【Behind the Scenes】 HRC Offroad Race Operations Manager Taichi Honda Interview
There are Two Reasons We Didn’t Win - The First is the Start
Honda’s ultimate goal for the 2023 Dakar Rally was to regain the championship for the first time in two years. The best result, however, was Pablo Quintanilla’s 4th place overall, and although this goal was not achieved, three Team HRC riders finished within the top 10, a result that will lead to the 2024 edition. Taichi Honda, Off-Road Manager for HRC's Motorcycle Racing Department, attributes failure to win to two main causes.
“The first is the prologue before Stage 1. It is a short race of about 13 kilometers and is used to determine the starting order for Stage 1. All of our riders are not bad at sprint races, but Ricky Brabec, the best rider on the team, finished in 10th place. The other three riders were further back.
“The route was very flat and slightly sandy, so it was not a problem for either our riders or bikes, but the other riders were simply faster. The Australian riders have been very strong recently, and this may have been the kind of surface that they are particularly good at.”
The Dakar Rally requires a unique strategy. The first rider at the start has to navigate and cut his way through the bare, unmarked desert. Riders starting around 10th position can simply follow the route of the bikes ahead, and overtaking them. The starting order for each stage is determined by the previous day's results, so the rider who wins a stage has to navigate the next day, which can be very difficult. In other words, the Dakar Rally is like a seesaw (yoyo effect). It is difficult to keep winning stage after stage, and riders move back and forth between the top and the bottom (around 10th) positions, while trying to maintain the top overall time.
“The ideal strategy is to split into two groups in the prologue, one at the front and one at the back, and since Honda only has four riders, it is especially important to get this formation right, which can be hard until we get into a good rhythm. This year, however, all our riders were about 10 minutes behind from the start, and we had to catch up.”
Overall victory was within reach in Stage 8, but rain changed everything
“Ten minutes in the Dakar Rally is not a big gap. We thought we would be able to catch up without too much difficulty in the early stages of the race. This year we felt the gap would be easy to regain, especially since the navigation and route were said to be difficult. The weather in Saudi Arabia this year, however, was unusual. Rain is rare during the Dakar, but this year it rained for about 70% of the time. By the time the four-wheelers were racing, the race became perilous with drivers being swept away by the muddy water.
“This rain was tricky to deal with. Even in off-piste areas (such as sand dunes), where riders have to carefully navigate by looking at the map, there are usually traces of previous riders’ tracks. By following these, even the frontrunners are able to cut down on a significant amount of navigation. This must have been a miscalculation on the part of the organizers, who had been told that navigation would be more difficult this year. The rain also changed the conditions in the already difficult desert. The rain made the surface hard and tight, and easier to navigate. In other words, the rain made it more difficult for us to close the gap to our rivals.
“In Stage 8, Pablo was finally able to reduce the gap with the leader to 2 minutes and 45 seconds. We thought we could finally fight back. We had a good team formation, but in Stage 9, all our riders crashed and lost time. It is hard to tell from the video, but this was another stage that was heavily affected by the rain. The entire surface was like a reservoir, and it may have been frustrating to not be able to close the gap as much as we would have liked. In hindsight, that was the turning point. It affected us until the very end.
“Stage 9 was also significant, as former teammate Joan Barreda, now racing for a satellite team, could have taken the overall lead. If this had gone well, there might still have been hope, but Barreda also crashed and retired. We could not reconstruct our formation with three of our riders out of the top group.”
The latter-half stages, already short special stages, were cancelled. These factors also worked against the Honda teams who were forced to catch up, and we were unable to make significant progress by the final stage.
For the 2023 Dakar Rally, there were major changes to the regulations to reduce the yoyo effect.
The first was the digital roadbook. The diagrams on long paper rolls were to be replaced by a tablet-like digital device.
The distributed roadbooks were to be randomly divided into two types, A and B. With two different roadbooks, riders would not be able to simply follow the frontrunners. They would have to navigate. However:
“The digital roadbooks were distributed to the teams in advance for testing purposes. They found that when the sun was directly above, the LCD screen would be completely unusable, so teams collectively made a statement against the digital roadbooks, which consequently were not adopted for 2023. With a digital roadbook, it would have been easier to instantly distribute a modified roadbook that deals with route changes due to weather.”
In the end, analog roadbooks were used, and the yoyo effect was not addressed. In addition, the large amount of rain made it easier to ride over the desert, and with the cancellation of Stage 7, needed to catch up, and a crash in Stage 9, the last chance, the situation was impossible for Honda. Had the digital roadbook been distributed a year earlier, things might have been different.
Even during the South American Dakar era where the climate was unpredictable, weather and bad luck played a large part each year. For Taichi Honda, the 2023 Dakar was reminiscent of the South American era.
New team rider Adrien Van Beveren
All of Team HRC's riders are capable of winning, and the team’s new French rider Adrien Van Beveren is no exception.
“Adrien had a great motocross career and is three-time winner of the major beach race in Le Touquet, France. He had approached me several times in the past, but the timing was not right, and we have not been able to fight the Dakar together. This year, by chance, we managed to sign the contract. It was Adrien's first time racing in the Dakar with Honda, and he was very surprised at how different the team organization was. He was very positive because the bike was rapidly built in the direction he wanted. He had already joined Team HRC mid-season in 2022 and won the Andalucía Rally in Spain.
”The prologue was exactly the kind of sprint that Adrien is good at, so he was surprised at his poor results. He thought he could have gone a bit faster, even if only by a few seconds.
“Throughout his career, Adrien had many tough experiences, crashing and retiring when he was on the verge of winning, so he had been doing a lot of mental training. Thanks to that, even if the results were not good on the first day, he was able to gradually improve and was in very good shape. By Stage 7, the day before the rest day, he had closed the gap to the leader to 3 minutes. Although really fired up, he collided with a younger rider and crashed in Stage 9. In the Dakar, there is a gentleman's rule that in a close race, there should be a certain amount of space between each other, but maybe the other rider didn't understand this rule. Adrien said that he was rammed from the side, but I guess they both have their views. Anyway, this turned a 3 minute gap into 20 minutes. He’s good on the sand, but was unable to improve his position with the rain and hard surface.”
Chelean Cornejo and Quintanilla unable to take advantage of the desert
Jose Ignacio Cornejo and Pablo Quintanilla, who had just joined the team in 2021, are old friends from Chile. They are so close, they train together.
“Cornejo, or Nacho as he is called, grew up with dunes behind his house. He could wake up in the morning and go for a dune ride. So he is very good in the desert, but not so good on flat surfaces like in the prologue. He also has excellent navigation skills, so when he won a stage, he would not lose too much ground the next day.
“However, the desert surface was hard because of the rain, so he could not take advantage, and since only won a few stages, Nacho, who is not good at catching up from the back of the field, could not perform his best.
On the other hand, Quintanilla is from an urban area in Chile and is eager to practice. He is a very tough rider who not only practices on the bike, but also in the gym. He was always told that he could win championships, but hadn’t yet. Last year he was gaining momentum finishing third, but then recovery from an injury had dampened his progress.
The two riders are particularly focused on teamwork, and they think hard about what they need to do to help Team HRC win.”
The incredible speed of 2020 champion, American Ricky Brabec
Ricky Brabec, the only Dakar winner in the team, is from the United States. Due to his Dakar victory, the number of leading American riders entering the Dakar over the past three years has increased.
“Take 2019 for example. Ricky was very fast that year and looked certain to win, but he retired with engine issues. But he kept up his form and convincingly won in 2020. Ricky is a strong rider who is fast.
“He also tends to have problems in the sprint races in the early stages. In 2021, he made a mistake on the first day of the race, and in 2022, he lost a lot of time in the first half and was unable to make a comeback. He understands this and has been practicing sprinting a lot. In the prologue he finished 10th, which I think was very good considering the formidable competition. In the first half of the race, there were many different road conditions, very similar to the conditions in California, Ricky's home state, but he crashed and retired in Stage 3. He tried to rejoin the race, but at that point he seemed to suffer memory loss. He thought he could continue, but the medics in the helicopter stopped him.
The prologue not going well was a big reason for the team's loss this year, but Ricky was the only one who did well. He won Stage 1, and he was pretty frustrated.”
The current CRF450RALLY has amazing durability and high potential
“I heard that Ricky's crash was a freak accident, such as hitting a rock or something like that, but we believe that the bike should nonetheless endure.”
Team HRC currently races CRF450RALLY bikes in the Dakar. In its first year back in the Dakar, Team HRC raced modified CRF450X enduro bikes, but the performance was not up to expectations. In the second year, the team introduced a factory bike, the CRF450RALLY, which was newly designed from the ground up, including the engine and frame. Team HRC is in its eighth year with the CRF450RALLY.
In contrast, the KTM Group, Honda’s biggest competitor and the other major manufacturer in the Dakar’s two-wheel competition, has been completely revamping their bikes once every four years.
“We have been maturing the bike with minor updates to the frame and such every year. The reason we've been using this bike for eight years is simple: we don't rebuild it, we build it up. In this race, if the bike breaks down, everything is ruined, so it is important to make sure it is durable. Improving durability is no simple matter. Everything is the result of the accumulation of engineering efforts. We replace materials, and improve the accuracy of endurance testing, which is also important. For example, in 2019, an engine broke down, and we spent a year analyzing why.
“The CRF450RALLY has always been on the cutting edge of off-road technology since its launch, so even after eight years, it is still as competitive, and there is still room for improvement as it matures. The KTM Group fully revamped its factory bikes two years ago, but they are not yet available as production models. We believe some of their bikes have older model factory engines. It is that difficult to build a new Dakar bike.
”Starting this year, there is a new regulation in the motorcycle category limiting top speed to 160 km/h. Until now, we were competing for maximum speed, but this is no longer necessary. Instead, acceleration up to 160 km/h is now more important. In fact, in the long history of the Dakar Rally, the only category that did not have a speed limit was the motorcycle category. The four-wheel, truck, and side-by-side (small four-wheel) categories all had a speed limit, and the strategies are well established.
”The settings for this year's bikes are necessarily different to last year. Instead of high power output at high revs, we have changed the characteristics of the bike to focus on low to mid-speeds. As a result, it seems that we were a little left behind by the competition on the dune climbs, but I think this will be a topic for future bike development.”
Durability of Dakar bikes is unique. Although maintenance is performed daily over the 8,000 km race, engines need to withstand the vigorous throttle work of top riders.
“We have not had any mechanical problems since Ricky Brabec's engine failure in 2019. We are sponsored by MOTUL, which tests the oil every day, but we use that mostly just for confirmation. We have a pretty good idea of what happens in the engine based on past experience.
“When we first returned to the Dakar, we had several spare bikes and a lot of spare parts, but now that the durability has improved and the bikes no longer break, we don't have any spare bikes. We only have a few spare engines, and the team has become very compact compared to the original team structure. I think this is one of the strengths of being a company specializing in racing, and we can rapidly improve on our mistakes. Not only the bikes, but race management also continues to evolve.“
The Dakar Rally will evolve again
The Paris-Dakar Rally, started by Frenchman Thierry Sabine, was the result of a longing for the vast and unknown land of Africa, deeply rooted in the French people. In its early days, the race was mainly run by French and other Europeans. When BMW and Cagiva were dominant, Japanese manufacturers entered, gradually making the Dakar Rally more diverse. The race changed dramatically after it was moved to South America.
Honda has been involved in the Dakar Rally since the South America era, and has witnessed its transition.
“We can see from shared website data and other sources, that the number of rally fans worldwide is increasing. Rally racing has a deep-rooted popularity in Europe, and recently its momentum in the U.S. has been amazing.
“In fact, being at the Dakar, I see in the side-by-side class the American manufacturer called Can-Am entering as a factory team. We are also seeing more and more top American riders racing, such as Skyler Howes and Mason Klein. I think this is due in large part to our team member and North American native Ricky Brabec winning in 2020.
Saudi Arabia has also changed. When the Dakar Rally first moved to Saudi Arabia, there were no people along the roadside, but this year there were many spectators. Perhaps because of the increased awareness, we are seeing Honda motorcycles on the roads of Saudi Arabia.”
In recent years, Dakar Rally rules have changed frequently
“There are major rule changes every year. One of the biggest changes is that this year, the first three riders are given bonus time, in an effort to ease the yoyo effect as much as possible. At first, we could not predict how this rule would affect the race, but in fact, the easy route and navigation in this year’s Dakar gave more of an advantage to the top riders in each stage. The rule change was detrimental to us, as we had a slow start in the first half of the race.
The digital roadbook will probably be adjusted again, for adoption in 2024.
We too will continue to prepare for 2024, focusing on winning. We have the Abu Dhabi rally starting next week, where we will confirm the weaknesses we felt in the sand at the Dakar Rally, and collect data that we can use in our next development. Our goal is to win the Dakar Rally.”