Coma tests himself out on the fech ahead of the 2011 Dakar
When riders take of on the first day of the 2011 Dakar Rally on the morning of January 1, 2011, KTM will be going for the brand's tenth title in this, the world's toughest rally. Spearheading the attack for the Austrian sports motorcycle manufacturer will be two teams: one led by Dakar titleholder Cyril Despres and the other by arch rival Marc Coma.
Despres testing the air on Thursday
Universally recognized as the finest exponents of the sport, these two have given KTM five of their nine titles so far. Despres, the 2010 winner has won three and Coma, the 2010 World Rally Champion has two victories to his credit. They have shared to top podium spot every year since 2005. In previous years, both have had the experience of being in range of victory only to have some last minute incident that has cost them the glory. This is indelible proof that when it comes to the Dakar, it's never over until it's over. Both of the key KTM riders are top fit, fiercely competitive, mentally strong and given their history in this key event, very strong rivals. Each has been given the option of choosing their co-rider in their two individual teams this year. Despres has picked Portugal's Ruben Faria and Coma rides with Spaniard Juan Pedrero.
16 days of hard riding
The 16-day charge through the remarkable landscapes of Argentina and Chile covers more than 9000 km and offers just one rest day's respite. They leave Buenos Aires with great flair and amid thousands of enthusiastic fans for the first bivouac tomorrow at Victoria - 377 km of untimed riding before the real challenge begins on day two.
Ruben Faria rides with Cyril Despres in 2011
New challenges in 2011 edition
But while KTM has been the dominant force in this rally in the past decade, the cards have been reshuffled for the 2011 edition. Instead of piloting the big KTM 690 Rally bike, the professional riders are now onboard a smaller 450 ccm Rally machine designed to conform to new regulations laid down by organizers in mid 2009.
Intensive work on new KTM 450 Rally bike
Since the new regulations were introduced, KTM, with valuable input from Despres and Coma, has worked tirelessly on the new KTM 450 Rally bike, a project that has absorbed hundreds of hours of intense research, development and painstaking testing. So far the bike has only been out once in competition but with Despres at the handlebars, it took line honors in the Rally of Morocco in October. That was a positive signal but the Dakar is a long and exhausting race for both man and machine. For this edition organizers have also adjusted the regulations to make sure that riders have to depend on their ability to read and interpret their road books rather than relying on their electronic navigation systems and this adds another edge to the challenge.
Juan Pedrero partners Marc Coma
Despres and Coma warm up on a little fech-fech
On Thursday both Coma and Despres returned to an old warm-up haunt when they took their bikes back to a sand mine on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Here they were able to sharpen their skills in the dreaded "fech-fech" - the talc powder-like sand that can raise a blinding cloud, or deceptively cover potentially dangerous hidden obstacles. Coma, riding with Pedrero for the Red Bull/MRW/KTM team calls it "the perfect spot to train". "My strategy for this year will be the same as always: think only about my own race and avoid problems and accidents. This will be a very tough and very open rally, given the new bike regulations," he said. This year Coma is racing with the number 1 machine; Pedrero with the number 10 bike.
Some 200 m away in the paddock will be the Red Bull KTM pit box for Despres and Faria. Signaling that the ever present rivalry between the two top riders is never far from the surface, Despres quipped: "They have their secrets and we have ours. I know Marc will come out strong as usual this year, but to me every Dakar will always mean another opportunity for victory." Despres is onboard the bike with the start number 2 and Faria sports number 11 on his KTM 450 Rally.
While the Dakar is the most important competition for the top KTM riders it is also a huge occasion for the many other Orange aficionados, some who are fulfilling a lifetime ambition to compete with the world's best. KTM, the company that bears the pure-bred "Ready to Race" DNA, comes to the Dakar Rally with a full service for its many competing customers and wishes all of the riders a thrilling, competitive and above all, injury free Dakar Rally 2011.
Pics: Marcelo Maragni