January 11, 2024

Thixton playing it safe at Dakar Rally

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Collin Matiza

ASHLEY Thixton wants to keep it steady and play it safe during the last six stages of the 2024 Dakar Rally as he intends to last the distance at the biggest and toughest motor rallying event in the world in Saudi Arabia.

The world’s most famous off-road rally raid— known simply as the Dakar — kicked off on Friday, January 5, with the usual fanfare and line-up of bikes, cars, trucks, and classics, featuring some of the most recognisable names in motorsport.

However, the two-week endurance race across the Arabian peninsula is off to a rocky start after the first three stages.

Several of the top contenders in the motorcycle class have exited the rally, and injuries, crashes, and mechanical problems have bedevilled some of the best teams across the categories.

But Zimbabwe’s sole representative at this big global event, Thixton, is still hanging in there and he managed to pull through to yesterday’s Stage Five in which he had another smart ride and finished in 31st position . . .so far so good for the local motocross champion rider.

The 30-year-old Zimbabwean motorbike rider, who is making his debut appearance at this gruelling 15-day event, is now taking it one day at a time and on Tuesday he managed to return home safely after another tough Stage Four.

After coming home in 23rd place during Stage Four, he was placed 34th overall in the bikes section.

And as he was preparing to race in Stage Five yesterday, Thixton, who was placed 40th overall in the bikes section after Stage Three on Monday, said his main aim was still the same: to be among the finishers at the end of the Rally on January 19.

He said he will keep it cautious and steady till the business end of the gruelling race.

“Stage 5 on the horizon!

“It starts off with a long liaison and ends with a short race special through the dunes . . .

“Keeping it cautious as I intend to be here till the end.

“An early morning with long liaison to start the day!

“Off onto a short special stage with heaps of dunes, bring it on,” Thixton said ahead of yesterday’s Stage 5.

He also said he had a good day during Monday’s Stage Three.

“Stage 3 — a good day out on the sand!

“A great day out today, I learnt you have to go slow to go fast . . .

“Currently sitting in P40 overall — just trying to keep it on 2 wheels,” Thixton said.

Thixton yesterday arrived safely at Stage 5 DSS after a long liaison!

He then rode his Husqvarna 450R bike home safely in 31st position ahead of today’s Stage Six.

Thixton’s training partner and “mentor” Ross Branch of Botswana is the quickest rider so far at the first intermediate point. The general rankings leader is 5’’ ahead of Nacho Cornejo and 10’’ in front of Štefan Svitko. Kevin Benavides, who is opening the way, has only lost 26’’ for the moment, but has already accumulated 36’’ of bonuses, so he virtually leads his rival from Botswana.

The 2024 Dakar Rally Stage Four results on Tuesday saw Monster Energy Honda’s Jose Cornejo taking his second day win of the rally ahead of teammate Ricky Brabec — Nacho, Branch and Brabec stretch clear in the overall classification as gaps emerge.

Stage Four saw a spread-out field for much of the day, and a stretched-out leader board is emerging as we get deep into week one in Saudi Arabia.

There is still, “a long way to go” and “anything can happen” but it’s beginning to feel like the people saying that are doing do out of desperation.

“It was fast with a lot of navigation”, said Tuesday’s trailblazer and birthday boy, Kevin Benavides who started first at 5:05am ahead of a long, cold slog on the road to start the special section at 8:15am. That’s some commute to work by anyone’s standards . . .

The Red Bull KTM rider led the way handsomely out front from start to finish of the relatively short 299km but was lucky to get there.

The Argentine spotted a cut in his rear tyre at the refuelling point (187km into the test) and had to nurse/hope/pray it lasted to the end.

Luckily it did and he claims third with 3:42 of time bonuses and with the kind of the form we expect from a two-time Dakar winner.

Brabec was second on the ground and steadily closed K Ben down to finish together, meaning the American had gained three minutes to place second for the day, remarkably that’s the third time he’s been P2 in four stages.

Starting from sixth place off the line, Jose “Nacho” Cornejo claimed his second stage win of the rally and with that, became the new race leader on Tuesday by just over one minute. Cementing a solid week one for him and for Honda as they dominate the top 10.

Individually in the overall, Cornejo, Branch and Brabec are stretching clear in this first week of Dakar ’24. It’s what works at the Dakar Rally. Ride fast and navigate cleaning, sure, but also keep it consistent across the days when you are out front and laying down the tracks. These three are doing it best and the scratch times below show the bare truth of it.

Kevin Benavides is fourth scratch but 20 minutes down and seemingly not able to close that gap so far. Everyone else behind him, all those potential winners – Van Beveren, Luciano Benavides, Pablo Quintanilla, Toby Price, Daniel Sanders — don’t seem able to nail the clean stages together to get the results and make any impact.

Toby and Pablo’s truck stop. The race director warned riders to be on their toes with navigation this Dakar and Tuesday was another one to keep tabs on. But even with the notes on the road-book, riders’ eyes can deceive them. On Tuesday Quintanilla and Price both got caught out by a random truck on the trail.

“We left a river bed”, explains Pablo, “and I saw some workers with a big truck parking up which didn’t seem right. I thought that I wasn’t going in the right direction and so I went back. Toby arrived and he was the same. Finally we went back in the direction of the truck and the correct way was behind it. I got confused . . . ”

The normally plucky Chucky Sanders was on fire, not in the time sheets as he admits not being able to “ride fast and navigate this year so far”, and not quite literally either but with a burning feeling only those who ride dirt bikes will know about.

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