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).