It’s a little over two weeks until the start of one of the most demanding races on the planet, and with 196 motorcycle racers set to hit the most secluded off-road territory in, Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, Dakar 2014 is expected to be one of the most exciting rallies in recent years.
The Red Bull KTM Factory Team returns with three-time winner Marc Coma, who sat out of this year’s proceedings due to injury, and he will be backed up with the ultra-capable Ruben Faria, who finished runner-up in the 2013 edition. Not only that, and always motivated by a home crowd in Chile, multiple-stage winner Francisco Lopez, will also race factory machinery, along with newly-joined, Jordi Villadoms, a former KTM factory rider, who will support the team following the tragic death of the much-loved Kurt Caselli.
We talk to Team Manager Alex Doringer about the build up to the race and how things work behind the scenes of one of the world’s toughest off-road competitions:
Alex, tell us about the plans from September onwards and what’s been happening in the KTM Factory Rally workshop?
“From September until now many things happen. First of all in September we didn’t know where we were with the bike, or how many spare parts we would need for it because it’s completely new for this year’s rally. We knew the performance of the bike was fantastic and the engine was strong and stable, but from September to when the boat left Le Havre everything was incredibly busy.”
“There are so many things; small details to talk about, last decisions for the team, the mechanics, small agreements, team clothing along with changing sizes and many things such as hotels, flights and so on, as well as requests from journalists. There is a lot of preparation with the vehicles, trucks, parts and logistics. September until now is when the pace really ramps up, especially with the Morocco rally, which is the final step, lets say, before the Dakar.”
“Since then we’ve also had a tough time with the things that happened with Kurt (Caselli), my good friend. Again with what happened to him, there were more changes to consider, and we had to understand the plan from then on. There’s still a lot to do after the trucks leave. With 40 people there are so many things to consider, and not everything is internal. We do a lot for the external riders.”
The new bike has been planned for a long time with the displacement change in the rules in 2011. How confident are you going into the race with an all-new design?
“We at KTM have accumulated a lot of understanding about engines and motorbikes. Our biggest advantage is our understanding and experience in the Dakar and rally sport. It’s always a new challenge with a new bike, and normally the 100% truth about how good it is comes at the Dakar. There’s no test like it. We’ve done our homework, and our best, with very good test results, so we’re very confident that we are on the list of favorites.”
Talking about the riders; tell us a little about their character? How are they to work with and what about their general attitude? Any quirks?
“I’ll start with Marc Coma. During the rally he’s very driven with accuracy and he’s a pleasure to work with, as he’s friendly and professional. He always appreciates what the team does for him. He’s a quiet guy, but he’s funny and approachable.”
“Ruben is also very quiet. He played a good role in Dakar 2013 when he finished second and I think this result was a surprise to him. He’s unique, but he’s very driven, although in a different way to Marc.”
“All of the rally guys are unique and one of the most unique is Chaleco (Francisco Lopez). He’s a calm guy, but he’s really driven to achieve the best result in his own country. He’s a fantastic rider, but sometimes he gets a little bit too wild on the bike, although maybe this has changed from the last Dakar to this year. He’s a little older and more gentle, so maybe he’s realized sometimes it can be better to go slower. He has a lot of passion and understanding for the sport. He’s one of the people always mentioned when anyone talks about Dakar.”
“Jordi has been a factory rider with us before. He’s a fantastic team player and when we had to consider another rider for the team he was the most popular choice to help us in 2014. Although it’s in very sad circumstances, he is excited to come back to KTM, and he’s only 33 years old with a lot of experience. He’s a very friendly guy and all the people in the Bivouac like him. I think he has the potential to make another step forward in his results, although his main goal will be to support Marc.”
It’s been a busy few months for you and the team, but the boat should be nearing its destination now with all of the equipment. How difficult is it to manage everything and ensure you have all areas covered?
“It is of course very difficult to organize things, as there are so many parts of the team to consider. From my side though, the biggest and most important thing for us at KTM is that we have a fantastic team. Everyone knows their responsibilities. There are a lot of things we have to think about and organize, so we should never lose the overview with double checking. I have the trust in our team. Our bosses, including Mr. Pierer, support us 100% and we get the help we need.”
As many will already know, KTM lost one of its leading riders and family members recently in an accident at the Baja 1000 race. It’s a critical time for a rally team, so how do you deal with the loss of Kurt and keep the morale up, especially so close to the race?
“There’s two sides to this. From my personal side, Kurt was a good friend to me and I know the family well. In the beginning it was very difficult, and of course it is hard to think how we can move on or go forward, because it was such a massive shock. On the other hand we are very professional, and unfortunately these things can happen in this sport. For me it felt a bit easier after I spoke to his mother, and she said that we know these races are dangerous and these things can happen and unfortunately it has happened to Kurt. Somehow our daily program has given us the possibility to focus on the job in hand. We always work with a calendar in front of us and we have to continue, but in our memory, Kurt will somehow be with us at the Dakar.”
After such a tough and intense period of work we know that between now and Christmas everyone in the team gets a small vacation. What happens after that?
“Before we fly out to start the rally we need some days to rest, as the Dakar is hard for everyone. There’s a lot of stress, people, driving and not a lot of sleeping. It’s a tough job for everybody. I go to the mountains. I go skiing, take some rest and go in fully prepared for the Dakar and then we can arrive feeling fresh.”
What jobs do you have to do once you arrive in La Serena?
“We have to assemble the bikes. They are prepped, but we have to pre-run them to get everything perfect, as the atmosphere and temperature is different. There’s a lot of media activities, and scrutineering, which is a highlight at the Dakar for many people. Our team is big, so it’s a big task to get everything organized for each person, and for the logistics of the trucks, bikes and vehicles. I was talking to Stefan Huber, our Technical Manager earlier. We agreed that from this point in time, when we sit in the workshop and consider all these things, we’re really looking forward to getting the race started. When the event begins, everything gets into a rhythm and becomes more relaxed.”
How will this year be different from other Dakar races?
“This is my fourth Dakar, and there are a lot of people saying this is a pivotal year for Dakar. Of course there is more competition, and one of our factory riders moved to another manufacturer, so it’s different. But the biggest challenge at the end of the day is Dakar, not the competition. We are a group of people that are friends and we help each other to get through the process. I believe in Africa it was a bigger challenge, as it was so intense on the body. The biggest difference between this year and last year is that we start in a different place, finish in a different place, go to a new country and have two marathon stages. Nothing is easier, the difficulty just changes for different reasons. It’s a benefit to have more competition, as this will keep us focused.”
Do you get nervous going into the race?
“No. For me there is no reason to be nervous. I trust our bikes, our team and our preparation.”
What is the best thing about working in a Dakar rally team?
And the worst thing?
“Receiving news about an accident, or waiting for information on your rider when there’s been a problem.”
Just what exactly makes KTM so successful at this race and what makes a winning team?
“It’s about passion, history, and experience. Everyone is working in the same direction, right from Mr. Pierer to the mechanics. Even when I go to the assembly line, everybody is interested in what we are doing, so we are really motivated. We’ve seen other manufacturers come in and out of the competition, but we’ve never stopped. We always believed in the adventure, especially having Heinz Kinigadner on-board and the support of Pit Beirer, also because Mr. Pierer is very interested in what we are doing.”