Starting the new Challenge (2013-2015)
Back As a Factory Team after 24 years, Sure-Footed Progress in-between
On July 2, 2012, would compete in the Dakar Rally as a factory team, TEAM HRC, for the first time in 24 years. While Honda was absent, in 2009 the Rally had been moved from the Sahara in West Africa to South America, and the motorcycle class’ regulation had dramatic changes, such as the engine capacity being reduced to 450cc.
Also due to the venue moving to the southern hemisphere, the Rally was now in mid-summer rather than in mid-winter. In the deserts, the temperature can rise over 50 degrees while there are high altitudes up to 4000-5000 meters also set in the route.At these altitudes, the temperature can drop below zero, which meant that the competitors would have to cope with scorching heat and freezing mountains in the same race.
Austrian manufacturer KTM had been successful since 2001, continuing to win the title every year, and this experience also made the KTM team very strong. It was going to be a completely new experience for Honda, being a new-comer, and a huge challenge for the engineers just like it was in 1986.
Honda used its existing CRF450X as the base to build the new rally machine, the CRF450 RALLY. With its unique combined light guard and windscreen, the CRF450 RALLY became the new icon of rally machines.
The three riders for this first year of the challenge were; Helder Rodrigues (Portugal), Javier Pizzolito (Argentina) and Johnny Campbell (USA).
The race started in the capital of Peru, Lima, on the January 5, traveled south down the desert section and then over the Andes to the halfway rest day in Cordova, Argentina. From there on the route went back into the high-altitude mountains and into the Atacama Desert, traveling south to Santiago. The total distance was 8420km over 15 days.
In the early stages, the Honda riders suffered fueling problems causing them to lose precious time. Lost time was hard to make up as all competitors raced with similarly sized engines, but the Honda riders did their best to finish 7th (Helder Rodrigues) and 8th (Javier Pizzolito). Johnny Campbell faced other problems and dropped back, and later in the race fell and suffered an injury putting him in 40th position overall by the end. However, he made an impression by finishing a stage in 2nd place, the best in the team.
The mechanical problems were all minor, but nonetheless cost the Honda team highly in their first year back, reminding them of how hard the Dakar was and is.
Building an Exclusive Rally Machine while the Team is Renewed
The second year into the challenge, TEAM HRC started by building an exclusive rally machine, unlike the CRF450X based model used the year before. The team was also revised and the number of riders boosted to make sure this project was moving closer to victory.
Joan Barreda (Spain) and Paulo Goncalves (Portugal) were the new riders to the team joining Helder Rodrigues (Portugal), Sam Sunderland (UK) and Javier Pizzolito (Argentina) making a total of five riders. The race started on the January 5 in Rosario, Argentina, and Barreda marked a stage victory in this first Special Stage, the first in 25 years for TEAM HRC.
The Special Stages in early sections of the race were set in altitudes over 4500m with difficult navigation. At a section with a rocky hill, there were places where one miss-navigation forced the rider to make a long detour to get back on the right track. Many riders such as Goncalves and Sunderland from the top group made mistakes here and dropped down the leaderboard while other riders like Barreda and Rodrigues managed to form the leading group.
In the 4th stage, Sunderland was forced to leave the competition due to engine issues. In the following Stage 5, Goncalves also had to retire due to an unlucky incident, a twig getting caught too close to the engine, causing the machine to catch on fire. Also, Barreda’s machine was not in good shape with fueling problems due to the high temperature, costing him to drop down from the lead.
Entering the latter half of the race in second place, Barreda continued to chase rival Marc Coma (KTM) but despite the hard riding he performed, small mistakes which caused penalties prevented the gap to be closed between the KTM. Towards the end of the race in Stage 12, Barreda took the risk to push that little bit harder, but resulted in a fall and lost huge time, putting him in a battle for 3rd position when he restarted. Not in top form, he ended the race in 5th place, 10 minutes 54 seconds behind the 3rd finisher.
Although the final result was yet again disappointing, the CRF450 RALLY marked top times in 6 stages out of the total 13 and proved its performance.
Ever-evolving TEAM HRC and CRF450 RALLY
The CRF450 RALLY was further developed to be faster, more stable, more durable and reliable to be competitive for the 2015 edition of the Dakar. The feedback from the past two years had been vast and the third challenge was going to be as focused as ever.
Starting in Buenos Aires, this year’s route was to go over the Andes and to Iquique, Chile, where the rest day is set, and then to the Marathon Stage in the Uyuni Salt Lake in Bolivia. A second Marathon Stage was set in the latter half of the race before returning to the goal back in Buenos Aires.
Riders for this year were; Joan Barreda (Spain), Paulo Goncalves (Portugal), Helder Rodrigues (Portugal), Jeremias Israel (Chile) and a top female rider Laia Sanz (Spain), all on the updated CRF450 RALLY.
Stage-winning riders would be first to start the following stage. Without the sand and dust from riders ahead, clear vision is an advantage, but the trail left acts as a guide for following riders, making their navigation easier. Barreda chose to controlled his times to be close, but not faster than, the experienced race leading KTM rider, Marc Coma. This plan went well and Barreda maintained second place throughout the first half of the race, and by rest day he was a comfortable 12 minutes and 27 seconds behind the race leading Coma.
Barreda’s luck, however, changed in the Marathon Stage that followed the rest day. Two-thirds into the stage on the way to Uyuni Salt Lake, Barreda fell and the handlebar on his CRF450 RALLY broke. Barreda continued to the bivouac with difficulty, but being the Marathon Stage where the riders cannot receive support from the team, all he could do was to borrow the handlebar of a teammate to complete the next day of the Marathon Stage.
Like a huge mirror reflecting the sky, the Uyuni Salt Lake is at a high altitude and the zero-degree temperature makes it a hard section despite its beauty. The course was set to cross through the center of this lake and the riders had a whole day of riding at high speeds through huge puddles. The rain water which the front wheel sprays up and the salt that attaches to the machine causes various issues and many competitors suffered from electrical problems and/or blocked-up radiators. Barreda who was top of the leaderboard also suffered from electrical problems and was not able to re-start the engine. He could only rely on a teammate to tow him back to the bivouac in Iquique.
Goncalves and Sanz who both didn’t suffer any kind of mechanical trouble reached the camp safely, but Rodrigues and Israel who both supported Barreda to return to safety dropped back significantly. This incident caused Barreda to drop out of contention and Goncalves who climbed up to second place was not able to close the gap between Coma in the lead and returned to Buenos Aires in second place.
Three years into the challenge, TEAM HRC had achieved a respectable overall second place, but they were not on the top of the podium yet.