Australian motorcyclist Daniel Sanders is continuing to set a hot pace in the Saudi Arabian desert, winning the opening stage of the Dakar Rally just 24 hours after earning his maiden triumph in the prologue.
The 27-year-old took Sunday’s first stage of the gruelling two-week endurance race in the most convincing style, increasing his one-minute lead over his nearest pursuer, Chilean Pablo Quintanilla, to three minutes and seven seconds overall.
While some of his major rivals suffered navigation problems after overnight rain made it difficult to find the right tracks in the dunes, Victorian Sanders had no such problems as he quickly opened up a 21-second lead at the first waypoint and increased the advantage to 46 seconds at the 160km mark.
By the end of the 333km round-trip stage to and from Ha’il, Sanders had left his rivals trailing by two minutes and seven seconds to put himself in prime position to emulate his compatriot Toby Price, who was the last Australian winner of the event in 2019.
“In the end, a lot of guys got lost and, luckily, we got onto the right track. It was a good, strong finish,” said Sanders, who’s competing in only his second Dakar.
“I just didn’t push too much at the start, just gave it a nice rhythm, and at the end I tried to open as much as I could.”
Hall of famer Price was enduring a miserable day while Sanders thrived, eventually finishing over 47 minutes behind his fellow Aussie as he limped home in just under five hours 26 minutes.
“Today was a bit of a rough one, had a note in my navigation that didn’t add up so I ended up getting lost for about 45 mins, not the best way to start the Rally… but it’s only early days. Keep the head down and keep at it!” Price tweeted later.
Sanders, who’s riding high on his KTM 450 for the Spanish GasGas factory team, also understands that it’s too early to get carried away and believes Monday’s stage from Ha’il to Al Artawiya will be an early major test.
“I have to full-focus on this road book and put my life on it, so it’s going to be a really important day for me tomorrow,” he said.
But some of Sanders’ major contenders, like Price, are already struggling and even the reigning champion Kevin Benavides has an uphill climb after dropping 36 minutes to Sanders.
Meanwhile, Molly Taylor, the first Australian woman to compete in the Dakar, slipped back to 10th place alongside compatriot Dale Moscatt in the SSV class – four-wheel side-by-side vehicles – nearly 55 minutes behind the Polish leaders Aron Domzala and Maciej Marton.
In the cars category, Stephane Peterhansel’s hopes of defending his title effectively disappeared after the Frenchman’s electric Audi suffered a smashed rear axle and he lost more than five hours.
While Qatar’s Nasser Al-Attiyah continued his form to stretch his lead to 12 minutes 44 seconds, 14-times Dakar winner Peterhansel had to wait for assistance.
Toyota driver Al Attiyah’s closest rival is now Frenchman Sebastien Loeb, a nine-time world rally champion, for the Bahrain Raid Xtreme team.