29th December 2021
Ø The 44th edition of the Dakar has not even started and the start list is already primed for success, as a record-breaking host of over 100 lightweight vehicles converge on Jeddah (up from 61 in 2021), including 49 T3 “lightweight prototypes” and 53 T4 “SSV series”.
Ø Among the T3s, the rise of the OT3-Red Bull racers could see World Cup winner Cristina Gutiérrez consolidate her progression in her sixth Dakar start. However, South Racing’s Can-Ams and PH-Sport’s Zephyrs are more than ready to take the fight to them.
Ø Among the T4s, South Racing is touted as the favourite to win the race with American Austin Jones, but there are other crews that have what it takes to fight for a podium spot.
A decade ago, William Alcaraz was racing his 19th Dakar, which he went on to finish in 41st place. His exploit was more remarkable than it seems at first sight, as it made him the winner of the “solo” category and, even more importantly, the trailblazer of SSV drivers. At the time, he was behind the wheel of a Polaris RZR 900 tuned by Marco Piana.
These small-engined cars may have been ridiculed by some when they first appeared in the bivouac, but they have carved themselves out a place in fans’ hearts and a niche in the race, as shown by the presence of over 100 lightweight vehicles (T3s + T4s) for the first time.
Coming at a lower cost and smoothing out the learning curve for bikers who want to make the switch to four-wheeled vehicles, lightweight buggies have also put up a gallant fight thanks to the efforts of multiple constructors over the years, which have fuelled their technological development. They are now divided into two categories. T3s, or “lightweight prototypes”, have technical characteristics (chassis, suspension, etc.) far removed from those of production or slightly modified models. The latter are classified as T4s and also known as “SSVs”.
Former quad rider Josef Machá?ek claimed the T3 title in 2021. However, Buggyra Racing’s Czech driver is likely to face stiff competition from OT3-Red Bull, which made a strong impression last year by winning 9 of the 13 specials on the menu. The Spaniard Cristina Gutiérrez, racing on the same team as young Americans Seth Quintero and Mitch Guthrie and fresh recruit Guillaume de Mevius, should now be able to rely on a more dependable vehicle in her bid for glory.
South Racing’s firepower also makes it a serious contender for the win. The squad’s Can-Ams have been tuned by several divisions and their technical consistency is now beyond doubt. Since starting his transition in 2019, the Chilean former biker “Chaleco” López, the cornerstone of South Racing’s project, has claimed the title twice and remains dead set on defending his crown. The Brazilian former champion Reinaldo Varela should also be in the mix, just like his Swedish teammate Sebastian Eriksson and the Spaniard Fernando Álvarez, runner-up to Cristina Gutiérrez in the T3 World Cup. To make the rally even more exciting, PH-Sport’s Zephyr could finally be free of its teething problems, enabling Jean-Luc Pisson (fifth in 2021) and, why not, former biker Lionel Costes to contend for the places of honour. In the same vein, Yamaha remains determined to develop a T3 capable of taking the spoils and will be fielding three cars.
While their raw speed is a tad lower, the fight for the title should be just as intense among the SSVs. South Racing’s rising stars are the young American Austin Jones, who at age 25 dominated the T4 World Cup in style, and the Pole Aron Dom?a?a, who finished third last January and won the Rallye du Maroc a few weeks ago.
The depth of the talent pool at the wheel of a Can-Am could even turn into a full-blown demonstration with podium contenders such as Gerard Farrés (second in 2019), Eugenio Amos (second in the World Cup) and Jeremías González-Ferioli, who is entering the category for the first time after finishing three times on the podium of the quad class, not to mention the promising Lithuanian Rokas Baciuška, who at the tender age of 22 has already turned heads in the Andalucía Rally and Rallye du Maroc.
Faced with this armada, the competition also has good cards to play, such as the Polish Gocza? brothers, Micha? and Marek, who will be flying the flag for Cobant-Energylandia in their T4s, as well as Team BBR’s ambitious leader, the Frenchman Éric Abel. Meanwhile, FN Speed is pinning its hopes on its Spanish champion Gael Queralt, as well as the two T3s it has in the race.