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What Dakar Day 1 Report
Where Al Henakiyah, Saudi Arabia
When Saturday 6 January 2024
Community International

Branch, Cox win bikes, Toyota takes cars, de Villiers third

Southern Africans starred at the opening day of Dakar 2024. A South African-built Toyota swept to the car win with veteran Giniel de Villiers third. His rookie teammate Guy Botterill however stole the show, only losing second on the day to a late issue as he dropped to seventh. Botswana hero Ross Branch meanwhile took the motorcycle win as fourth placed Bradley Cox won the R2 amateur bike class. But that’s not all, seven South African cars filled the top ten, while teenage Toyota Gazoo rookie Saood Variawa ended eleventh.

Prologue winners on Friday, Mattias Ekström and Emil Bergkvist’s petrol-electric Audi was quick out of the gates to lead the 414 km race through the Saudi Arabian Desert to Al Henakiyah on Saturday morning. They were chased early on by Guerlain Chicherit and Alex Winocq’s Toyota Hilux and Brazilian Gazoo factory crew Brazilian Lucas Moraes and Armand Monleon’s similar machine.

Fourth at the first waypoint, Qatari Dakar legend Nasser Al-Attiyah and Mathieu Baumel’s Prodrive Hunter and teammates nine-time World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb and Fabian Lurquin struggled as the day progressed. Double former World Rally Champion Carlos Sainz Snr and Lucas Cruz however made it an Audi 1-2 as the morning evolved, with SA crew Guy Botterill and Brett Cummings’ Gazoo Hilux up to fifth behind Chicherit and Moraes.

Ekstrom hit tyre trouble at mid distance, leaving Sainz leading Guillaume de Mevius and Xavier Panserai’s Hilux, Botterill and Ekstrom. South African Centurys driven by Estonian Urvo Mannama and Frenchman Mattieu Serradori sat seventh and eighth from all-SA entry Giniel de Villiers and Dennis Murphy’s Gazoo Hilux, and rookie teammate Saood Variawa thirteenth. All while Dakar legends Peterhansel in 15th, Al Attiyah 24th and Loeb 25th seemed to struggle.

The race changed complexion as it sped toward the finish as first de Mevius, and then Botterill overcame Sainz with Lithuanian Vaidotas Zala’s Mini next from de Villiers. Former Le Mans winner Romain Dumas’ Hilux popped up in sixth ahead of Serradori in the Century as Ekstrom slipped to seventh. Twice a T3 day winner, De Mevius duly romped to his first Ultimate car day win, but there was a sting in the tail as Botterill hit late trouble. That allowed Sainz up to second from de Villiers, Zala, Dumas, Moraes and Botterill.

Saudi home hero Yazeed Al Rajhi and Timo Gottschalk fought back to ninth in their Hilux, from Serradori, Ekstrom and Variawa. Of other South African interest, Brian Baragwanath and Leonard Cremer brought their new 4×4 Century CR-7T home a provisional 16th ahead of Nani Roma’s Pietermaritzburg built Ford Ranger. Wei Han was best of the Red-Lined REVO+ finishers in 26th behind fancied runners Loeb in 20th, Al Attiyah 22nd and Peterhansel 24th.

Dakar 2024’s first bike stage proved a bittersweet one for South African riders. Despite stopping to help a fallen rival, Botswana hero Ross Branch rode his Hero home to a compelling victory to take the early overall race lead, while Bradley Cox starred to bring his BAS KTM home fourth and first among the R2 class privateers. It was a however disastrous day for his teammate Michael Docherty, who crashed out of the lead late in the day.

Botswana hero Branch led at the first checkpoint, but 2023 Dakar rookie winner Docherty who started 40th on his privateer BAS KTM, soon eclipsed Branch to lead the way. Branch was however back in control at the second checkpoint and the Southern African duo controlled the pace up front until Branch stopped to assist Spanish Honda rider Tosha Schareina, who had fallen and hurt his arm.

That left Docherty leading Honda duo, Californian Ricky Brabec and Chilean Pablo Quintanilla, Spaniard Lorenzo Santolino’s Sherco, Argentine Kevin Benavides’ KTM and Cox. Docherty’s leading chase however came to a disastrous end when he crashed and was airlifted to hospital with a hip injury. Branch provisionally rode home 15th, 16 minutes off the lead, but he wase credited considerably more than that deficit for his compassionate stop.

The upshot of which saw the multiple former South African champion Ross take the day with a commanding win from Brabec, Klein, Cox, Flormino, Husqvarna privateer Romani Dumontier and Santolino. Kevin Benavides ended seventh from Aussie GasGas rider Daniel Sanders, Czech KTM privateer Michel Michek and Quintanilla’s Honda, on a day when many of Dakar’s regular bike superstars also ended up outside of the top ten. Portuguese Hero rider Joaquim Rodrigues sadly joined Docherty and Schareina in retirement after a crash.

While Ross Branch was imperious throughout, fellow reigning South African champion Bradley Cox rode a steady race on the fringes of the top ten for most of the morning, before upping the pace coming home fourth and first among the R2 privateers in a stellar ride of his own. Of the other Southern Africans, 2023 Malle Moto winner Charan Moore finished 34th on his Husqvarna with Zimbabwean Ashley Thixton’s similar machine provisionally 56th.

Friday’s Prologue sensation, rookie Kerim Fitz-Gerald KTM was hit with a penalty and started 127th rather than 12th. He was quickly on the pace to rise to 23rd in the early running, before slipping back down the field. Ronald Venter similarly suffered a prologue penalty and he started 128th aboard his KTM before rising through the field to 66th by mid distance, while Stuart Gregory sat 82nd at the time of writing on his Malle Moto KTM.

In the other classes, the Challenger T4s once again proved a Goczal family benefit as Eryk beat Michal and Marek, while Gerard Farres Guell led Rodrigo Varela and Sara Price in the Side by Side T4s. Janus van Kasteren’s Iveco won the shortened truck stage from Gert Huzink in a Renault and Jaroslav Valtr’s Tatra. And Marcelo Maderios took a comfortable three minute quad win from Juraj Varga and Laisvydas Kancius. Dakar continues with a 662 km run to Al Duwadimi on Sunday.

Issued on behalf of Dakar 2024 Daily News

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