The times are changing! Just a few years ago, the prognostications of the bike race were limited to a choice between Cyril Despres and Marc Coma, who dominated the category, with five victories each between 2005 and 2015.
But since then, a new era has begun, led by a generation of ambitious young riders more than by the former also ran in the Coma-Despres duels. In 2015, Toby Price made a remarkable debut in finishing 3rd, as did Mathias Walkner, who dropped out early from the rally, while the young and spirited Sam Sunderland had more than his share of retirements.
The three hopefuls went on to confirm their potential in winning the three following editions, which extended KTM’s winning streak to 17 straight titles. However, the Austrian firm’s dominance has indeed been threatened over the past few years.
Last January, Honda rider Kevin Benavides was the biggest threat to Walkner. And in the Japanese squad, perhaps diminished like last year with the absence of Paulo Gonçalves, who was injured during testing, there is still plenty to destabilize the past three victors. Will winner of 22 stages in eight Dakar participations, Joan Barreda ride an error-free Dakar to claim the overall win?
But the Spaniard could also be surprised by his up and coming Chilean team mate Jose Ignacio Cornejo, who finished 10th last year substituting for Gonçalves.
KTM will also have to be weary of the threat coming from other Japanese brand, Yamaha, and its team leader Adrien van Beveren who finished 6th in 2016 and 4th in 2017 and who in his first three participations has confirmed that he is a future Dakar champion.
His retirement on stage 10, while on his way towards victory last year, could be considered as the final act of his Dakar learning process. Another blue bike, ridden by Xavier de Soultrait, could also be in the mix, but there are many credible candidates aiming for the podium.
Pablo Quintanilla took 3rd place in 2016 and when it comes to performance his Husqvarna is just as strong as its rivals. Stefan Švitko finished runner-up in 2016 on a KTM entered by the factory team, and where could Joan Pedrero finish if he has a bit of luck on his side? Another to watch will be 2018 top rookie Oriol Mena, who finished 7th and who is now called upon to star on a Hero. And finally, Michael Metge has joined his brother Adrien at Team Sherco that still has ambitions of finishing in the Top 10.