David Castera, the head of the competition, promised the Czech competitors at a press conference in Prague in mid-summer that the fifth Dakar in Saudi Arabia will be the most difficult ever here on the Arabian Peninsula. After the first half, it is clear that it is even harder than everyone expected.
One half-marathon stage with only a two-hour service, a novelty in the form of a 48h Chrono and then an absolutely different character of each day. Add to that long crossings, tense moments even for their companions and lack of sleep for everyone. Now it’s a free day and the second half of the competition begins. That she could be more comfortable? Don’t be silly! One goes north, into the mountains, to the area around Hail. Temperatures drop to zero at night, it rained here last year. Dry river beds, stony tracks, faster pace. “And also a lot of navigation traps,” warns Viktor Chytka.
And it was already heard at the evening briefing: “The organizers, who travel the race route a day before the competitors, reported that tomorrow’s stage will be even harder for many crews than the 48h Chrono,” reports Quirin Müller, Martin Prokop’s manager. “First the narrow canyons, then the dunes, then the rocks. It will be another massacre. And then the eleventh stage should be difficult, they already warned us about that.”
In any case, the biggest Czech favorites have the race well underway, that’s beyond debate. For some, the Dakar is defacto over and they are going to the finish line to enjoy it or gather experience.
At the head of the motorcycles after the middle of the forty-sixth Dakar is a competitor named Brabec, but the first name Ricky suggests that he only has Czech ancestors. With a consistent performance, after the pitfalls of the two-day 48h Chrono stage, he took the lead among the bikes and hopes that he will be similarly stable and without major mistakes in the second half of the competition and repeat his victory from 2020.
Martin Michek also wants to at least repeat his position, i.e. the Top 10. Our best Czech biker is currently in the eleventh place, a bit battered he had to save himself in the demanding two-day stage and he was really looking forward to the day off. “I’m tired, that wrist was holding me back a lot. If I didn’t have pain pills, it wouldn’t have been possible.” The otherwise eternally smiling competitor was full of it at the finish line of the two-day stage. “The head would go, the body would go, but the hand hurts and I was going about fifty percent because of it.”
“He’s beat up, but he’ll be fine. And I trust him that he will deal with it in the second half of the competition as well, he has now shown that he has intelligence and endurance,” praises his horse Ervín Krajčovič, head of the MRG stable, which has five riders at the start of this year’s Dakar. “Milan Engel also drives excellently, I have to highlight him. And Martin Prokeš is driving at a beginner’s pace, just gathering experience, he has sense. He is forty-five. But if I regret something, it was the problems with the electronics that Jára Romančík had, and then Dušan Drdaj’s damaged tank. He had a very good start, but that also simply belongs to the Dakar. Both will continue to race, albeit out of order.”
Krajčovič brought a pretty big stable to this year’s Dakar and says it’s probably too much to worry about. But he didn’t want to turn anyone away. “Next time we either have to be more numerous overall, or we have to go in three, maximum four riders.”
Jan Brabec drives himself. He clearly enjoyed the sandy stages and hopes that some of that sand will be found in the north as well. He is currently ranked 23rd. And soldiers in the desert are also Libor Podmol and David Pabiška, who drive the toughest Dakar category Original by Motul. The former earned a special award for heroism when he decided to continue in the race despite a bad fall, after which doctors on the track stitched up his gashed eyebrow with nine stitches. He continued on with a swollen eye that he couldn’t see at all, a bruised forearm, and a bike that wasn’t held by the two and the fan wasn’t working.
“Today I’ll put it all together, get some sleep and we’ll move on. I promised my son that I would finish it, so I want to try.” He is in 59th place. He is greatly supported by David Pabiška, who ranks 47th.
Two punctured tires slowed down Martin Prokop and Viktor Chytka, who are starting in the colors of the Orlen Jipocar team, right from the edge of the competition. Their Shrek finally received a supercharged six-cylinder engine, and they managed to tune the shock absorbers correctly. “I have at my disposal the best thing I’ve ever driven in the Dakar,” Martin Prokop enjoys in the parking lot in Riyadh, as we record another podcast for 1000 horses together. “It’s clear that we can’t compete with the factory teams, but Viki and I are having a lot of fun, and that forty-eight-hour stage was probably the best I’ve ever driven in Dakar. It was adrenaline, fun, joy. And the fact that we’re seventh overall is of course great, but it’s still a damn long way to the finish line of the Dakar and here you simply don’t know the day or the hour, just look at how the favorites turned out.”
Prokop alludes to the fact that in the sixth stage of the 48h Chrono race leader Al Rajhi, who rolled his Toyota in such a way that it is beyond repair, ended after an accident. Al Attiyah also had a bit of bad luck, as he damaged his steering and lost almost three hours in the dunes. Sixty-one-year-old Carlos Sainz is now in the lead with a hybrid Audi, Mathias Ekstrom is in second place with the same car. Third is Loeb, who also won the last two-day stage.
“I’m guessing here that it could be even bigger,” predicts Prokop. “Al Attiyah let it be known that, as Loeb’s teammate, he would do everything to help him finally win the Dakar. So let’s see what the big boys can show us.’
Other Czechs in cars, i.e. Karel Trněny and Michal Ernst, are in 34th place. “We drive carefully, maybe even unnecessarily slowly, we drag behind trucks and motorbikes, you can’t go faster in that dust,” says Trněný conciliatoryly. And then he enjoys how he starts to like it in the dunes, that he enjoys it. “Fear turns into respect, but when you get it right and slide, it’s a blast!”
The third Czech crew, namely Ouředníček and Křípal, worked with the factory Toyota for a significantly better position, but in the end they are happy that they are driving at all after the technical problems when they cut the bolts on the front wheel and had to spend the night in the dunes. They only reached the finish line after the time limit and were penalized for 41 hours. But they can continue officially in the race and have a chance to pass the finish ramp. Halfway through the race, they are in 115th place, basically without a chance for a better result.
“If we were to go out of order, I might even throw it out. It costs a lot of money every day here at the Dakar, and I probably wouldn’t want to go just for fun, out of order,” admits Ouředníček. “At least that way we’ll be able to say we’ve reached our destination.”
On the other hand, nineteen-year-old Aliyyah Koloc from the Buggyra team pleasantly surprised in the cars. She tackled the dunes, managed to fix the front suspension with her co-driver in one of the stages and is currently in 64th place.
The forty-eight-hour stage was a true graveyard for trucks, the hopes of the crew of Jaroslav Valtra and Daniel Stiblík ended there, both driving Buggyr trucks. Only nine machines reached the finish line.
And the fastest of them was driven by Martin Macík, who literally catapulted himself and his teammates to first place in the standings. “We are happy, we had a lot of fun and the technique held up. We have a lead of a little over an hour, but I definitely don’t plan to drive cautiously, I will still race. Otherwise, you won’t be able to win the Dakar and both Aleš Loprais and van den Brink will still want to flood us. The areas around Hail are specific, difficult for riding and navigation, we simply cannot release anything. We still have two thousand sharp kilometers ahead of us, and if anyone thinks that the organizers will make the second half of the competition any easier, I definitely don’t think so.”
Aleš Loprais was in the lead of the Dakar rally for a while, but technical problems and the subsequent fight through the starting field slowed him down, and he is one hour and sixteen minutes behind in second place. “It’s a shame, but it’s not a tragedy,” says Jiří Stross, Loprais’ mechanic. “Aleš drives perfectly and anything can happen.”
The third Czech truck still appearing in the official order is driven by Michal Valtr. He is in twelfth place, but with a loss of an abysmal 65 hours.
Ondřej Klymčiw leads his Škoda bravely in second place and they used the day off to get it back in shape, including changing the engine. The girls’ crew consisting of Bára Holická and Lucie Engová is enjoying extraordinary popularity with their duck 2CV. And Jan Vinš continues in the race with Mitsubishi Pajero.
Will the second half be even more challenging?
So the second half of the Dakar is ahead of us and tomorrow morning it’s off to the north of Saudi Arabia. And it is worth remembering that just last year, the most difficult part of the race took place in the areas around Hail, when the overall position was decided. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they prepared some more tricks for us,” says navigator Viktor Chytka. “There are fast tracks that constantly cross and where you easily lose track, then those canyons that turn and you don’t want to turn completely in them… I think we’re going to flood again.”
Anyway, by the time you read these lines, the racers will be swallowing another good portion of kilometers. A 255 kilometer crossing awaits them, then 483 sharp kilometers and then another 136 kilometers to the bivouac.