Racing resumed at Dakar Rally, after the rest day signaling the middle point of the race, which in fact ended up being a bit over half a rest day considering motorcycle competitors had to take their rides a couple of hundred kilometers away for another overnight sleeping on the floor at the second satellite camp. Day 6 and 7 of the competition have been a roller-coaster for competitors who once again faced the extreme toughness Peru’s terrain has in stock for them, but also had to surf through fog, rain, very dusty conditions, and even a sand storm, all elements increasing the element of risk and reducing visibility in a drastic way.
Mohammed Al Balooshi, the Emirati star rider who is the reigning FIM Bajas World Champion (2018 World Title Winner), is the only UAE National in the competition and after 7 days of grueling racing in South America is getting closer to completing his mission of taking the UAE flag to the finish of the race in Lima, later this week. Having faced problems on the second day of the race when he ran out of petrol -due to a misread of the bike instruments by the technical team-, he struggled almost from the get-go to make up for the lost time at such an early stage, and ever since, the UAE man has not been exempt from the ups and downs Dakar continuously enforced on all of those brave who dare to challenge it.
Stage 6 covered a total of 840 kilometers, a very tough day, with more hidden dangers than any mortal would dare to face, and with a terrain that more often than you think makes you think of Mars with one-meter deep fesh-fesh in some areas for example. To this you can add again the early morning conditions to make such a dangerous cocktail, that the event organizers had to neutralize some of the areas because it was too dangerous to race. Visibility was 2 meters, which is certainly not enough for competitors racing at an average of 100km per hour, and on a motorcycle, without the protection of a chassis around them to protect their bodies from obstacles and in case of crashes.
Stage 7 was the one with the trickiest navigation so far, with over 100 kilometers of completely off- road, and a section of dunes in the last part of the day. Once again, the fesh-fesh was a key ingredient during the sand storm that hit the region where the last portion of the race took place; the challenges and dangers dramatically increased in the last 30 kilometers of special, with windy and very cloudy conditions. A savage day on the body and the machines, rolling on devastated terrain after all trucks, cars, and bikes have passed through the area already 3 times. For reference, some of the cars participating in this race can easily impose 350 horsepower and huge torque to the terrain under their wheels completely tearing it apart; the countless trucks weighting above 8000 kg also rip the surfaces they touch as they pass by, leaving seriously broken terrain with traces so deep that half the height of a motorcycle can fit it in them.
Despite the horrible conditions, Mohammed Al Balooshi managed to stay strong and gained some positions, seating now in 33rd overall. A position that does not make the UAE’s strong man happy and keeps him determined to continue to fight and push even harder than ever.
Riding in pain for several days after a heavy crash Al Balooshi expressed his disappointment with how his race has developed “It was unfortunate to loose so much time with the petrol problem at the beginning of the race, an even though I am grateful because thanks to the help of one of my fellow riders I could continue in the race when it looked like I would have to retire, the reality is that I feel disappointed for not being able to pick-up from there. This situation destroyed my race and killed my secret goals. I entered the rally with the absolutely selfless mission of bringing the UAE flag to the finish ramp but, being a racer at heart all my life, of course I had my personal goal of improving the result from last year, and finish in top 20, which it looks like will not happen.”
Balooshi’s back pain intensified by the strain put to his back every time he lifts the bike after crashes, has also contributed to making his life difficult these past days. And pain related comments to the team’s physiotherapist, coming from a man known for his strength and for being capable of enduring almost anything, is a lot to say. Visibly upset at his performance, the Bajas World Champion added: “This year I am very disappointed with the bike’s under performance. It simply does not have enough power and the engine cannot push the bike uphill on the dunes’ sections for example, which is extremely frustrating, considering this is one of the areas where I could have gained so much terrain! My team back in the UAE worked like crazy to give me the best possible ride, and that is how we managed to upgrade to a 2019 model, which was supposed to have factory engine and suspension. and we did receive that, except that these specs are less powerful than the standard older KTMs. It seems someone doesn’t want private riders to come even close to the official factory guys in the results…”. The lack of power on his bike also forces Al Balooshi to take unnecessary risks to compensate for the time lost to this poor power, keeping him always racing on the limit, and pushing harder than he should on flatter but very tricky areas.
With a total of 142 competitors having been forced to retire from the competition, Dakar Rally 2019 has been brutal; a total of 56 motorcycles retired with either injury or mechanical failure. The Australian Toby Price, 2016 Dakar winner, current Cross-Country Rally World Champion, and one of the strongest candidates to win this year’s edition, said, “…With just 3 Stages remaining, we’re getting closer to the conclusion of this beast of a Rally!” And those are the just words to describe the 41st edition of the race. Tough, brutal, extreme, and challenging beyond words, the 2019 Dakar is far from being over, and has already earned a place in history for being the first ever to be hosted in only one country, but also for being the most difficult in at least the last 2 decades, and in the history of the event.
The Emirati closed by saying “I want to thank the support from all the people following the race back home and apologize to them for not being able to do better. I am proudly Emirati, to the last cell in my body, and I will continue to push until the end and do my best for the world to see our colors when I raise the UAE flag at the finish”.
With three stages and 1343 kilometers to go, the action starts to bring the competitors back towards the North of the country, and closer to the capital, Lima. Day 8 of the competition runs between San Juan de Marcona and Pisco. And despite the route going back to the familiar dunes of Ica, the day is anticipated to be a real nightmare with a mixed start, featuring the top 10 motorcycles, the top 10 cars, and to top 5 trucks starting the stage together, at the same time. Needless to say that it will be a very dusty and dangerous day.
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