains Johnny Campbell, the ‘King of Baja’, with several Dakar events as a competitor under his belt (including as a Honda factory rider when Honda returned to the Dakar in 2013) and now race strategist with the Monster Energy Honda Team.
“When you sign up for the Dakar Rally, you take yourself out of your comfort zone to experience life, and have an amazing human and professional adventure” Campbell continues. Johnny works closely with all the riders, especially Ricky Brabec and Nacho Cornejo. “In the team everyone has a specific task, but we move as one: at the bivouac we live shoulder-to-shoulder with our teammates. You sleep caked in dust in tiny tents with no air conditioning. Bitterly cold nights lead to swelteringly hot days, and travel from one stage to the next is long and arduous.”
The alarm clock sounds in the middle of the night. “We wake up one and a half hours before the riders” explains Eric Siraton, Ricky Brabec’s mechanic. “Every day is different, but considering that the first rider leaves between 4:00 and 5:00 AM we usually wake up around 03:00-03:30. Once the riders leave, according to the length of the route, we either have breakfast or we jump in the car to go to the first assistance point or the next bivouac to set up the boxes. On average, it’s a five-to-six hour drive.”
Once at the bivouac, the mechanics eat and then they wait for the riders to arrive, which usually happens between 12:30 and 3:00 PM. “Once the riders arrive, we have a technical briefing and then we start to work on the bikes” continues Eric. “If there is not a specific problem, we disassemble only half of the bike, which can take two to three hours. If there has been a problem, it can be much longer.”
With the roadbook delivered just 20 minutes before the start of the stage, after the technical debrief the riders can relax and work with the physiotherapist. Miguel Angel Dominguez and Filippo Camaschella are the two physiotherapists that work for one and a half hours every day with the riders to help them recover after a day of riding – the longest was the exhausting stage four which saw them on the bike for 856 kilometres. Angel Dominguez has experience in Formula One, whilst Camaschella is part of the Team HRC motocross squad which won the World Championship in 2019 and 2020 with Tim Gajser.
“As soon as the riders arrive, we give them a special drink for the rehydration, then they have a shower, have lunch and then we do a 90minute session with Tecar Therapy to regenerate the cells and stimulate the microcirculation” says Angel Dominguez. “Then we continue with physiotherapy and cryotherapy. I always bring this machinery with me.”
“We work all of the body”, says Camaschella. “Our work really helps to speed up the recovery and prevent injury. Kevin Benavides, for example, suffered a deep cut on the nose and injured both ankles in a crash. After our session, he felt much better and could start the following day in much better condition.”
It’s an endurance test like no other, the toughest rally on earth, and the level of pain tolerance of the riders is impressive, helped by the constant physiotherapy.
“Winning as a team for a double celebration”
Honda’s great work as a team resulted in each of the four riders winning a stage and being in contention for the overall victory until stage ten of 12. Demonstrating how unforgiving the Dakar is, a crash for Nacho Cornejo on stage ten ruled him out, and a mistake on stage 11 was enough to put Joan Barreda out of the fight when he missed a refuelling stop on the Al-Ula-Yanbu special stage.
“At Honda we were living a very special moment with all the four riders as potential winners. We didn’t get any team orders. The strategy was free”, explained Kevin Benavides. “I knew that the second week was going to be even more demanding. If I look back it was a crazy race with constant twists. I won stage nine, but my brother crashed, and I was very worried for him, then we had the crash of Nacho as he was leading overall, and Joan having to abandon on stage 11 with only one day to the end.
“Navigation was the key to win the 2021 Dakar. This was the toughest rally I have ever experienced with a constant fight and so many changes in the lead” confesses Benavides, who triumphed to take his first ever Dakar victory on Friday 15th January 2021. “The pressure was always high. This uncertainty motivated me. It was a fun game, but one that it takes an entire team to allow us to play.”
The road to victory
There was a moment on stage 12 when Kevin Benavides thought he had lost the race. “I was opening the way but at Km 14 I made a mistake and I had to make a U-turn and try to find the right way. I was worried that this would have cost me the victory” he said at the finish line. “It is impossible to do a perfect Dakar. I’ve made my mistakes and known pain, but the desire to win prevailed. I realised I had won only at the very last metre.”
Finger pointing to the sky and embracing all of the team, lined up next to each other at the end of the last special, Kevin Benavides dedicated his first Dakar win to a person “who has always been with him: Paulo Goncalves.”
So after 12 days, over 4,500 kilometres of competitive riding and nearly 50 hours on the bike, the Monster Energy Honda Team achieved a second consecutive victory, this time with Kevin Benavides, and with 2020 Dakar winner Ricky Brabec in second. The two were separated by fewer than five minutes.
“To win the Dakar you need to be a complete rider but you also need a complete team, and all our guys have developed throughout the years all the necessary skills” explains Faria, the team’s General Manager. Individuals alone cannot win the longest, most grueling and arguably most revered off-road race on two wheels; it takes a team.
Honda worked, suffered, and won as a team. Each of those 24 team members were chasing their individual dream with a common goal in mind: taking Honda back to the top step of the podium at the Dakar.