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Day 4

Consistently fast on these Spanish pistes and navigating superbly, overall victory on the Andalucía Rally 2020 went to the Argentinian Kevin Benavides (Monster Energy Honda Rally). Second (at 7’42) was Adrien Van Beveren (Monster Energy Yamaha Rally), a remarkable comeback for the Frenchman after his big Dakar crash. Just seconds behind him in third (at 7’54) was an impressive Spaniard Lorenzo Santolino (Sherco TVS Rally Factory), achieving his first major rally podium. 

Holding the overall lead since the start of this Andalucía Rally 2020, Kevin Benavides was the man on form here in Spain, aboard his Monster Energy Honda, and delighted to take this victory in the run up to the Dakar. Commented the Argentinian: “Obviously we haven’t been doing a lot of racing since the Dakar but I have been training hard and working with a sports psychologist to maximize my performance. I live near Salta and the tracks there aren’t dissimilar to what we discovered here in Andalusia so that helps. I didn’t really have a strategy I just took each day at a time. The bike went really well and the team did a great job.”

If Kevin Benavides started this morning with a relatively comfortable margin, the same couldn’t be said for second placed man overall Adrien Van Beveren (Monster Energy Yamaha Rally). Indeed, at km 152 his challenger for the second step on the podium Lorenzo Santolino (Sherco TVS Rally) was 3 seconds in the virtual lead. Said Adrien at the finish line: “After my crash on the Dakar, for the first time in my career, I wondered if I really wanted to continue racing. I thought about it a lot and in the end I decided to continue for myself, for my personal satisfaction. That’s not to say I’m not grateful to my team and my sponsors, but it was an important shift in mentality for me. So, to come back here and prove to myself that I am capable of running at the top of the pack is a grand satisfaction. Many thanks to David Castera and his team for making this race possible.”

In third place, taking his first podium racing against the cream of rally-raid riders, was the Spaniard Lorenzo Santolino (Sherco TVS Factory): “Yes super happy to finish third here. Maybe the fact that I am Spanish and we were racing on Spanish soil was good for me but it is nevertheless important for my confidence going into the Dakar. The team has been working hard to develop the bike and it went really well here, so many thanks to them.”

Away from the podium there were noteworthy performances from the rookie Australian Daniel Sanders (Red Bull KTM Factory) who showed right from the start that he had the speed, by finishing ex aequo with teammate Toby Price on the Super Special, and that he’d made spectacular progress with the navigation by winning today’s last stage, just 7 seconds ahead of his countryman Toby Price. Special mention also to Monster Energy Yamaha Rally’s new recruit Ross Branch who won a special and was in the hunt overall until he ran into problems on yesterday’s stage. Clearly, he has the right pace and the right attitude to achieve great things.

In Rally 2 victory went to multi world enduro champion David Knight (HT Rally) ahead of Czech freestyler Libor Podmol with Camille Chapeliere (KTM Baines Motos) third. Commented the big bloke from the Isle of Man: “The main thing here for me was to finish the race to validate my 2021 Dakar entry, so that’s mission accomplished. To win the Rally 2 class is obviously a big bonus. Having done this rally I’m actually looking forward to the Dakar more than before I started it. It’s a really interesting sport and you learn something every day. Today for example, over the second part, I calmed down a little and really concentrated on the navigation to avoid any penalties and I actually rode much better. But for sure when I get to Dakar it will be an even bigger learning curve.” Finally, in the Road to Dakar challenge victory goes to the Spaniard Tosha Schareina (450 HVA) with David Knight’s world enduro championship victories making him ineligible for the category. Tosha also wins the Enduro Cup category ahead of the Frenchman Matthieu Doveze (KTM) and another Spaniard Ruben Saldaña Goñi, also riding a 450 HVA.

Day 3

Starting 25th this morning Joan Barreda (Monster Energy Honda) won the stage 1’45 ahead of teammate Kevin Benavides (Monster Energy Honda) with Adrien Van Beveren (Monster Energy Yamaha Rally) third at 2’53. With neither Benavides nor Van Beveren finishing outside the top 4 since the start of the rally their consistently has clearly paid off in the overall rankings. Going into tomorrow’s last stage Benavides now leads Van Beveren by 6’38, with Lorenzo Santolino (Sherco TVS Rally) reasonably comfortable in third at 7’25. The big loser on the day was the rider who had been so impressive up until now, Ross Branch (Monster Energy Yamaha Rally). Opening this morning, navigation and technical issues saw him finish down in 25th place and out of contention overall.

Commented today’s Bike winner, the always rapid Spaniard Joan Barreda (Monster Energy Honda): “At the beginning it wasn’t easy because I had to pass many riders with a lot of dust. But after that I was able to ride at a good pace. We are using something like an enduro tyre but today with all the rocks it is destroyed. All in all, happy with my day.”

Even happier was his Honda Monster Energy teammate Kevin Benavides who, despite starting up at the front and with an injured arm, managed to increase his overall lead going into the last day: “I feel so good on the bike. Yesterday I had a crash but I’m OK. Today I think I did a good job, I made 2 or 3 mistakes with the navigation, but still finishing third and leading overall. Tomorrow is the last day, so I will try and do my best to take victory.”

Almost as consistent as the Argentinian on this Andalus?a Rally 2020 has been the Frenchman Adrien Van Beveren (Monster Energy Yamaha Rally), who has been rewarded for his efforts with promotion to second place overall in the rankings: “I knew that I had to put in another solid day and attack hard if I wanted to get the bike on the podium tomorrow. I rode hard at the start of the special and I could see that the riders in front of me had got lost. I lost a little time as well looking for the track and then opened the piste which cost me a few more seconds. After my crash on the Dakar I’m happy to be back and on form on the bike.”

One of those who got lost, along with Lorenzo Santolino (Sherco TVS Rally) was the man who started two places in front of Van Beveren, first man on the track, the ever-cheerful Ross Branch (Monster Energy Yamaha Rally): “Opening the road was amazing. The first 100 km went well. We had a small technical problem after that which we had to fix and I got a bit lost, but that’s rally, these things happen. But I had fun. It was a really cool route today, very fast and a good test for the Dakar.”

In Rally 2 today’s special was won by Tosha Schareina (Husqvarna), with David Knight (Husqvarna) second at 02’03 and Libor Podmol (Husqvarna) third at 02’28. All of which allows David Knight to maintain his overall lead 04’09 ahead of Schareina with Podmol third at 12’14. A classification that corresponds to that of the Road to Dakar challenge, with the winner taking home a free entry to next year’s event.

Day 2

Ross Branch was provisionally the winner. Kevin Benavides was runner up and Lorenzo Santolino was 3rd. In the overall standings Benavides maintained the lead from Santalino. Jamie McCanney had a rough day losing time trying to find a waypoint that wasn't there. Towards the end of the day he slipped into a drainage ditch and he had to lift the bike off the ground to escape. He managed to finish 12th.

In the bikes an epic battle was fought out between road opener Kevin Benavides (Monster Energy Honda) and Yamaha’s new recruit Ross Branch (Monster Energy Yamaha Rally) who started down in 13th place. Despite the pressure of finding the way, Benavides led for much of the special and very nearly achieved the rally-raid holy grail of winning from the front. In the end a crash in which he hurt his arm and a 2-minute time penalty for missing a waypoint put paid to his hopes and saw Branch take the win. Also starting far back, Toby Price (Red Bull KTM Factory) got up to 3rd but eventually fell back to 5th at 3’05, meaning that an impressive Lorenzo Santolino (Sherco TVS Rally Factory) finally takes second at 2’16. Adrien Van Beveren (Monster Energy Yamaha Rally) moves up to 3rd at 2’36, with Kevin Benavides 4th at 2’42. Benavides can find consolation in the fact he maintains the overall lead 2’52 ahead of Santolino with Van Beveren third at 5’30. Ross Branch moves up to 4th at 8’45.

A clearly delighted Ross Branch is obviously ‘in love’ with his new French-based team and effortlessly making the transition from promising privateer to factory team front runner. Ross Branch : “Yeah really good day today. I tried to slow down a bit because yesterday I think I was pushing too hard. The tracks are a little bit slippery and I know the guys at the front are really quick. I just had some fun today and tried to navigate and not miss any waypoints. The Yamaha is going amazing and I’m really happy with the team and the position we’re in. Learning everyday for Dakar – that’s the main goal.”

At the beginning of the rally, 2020 Dakar winner Ricky Brabec (Monster Energy Honda) admitted that he wasn’t really in his element over the kind of terrain to be found in Andalusia, but tipped teammate Kevin Benavides as the man to watch. He’d been training with him before the race and was impressed with his speed. Speed that Benavides undoubtedly showed here today. Monster Energy Honda Team Manager Ruben Faria wouldn’t disagree: “We saw yesterday with Toby Price, where he lost 17 mins, that it is very difficult to open here. We didn’t really want our riders to attack hard today so as not to open tomorrow, but Kevin is clearly in his element on these kind of tracks and rode an incredible special, despite his crash. He will be racing for sure tomorrow.”

Another rider who impressed over the 243 km special was Sherco TV Factory Rally pilot Lorenzo Santolino. Starting behind Joan Barreda (Monster Energy Honda) is never a disadvantage, but when he made a mistake Santolino took over and maintained his position for the remainder of the special : Santolino: “I had a great day. I was behind Barreda and he made a mistake so I passed ahead of him. I rode my own race, controlled the rhythm. Then Kevin fell and I just concentrated to getting to the finish without any problems.”

Coming back from his Dakar injury, that many predicted could put an end to his career, Adrien Van Beveren (Monster Yamaha Rally Team) again showed consistency to finish well up the rankings, proving he is once more very much in contention. Van Beveren: “Very happy with my place. I’m here to put in a solid performance with the Dakar in mind and that is already the case, as I’ve now had 2 good days where normally I take a little bit of time to get going. No crashes, no waypoints missed, I’m trying to race an intelligent rally and think I have found the right pace.”

Retirements today include Sam Sunderland (Red Bull KTM Factory) who pulled out after crashing and hurting his arm and Joaquim Rodrigues (Hero Motorsports) who was forced to pull out of the special with an electrical fault. He will restart tomorrow.

In Rally 2 the special was won by Mathieu Doveze from France ahead of the Spaniard Schareina with the Czech rider Podmol third. Overall the British multi world enduro champion David Knight maintains the lead ahead Schareina and Podmol: Commented ‘Knighter’: “I’m really enjoying my first rally. I made a bit of a schoolboy error today with the navigation and lost a load of time but strangely the road book is the part I’m enjoying the most.”

Tomorrow: Stage 3: “Wide open spaces”
Stage total: 378 km / SS total: 233 km / liaison total : 165 km
David Castera: “A stage that is 100% different from the others. Flatter, more open, with few trees. The rhythm is different. It is a classic rally special, quite rolling, especially at the start of the special over the first forty kilometers, where the average will be over 100kph.”

ANDALUSIA SHOWS IT'S CHARACTER

As promised by David Castera, today's first stage on the Andaluc?a Rally was a resume of everything the competitors will encounter this week. In the bikes the dust that everybody was so worried about was finally not the most important factor, with the special proved favourable to those starting just outside the top ten. Kevin Benavides, Joan Barreda (Monster Energy Honda Team) and Lorenzo Santolino (Sherco TVS Rally Factory) finished first, second and third respectively. In the cars staying out of trouble was the key to success over an incident packed stage. After the cancellation of the Super Special, it was the end of the stage that was cut short. Yazeed Al Rajhi (Overdrise SA) came out on top, ahead of Carlos Sainz (Mini JCW). Nasser Al Attiyah (Toyota Gazoo Racing), managed to minimise his mechanical problems to finish third, while rival Peterhansel (X-Raid Mini JCW) was lucky to finish at all and this evening is lying in ninth place.

Playing a low profile yesterday on the Super Special, Kevin Benavides (Monster Energy Honda) started 14th this morning to win the stage, more than 3 minutes ahead of his teammate Joan Barreda: "It was a good day. I started a little behind and I was happy with that position, even if I knew it could go either way. I suffered a little in the dust but was feeling good on the bike until kilometre 170 when the road book broke, and I had to finish the stage by looking at the marks on the ground. It required a lot of concentration but in the end I won the stage, even if the last 5 kilometres weren't easy, after seeing my brother lying on the ground. The important thing is he is OK."

Starting respectively first, second and fourth this morning, Toby Price, Daniel Sanders and Matthias Walkner (Red Bull Factory Team) finished 17th, 19th and 12th. A disappointing day for the Austrian team who, professional as ever, are already looking towards tomorrow, as the experienced Toby Price explained. "It is never good option to start first. But it is always good to navigate alone up front and spend time on the bike. All in all it was an OK day and we will have to wait and see what tomorrow brings." Only Sam Sunderland (Red Bull KTM Factory Team), who started 20th, managed to stay in touch with the front of the race, finishing in 5th position.

Next door, under the GasGas awning, Laia Sanz didn't start this morning after yesterday's crash in the super special. With her arm badly swollen, the Spanish rider decided to pull out just before the start. A further blow for the Austrians was the retirement of Luciano Benavides. Making his début in the Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory Racing colours, he crashed just 5 kilometres from the finish. Suffering from an impact to his thorax, initial medical examinations are reassuring.

The chances of seeing a Husqvarna up at the front of the rankings now depends on the performance of the Frenchman Xavier de Soultrait, riding for the HT Rally team, who finished the stage in 6th place. "The dust was hanging in the trees at the start of the rally and after 50 kilometres I thought it would be risky to push harder. At the first pause I saw that I wasn't far from Kevin (Benavides) who is quick on these types of tracks. So I decided to hang on to him. With very tricky navigation, the kind we aren't that used to, in the end it is better not to push too hard."

Finishing third on the day, Sherco TVS Rally Factory rider Lorenzo Santolino expressed a similar sentiment. "It was a good day and finally the dust wasn't too bad, as Barreda, who started in front of me, set a good pace. I was never on the limit and was surprised by my final finishing position."

Over in the Monster Energy Yamaha Rally camp, Andrew Short started third and didn't managed to find the right rhythm. His teammate Adrien Van Beveren also admitted to struggling to find his mark but nevertheless finished a better than expected in 4th place: "In the beginning I was tense on the bike but I eventually loosened up a bit after about 50 kilometres. I was split between attacking and holding back. It is a real rally, no doubt about that. I was expecting something more straightforward, but it was twisty with a lot of changes of direction."

UNDER STARTERS ORDERS

After many months of enforced inactivity, the bike and quad competitors finally got the chance to turn a wheel in anger over a 9 kilometre super special to decide the start order for tomorrow’s first stage. An exercise that is often anecdotal, the nature of the dusty tracks here in Andalusia meant that for once all the top guns charged hard, keen to start as close to the front as possible. Run right next to the rally’s hacienda bivouac, victory went to Toby Price (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing), ex aequo with rookie Daniel Sanders (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) with Yamaha’s new recruit Ross Branch (Monster Energy Yamaha Rally) third. And as informed observers of the super special won’t have failed to notice, not only are all the factory teams (Monster Energy Honda, Red Bull KTM Factory Racing, Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory Racing, GasGas Factory Racing, Sherco TVS Rally, Hero Motorsports Rally, Monster Yamaha Rally) present, many of them have been busy recruiting new talent. The cars will run their super special tomorrow morning before going almost directly into the first stage and rally-raid fans will be pleased to note that the entry is once again top-flight.

The bike team with the biggest change of personnel is undoubtedly the Monster Energy Yamaha Rally Team with the winner of the last Rallye du Maroc, Andrew Short moving over to the French based team. He has been joined by another recent promising arrival on the rally scene, Ross Branch. If factory contracts are nothing new to ‘Shorty’ they are an unexpected pleasure for his Botswanan teammate. “I’m really excited to be on the race and super happy to be with the team. It is a dream come true for me. On Dakar 2020 I was thinking it was probably my last rally. It was getting really complicated for me as a privateer to keep raising the money, but now that stress has been taken off me and I can just concentrate on the racing. Finishing third on the super special is a good way of starting my ‘professional’ career.”

Rivals KTM also have an exciting new recruit in the form of young Australian Daniel ‘Chucky’ Sanders. The man from down under astonished the off-road world by coming over to Europe last year and winning the ISDE aboard a 500 and since then has been on a number of team manager’s shopping lists. “I’ve been training with the team for the last 3 weeks and already its been a massive learning curve. The terrain around here looks awesome and I’m really excited to race my first rally. Obviously I’ve got a lot to learn but if I can pick things up as quickly as Toby (Price) I’ll be well happy. I’m really stoked to have finished equal first with him on the super special. Just hope I don’t have to open tomorrow!”

It isn’t just the factory teams who’ve been busy recruiting, with top privateer outfit HT Rally also upping their game by bringing aboard none other than experienced rally rider Xavier de Soultrait and three times enduro world champion David Knight. Commented team manager Henk Hellegers, “We’re really happy to have the two in our team - they create a really good atmosphere. To bring a legend like David Knight into rally is a real pleasure for us and it is great to give a proven rider like Xavier his next step.”

Away from the musical chairs, the big talking point in the bike class is the introduction of air bags. Adapted from those used in MotoGP, they won’t actually be compulsory on this event but will be on the next Dakar. To let the competitors try them out, no less than 5 different models are available for competitors to test. Ever since airbags first appeared in road racing, engineers have been looking at ways of adapting them to rally-raid, but the particularities of off-road riding hasn’t made the process straight forward. The man in charge of bring it all together is ASO’s vastly experienced technical expert Thierry Viadot: “Here in Andalusia all the competitors have the possibility to test airbags that have been approved by the FIM for the next Dakar. These have been adapted for off-road use by incorporating passive security to protect the rider’s chest and back, which will inevitably increase body temperature. That however isn’t the principle hurdle to overcome. For me the major problem is defining the parameters for when the airbag deploys, as a function of the degree of shock and speed. The only way to accumulate the necessary data is to start using them now and in a few months the algorithms will have made considerable progress. Until that data has been collected and processed it is possible that airbags may deploy when not desired. But we just have to accept that if we want to progress.”

TOMORROW: Stage 1: Everything here in one stage

While the bikes / quads go directly into the Stage 1, the cars will first tackle the super special before starting the stage 2 hours after the last bike. David Castera : “today we will show the competitors pretty much all the types of terrain they will encounter on this rally. There will be some technical going at the start, a bit of sand over 30-40 kms, some more open tracks, alternating with more narrowing piste. Then in the last property crossed, on the final 40 kilometres, it’ll be more technical again, with some vegetation.

www.andaluciarallyodc.com 

Photo credit : ODC / Charly Lopez

ANDALUCÍA RALLY 2020
KEEPING THE FLAME ALIVE!

As the competitors climbed out of their vehicles, on arriving at the ridiculously picturesque Harcienda El Rosalejo, in the heart of the Andalusian hills, they experienced a heady cocktail of emotions: relief, joy, gratitude, surprise...

Relief at having succeeded in jumping through all the necessary covid hoops needed to get them from their homes to the start of the rally. Joy at finally being reunited with their rally-raid family and at last being able to take part in their favourite sport. Gratitude that an organiser had managed to pull off the unlikely feat of organising such a complex international race in the current context. Surprise that despite putting together the Andalucía Rally 2020 in record time, the organisers hadn’t neglected essential details such as the choice of the rally’s base. Depending on each participants circumstances a different emotion took precedence.

Happily, for most of the competitors the overwhelming emotion was one of joy and 2020 Dakar winner Ricky Brabec (Monster Energy Honda) was no exception. “It feels really good to be back and hanging out with the team and also to be with the rest of the rally racers. I’ve actually done a couple of races this year since the Dakar but it is really nice to be back riding a road book that will be Dakar spec against Dakar competitors to see where we line up. I don’t think anyone knows how it is going to be here but we’re just excited to be back together.”

A sentiment shared by one of his principle rivals, the Australian Toby Price (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing). “We all really happy to be back on a rally racing again after such a difficult year. This is of course unknown territory for us. From what I understand it will be pretty fast with a few more technical bits and some tricky navigation. My goal is to get a good feeling on the bike, sharpen up my navigation and get ready for Dakar.”

Over at the Yamaha camp Adrien van Beveren (Monster Yamaha Rally Official Team) was also delighted to be racing again. “My passion is rally-raid, so to be here in that atmosphere, is just the best. I can already feel the adrenaline in me – I become a different man when I am on a rally. I am happy here in my element.”

In the cars ‘Mr Dakar’ Stephane Peterhansel (X-Raid Mini JCW), spoke for many with an expression of both joy and gratitude: “Its good to be back on a rally after so many months of inactivity. Congratulations to David Castera and his team for putting this together. I’m guessing it can’t have been easy, but it is so important for the discipline. We are really happy to have this chance to come together as a team and test our cars – particularly important for me as it gives me a chance to spend more race time with my new co-driver Edouard Boulanger in the run up to Dakar.”

For some however, such as Isidre Esteve (Repsol Rally Team), the overriding emotion was relief. The ex-bike rider started putting together his Dakar project back in March, but with the global lockdown it all came to a grinding halt. “To be honest if we didn’t have the possibility of racing here and preparing our new car I am not sure that our sponsors would have given us the green light to go to Dakar in 2021.”

And he wasn’t the only one relying on the Andalucía Rally 2020 as a stepping-stone to the world’s biggest off-road race next January. All Dakar ‘rookie’ motorcycle entrants must compete an ASO approved event before being accepted and three times world enduro champion David Knight (HT Rally Team) is no exception. Commented the Manxman; “after a number of unsuccessful attempts to get to the Dakar start line, everything finally came together early this year. The only piece of the jigsaw missing was a qualifying event. And as they were cancelled one after the other I started to get a bit nervous. Without the Andalucía Rally 2020 I’d have to forfeit my entry.”

Before being able to meet up again, all the competitors and their teams, as well as the staff of organisers ODC Events, were required to check in at the entrance of the bivouac with a negative Covid test so ensure health safety on the race, which exceptionally will be held behind closed doors. Tomorrow the event will shift into race mode with a 9 kilometre super special for bikes at the end of the day to decide start order. An exercise that will be particularly crucial given the expected dust over the next few days….

David Castera, the architect of this challenge, took time out to explain the philosophy behind the event: “We created the Andalucía Rally to keep the flame alive… Three months away from the Dakar it is a strong message. 95% of the competitors here will be on the Dakar and it was important for them but also for their sponsors, to prove to them that the adventure remains possible and that it continues. Even if today we have a dream entry with almost all the teams present, the competitors are here, above all to find their mark, carry out tests, discover the new road book in the cars and try the airbag in the bikes. We would all have liked to be in Morocco and the desert like usual but it isn’t possible and this rally-raid family rendez-vous must be approached in a spirit of conviviality more than focusing on the results. And if our pleasure is to be together again then what better place than the Hacienda El Rosalejo, rich as it is in Andalusian history.”

Today (and tomorrow morning for the cars) has been dedicated to scrutineering. In total 68 bikes / quads and 58 cars / SSVs representing just under 30 nationalities are expected through administrative checks and technical scrutineering.

FOCUS ON…

El Rosalejo, pearl of Andalusia

Nestling in the Andalusian hills between Seville and Gibraltar and specialising in organising upmarket events, the Hacienda El Rosajelo instantly plunges visitors into 18th century charm. Totally restored to its former glory, the domain is a monument to the region’s agricultural ancestry. Gastonomy, relaxation, horse-riding and nature – the perfect way to connect to Andalusia’s vibrant heart. www.elrosalejo.com

Photo credit : ODC / Charly Lopez