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Brabec wins the Dakar Rally

Dakar 2020: The American dream came true

Jan 172020

The feeling of the bivouac was simply unanimous: this year Ricky Brabec was the reference. He looked solid and focused since Day One. The easy-going temperament and the genuine smile of the American kid was still there, but the light of the eyes betrayed the awareness and the maturity of the racer who knows what this game is all about. The disappointment of the last edition when the engine of his Honda CRF450 Rally betrayed his dream of becoming the first American to win the Dakar was still burning. “I will return stronger,” he promised. Mission accomplished.

Finishing first in Qiddiya after 12 days of race, and 7,000 kilometres, Ricky Brabec is the first ever American to win the 42-year-old event. Danny LaPorte was second on a Cagiva in 1992, and Jimmy Lewis completed the podium in 2000 on a BMW. Chris Blais was third in 2007 on a KTM.

The race
In Jeddah Ricky set the pace from the first day, (Jeddah- Al Wajh), 319 kms of timed section for a total of 753 kms, with the aim of building on the fine work done in the previous edition. The American registered notable times eventually to take the stage’s second fastest time overall. The second day, the roadbooks were delivered just 20 minutes before the start. The new system, introduced for the first time this year on the rally, added unpredictability to the race. No map man could help the factory riders to find their ways in the hell of dust, dry riverbeds, rock-filled winding canyons and sand dunes. Navigation, the number one skill required in the discipline, returned protagonist. It was a high-speed affair that day. Most of the trajectory was flat, but the multiple parallel tracks demanded particularly erudite navigation from all the riders, frontrunners and followers alike. All the training done at home, and in Morocco, paid off well.

Having to start the day from second position, Brabec opened the track and rode alone for most of the time. He managed the situation skillfully, and was able to post the day’s 11th place, which left him in fifth position overall some four minutes shy of the leader. But the challenge was not over that day. For the first time the top bike riders were confronted with the “super marathon” stage, which means no assistance and only 10 minutes to work on their machines, without even the possibility to change the wheels.

On the menu of day 3, the loop of 414 kms around Neom, at the border with Jordan, brought the riders to discover the big rocks and the sandy paths, landmark of this north west region of the country. For Ricky it was the day to make the difference. Earlier in the morning, he received the pre-marked roadbook just minutes before the race start, but this was no impediment. He found his way on the slippery gravel-filled mountain tracks and high-speed section off-piste to secure Honda a podium lock-out at the end of the stage. The American won the stage and took the lead overall, with team-mates ‘Nacho’ Cornejo and Kevin Benavides, respectively taking second and third on the stage. The lead gave him extra confidence in himself. One year later he was back where he had left off. Now he had just one thought in mind: make it to the end.

Stage four of the 2020 Dakar Rally (Neom – Al Ula, 453 kms of timed section for a total of 672) saw the Monster Energy Honda Team arrive at the final destination at the Al Ula bivouac very well-positioned in the race. And Honda once again dominated, this time with the Chilean Cornejo, who scored his first-ever stage win, followed by Benavides and Brabec. The American couldn’t have asked for a better menu: on the agenda, once more, there were fast tracks which alternated between sandy and rocky sections. Comfortable on his favourite turf, Brabec pushed like hell to consolidate the leadership of the overall classification. With a 2 min 30 sec advantage over Benavides, 8 min 31 sec on Cornejo and 12 min 09 sec on the first KTM, Australian Toby Price’s, he couldn’t afford to relax for a second. On the agenda of stage 5 (Al Ula – Ha’il) were 353 kms of special stage of rocky paths and boulders on both fast track and sandy off-road with plenty of camel grass to tackle. With no room for mistakes, Brabec took the start with the sole goal to maintain his place at the head of the overall ranking. A well-deserved fourth place on the day enabled him to keep the day’s winner Price within a three-minute distance and to increase to 9 min 06 sec his advantage over the KTM challenger. As the caravan of the rally was heading to Ryad for the rest day, David Castera had prepared a special of 477 kms with dunes and flats to tackle at very high speed.


A challenge within the challenge: another early start (the first bike left the bivouac at 04:50 am) and the air temperature around zero. Ricky rode with Nacho most of the stage, some perfect team-work with one goal for the American: consolidate the advantage on the overall result. His approach didn’t change: one day at a time.

It was pure joy to arrive at the rest day as leader of the overall, the first time for an American rider, and the first time for the Monster Energy Honda team to be so strongly in the lead, since the Japanese squad returned with a factory team on the event on 2013. With 3,711 kms covered in 24 hours 43 min 47 sec, Ricky Brabec could boast an advantage of 20 min 56 sec on the Chilean Pablo Quintanilla (Husqvrana), and 25 min 39 sec on 2019 winner Toby Price.

Leaving Ryad, the Dakar caravan entered the second week, described by Castera as the most difficult phase of the race. The sandy high-speed tracks hid traps every kilometre and the stage nr 7, Riyad – Wadi Al-Dawasir will be remembered as one of the saddest in the history of the event. At Km 279, the 40-year-old Portuguese rider Paulo Goncalves suffered a fatal accident. The alarm was given at 10:08 (0708 GMT). A medical helicopter reached the biker at 10:16 and found him unconscious after going into cardiac arrest. All efforts to resuscitate him were sadly in vain. The whole community at the bivouac was in shock over the loss of Goncalves, a member of the Monster Energy Honda squad until last year. As a result, the stage nr 8, a loop around Wadi Al-Dawasir, was cancelled for the bikers. It was the correct decision out of respect for the family of the Portuguese racer, and the nerves of his fellow bikers.


The following day all the rally was back on track heading towards the east of the Arabian peninsula with the camp for the ninth stage situated in Haradh. The riders took the start at 05:25 am, when it was still dark for 376-kilometre liaison section before tackling the 410-kilometre timed special. In store were some very hard track and tough navigation. Brabec continued managing his race, saving his machine and his body, aware that a single mistake could cost him the race. That day, he finished fourth, which rewarded him with a favourable starting position the following day, having conceded very little time in the stage. The win there went to Pablo Quintanilla, ahead of Toby Price and Pablo’s team-mate Joan Barreda. Ricky kept smiling, knowing that only crossing the finish line at Qiddiya counted for the golden Tuareg trophy. Thanks to more wise team-work, Honda secured the top three places in the 10th stage, a crucial one being the first part of the marathon stage in the remote “Empty Quarter”, the largest desert in the world. Initially scheduled to cover 534 kilometres, the stage was shortened due to wild sand storm that seriously reduced visibility. Despite the sudden change, which complicated Brabec’s strategy, he finished second and increased his lead over his immediate rivals: more than 25 minutes over Quintanilla and 27 over Barreda, the winner of the stage. With two more days to go, expectations were high and Ricky had to deal with the ghosts of his own fear. “Keep focused. One day at the time”, was his mantra, repeated a thousand times in his head in the 379-km long 11th stage (744 in total) in the dunes of the “Empty Quarter”. A fire at the bivouac cleared the night before the big day. All the Americans were grouping together listening Bright Lights by Gary Clark Jnr. Having two of them, Brabec in the bike category, Casey Currie in the Side by Side, leading the toughest rally in the world still felt unreal. Only 13 minutes 56 sec over Quintanilla and 375 km separated the Ricky from the glory.


That night Ricky couldn’t sleep, neither Nacho Cornejo, with whom he was sharing the camper at the bivouac. The last stage Ryad – Quiddya, was simply endless. Ricky had just one goal: cross the finish line. He managed the pace, but even pushed because it’s one thing to finish, another to take your first Dakar victory in style. He posted the fastest time at km 119, beating team-mate Jose Ignacio Cornejo by 18 seconds, and eventually finished the last stage in second place, 53 seconds adrift of him. The factory Honda biker just needed to survive the link route and Qiddiya Grand Prix, to become the first American ever to win the Dakar.

A big surprise was waiting for him under the podium; his father Rick Snr had flown over from the States. From Japan arrived Yoshishige Nomura, HRC President, and Tetsuhiro Kuwata, HRC Director and General Manager Race Operations for MotoGP. Brabec had given Honda a win that was missing for 31 years and which interrupted KTM dominance that had lasted since 2001.

The 2020 Dakar win represents Honda’s sixth victory in the event and followed the five clinched in Africa with Ciryl Neveu (1982, 1986 and 1987), Edi Orioli (1988), and Gilles Lalay (1989).

"...I couldn’t have done it without all of the support from everyone involved especially Honda, Monster Energy, and AlpineStars.”

From the dust to the stars

How difficult was it to overcome the big disappointment from last year?

After what happened last year (Brabec was withdrawn on Stage 8 after engine failure while leading), I took a step back from the team and joined them only in the second half of the season. It was my decision, as I needed to regroup. It was a tough time and I went through mixed feelings. I also injured myself as I was not on the ground with them. When I finally returned to racing, I realized that I was a bit out of pace and wished I had done the whole season with them. But now, if I look back, I can understand that I took the necessary time to be by myself and digest the disappointment.

The team went through many changes

Yes, there was a change in the management with Ruben Faria joining as Team Manager and Helder Rodrigues as Sporting Manager. Hide Hanawa, my mechanic, stepped up as chief mechanic and Norman Kendall joined us.

Honda strategy has often been criticized for been too much focused only one rider…

In the past I suffered this situation and didn’t feel the support from the team.

Did you feel a bit underestimated?

Yes, I have always been underestimated within the team. I felt there has always been a battle with my team-mates. I had to prove my skills and, with the results, the atmosphere changed. With good vibes from the team and confidence, you can do great things.

And this year?

For me it was clear: I was not going to race for one person. We are five riders and we are all there to win. Last January, when I won a stage and I was leading the overall I proved my skills and things started to change. This year we broke that barrier and went beyond.

How is your relation with you team-mates?

I had to earn the respect of the team and this was an achievement. As for my team-mates, I get along well with them now, especially Nacho Cornejo. We share the camper and we have a very good time. He is young and talented. I was so happy for him when he won his first stage this year. He deserves it.

New country, new terrain and a new navigation system. How do you prepare for the unknown?

Dakar tests the human spirit to the fullest; the rally hardens the competitor, but also builds humility. I arrived in Jeddah a year more mature, and hungry to win.

What is the recipe to win the Dakar?

There is no recipe as this is my first win. But I can say for sure that you need to stay focused and heathy. It requires hard work and the awareness that you cannot win by yourself. The secret to win Dakar is to have a solid team and bike. I felt more comfortable this year that I had more Americans around me—the right ones: Hide, Norman, Campbell, and Lewis. It builds confidence in myself knowing these guys are behind me 100 percent. We have done massive amounts of testing at home, from 3 to 4 times a week training with the roadbook. The bike was awesome this year. We had no problems. It was time to win, for me, my team and for Honda. We broke 18 consecutive years of dominance of KTM. It’s a great success for all of us.

What was the key of this Dakar?

Firstly, it was a new country for everybody. No-one had raced here before. Secondly, the delivery of the roadbook in the morning allowed the rider’s navigation skill to shine. It was more complicated for us, but fairer. As for my race, I think I made the difference on Stage 3. I was flying on those rocky paths and fast tracks. I love speed.

You were leading since Stage 3, how did you cope with the pressure of that?

I was focused on myself. On a two-week race everything can happen. I kept my feet on the ground.

Success is not the result of one day…

Yes, you really have to want it and work for it day after day. Even training is a hard job. You cannot get a rally bike and go training in the desert. It requires long hours of preparation. It’s a big process. Firstly, you need to prepare the road book, which means to have a device for way points. I use an app called “Rally bite” to create a road book. Then you need someone who goes out and tests. Finally, I have a safety device that I put in my jacket when I ride, as I train a lot by myself. Preparing three or four road books is hard work but it also allows you to stay with your people for a long time. I also go to Mexico to train over sand dunes in Sonora. From October I did three road books a week, until the very last day I took the flight to Saudi.

The race went through a very sad moment with the loss of Paulo Goncalves…

Paulo was our team-mate up until last year, even if in the end he couldn’t take part 100% in the Peru edition as he was injured. He was one of the most beloved and respected riders at the bivouac. I feel very sorry. The organization did well to cancel Stage 8 as a sign of respect for Paulo and his family and also to give us time to calm down our immediate feelings, regroup and restart a bit more focused.

To whom do you dedicate this result?

This win is for Speedy (Paulo Goncalves). I know he is looking down, and I wish he was here celebrating with us. He was a Honda rider for many years and pushed so hard. He was a great rider, a dear friend and a happy father.

How do you feel to be the first American rider to win the Dakar Rally?

The American dream came true! It’s a great feeling. It took me five years to make my dream come true. I’m really happy, not many racers can boast such a result. Being the first American is great, I hope it will be written in the history books one day. It’s a huge satisfaction, but I have to say that this is a team victory; the rider never wins alone. Hopefully we will be back in Saudi Arabia to repeat it.

Even the White House was informed…

The White House? Even better. I didn’t know that! It’s amazing, it would be great to meet Donald Trump!

What was flipping in your head this morning?

We had a long stage to go, so many thoughts were in my mind. Everything can happen, you know? In the last stage I played safe, riding with Kevin (Benavides). I didn't want to take additional risks.

What was your first thought crossing the finish line?

It was surreal. I didn’t cry in my helmet, but it was a dream come true. You cannot win in your head before you win in real life. Since Day One, I tried not to focus on winning, but to be competitive and solid every single stage. I did the same this morning. I was in the process, enjoying every single minute of it. We know this sport is risky, I enjoyed it with Nacho and the other guys. It was also a great surprise to hug my father under the podium. My family is far away, but to have him here was cool. Now I want to enjoy this moment. I have three more days to do some sightseeing in Saudi. No more riding for at least one month!!