From Argentina to the top of the world: Benavides Wins Dakar 2021

“Viva Argentina. Es historia”. Ten years ago there wasn’t a single Argentinian rider on the Dakar. A decade later Kevin Benavides became the first South American to win the Dakar in the elite motorcycle category.

Originally from Salta, a staple destination for rally raids in Argentina, the Monster Energy Honda Racing Team rider is part of the new generation of racers who fell in love with rally, after the arrival of the Dakar in South America in 2009.

Alongside Benavides’s success at the 2021 Dakar in Saudi Arabia, the Monster Energy Honda Rally Team scored a historic 1-2; with 2020 Dakar winner Ricky Brabec in P2 – something that hadn’t happened for Honda since 1987 with Cyril Neveu and Edi Orioli.

“I have been chasing this dream for many years and only a few people know the sweat, the pain and the hard training behind this achievement”, said Benavides at the finish line after 14 days of racing and 7466 km. “I have sacrificed my personal life to be here. The satisfaction is bigger than these tears, but I cannot stop crying. I want to thank all the people that have supported me on this long journey to the victory, starting from my family. My brother couldn’t finish the race, but he is also part of this success”.

Kevin’s thoughts went to Norberto, his Dad, his Mom Isis, his younger brother Luciano, who crashed and had to abandon the race on stage 9. Not to forget his friend and teammate Jose Ignacio Cornejo, leader who was leading overall when he crashed. The list was much longer and as he sank into his team’s hug, as if watching a movie, he relived all the frames of the long road that led him to that last kilometre of the most extreme rally in the world.

A pure enduro rider, Kevin Benavides shone in the International ISDE Six Days of San Juan in 2014, before moving to rally raids the following year with the Desafio Ruta 40, which earned him a place in the Honda South America Team. The Argentinian burst onto the Dakar scene in 2016 and stole all the headlines with an impressive 4th place finish. His great debut was followed by a brilliant season during which he triumphed both at home and abroad.

Confirmed as a Honda factory rider in 2017 the Dakar in the same year was supposed to be his time. Unfortunately with only 15 days to go before the start of the 2017 Dakar, Kevin broke his hand during a training session and could not take part in the rally. He didn’t give up though, and returned stronger on the 2018 edition from Peru, to Argentina via Bolivia. Benavides fought neck-a-neck with the leading riders until he got lost on stage 10; ultimately costing his chance of victory. Lesson learned: finishing second overall behind Matthias Walkner was a turning point in his career.

“I understood that to win the Dakar you need to be a complete racer. Being good is not enough, you need to excel”, confessed Kevin, who understood that he had to reinforce his navigation skills. His determination was becoming stronger and stronger: he started to train with Pepe Cornejo, Nacho’s father, until navigation became his number one strength.

“Navigation was the key to win the 2021 Dakar. This was the toughest rally I have ever experienced with a constant fight and so many changes in the lead. The pressure was always high. As never before, there were incredible highs and lows. Days where we were leading, days where we lost and had to chase. It was a rollercoaster ride with a lottery of roadbooks: a brain teaser with 6-7 changes of direction in the same box and small letters that become almost invisible when you are riding with an average speed of 110-120km/h”, continues Benavides.

“No pain, no gain”

The first week of the 2021 rally was quite unique even for the Dakar, because the navigation was so aggressive that winning stages almost became a disadvantage. Not only this, the route was designed with a consistent variation of terrain (sand dunes, sharp rocks, and fast tracks) so that when the racers had found their pace on a certain terrain, it changed, requiring a reset in the pace and the mind set. The result? Every day there was a new overall leader.

“There was a sort of yo-yoing effect, but I knew one thing: we were in this game and we needed to play our cards correctly,” continued Benavides

Starting 7th for SS1, Benavides finished 2nd behind Toby Price who got the first stage win. The following day the Argentinian was 24th, the Aussie 28th. Starting far back, Price could attack on day 3, winning the stage with Benavides, second. Stage 4 featured the same rollercoaster with the Honda rider 14th and the KTM ace 22nd. A nightmare.

“This uncertainty motivated me. It was a fun game. My strategy was to have the best possible result every day trying to lose the least amount of time possible especially when I was opening the track”, explained Benavides. “Many times, like on SS4 we exchanged the lead several times between me and Toby (Price). The first week, in fact, we saw three groups: us, the front runners, the mid field that featured also my bro, and those who were far back, but I knew that day after day there had to be a sort of regroup”.

The first stage win arrived for Kevin on day 5 – Riyadh to Al-Qaisumah – and a huge blood wound on his nose. “No pain, no gain, some say”, commented a sore but satisfied Benavides at the arrival at the Al-Qaisumah bivouac. “It was a very technical stage. I made a mistake at the beginning and lost many positions. I pushed to recover and then in the sandy sector, I jumped a dune and as I landed, I hit the front tower that contains all the navigation tools. With my helmet I broke the GPS screen, I thought I had broken my nose and injured my ankles as they hurt a lot. I still had 180 kms to the refuelling station, where I could first receive some medical support, before hitting the road again to the finish”. With such a painful win, Benavides also took the overall lead in front of Xavier De Soultrait and team mate Nacho Cornejo. “We had to continue to play this game, sometimes defending, sometimes attacking”.

The battle was extremely open. With such a rubber-band effect on the lead that determined no favourite, the bike category saw after the first week of the race the ten top riders in 15 minutes.

Best birthday’s present

On January 9, Kevin Benavides celebrated his 32nd birthday at the bivouac in Ha’Il. At that time he couldn’t imagine that his wildest birthday wish was about to come true.

“At Honda we were living a very special moment with all the four riders as potential candidates for the win. We didn’t get any team orders. The strategy was free. I knew that the second week was going to be even more demanding.

“If I look back it was a crazy race with constant twists. I won stage 9, but my brother crashed and I was very worried for him, then we had the crash of Nacho Cornejo as he was leading the overall, and Joan Barreda abandoning on stage 11 with only one day to the end”.

With the withdrawal of strong contenders like Toby Price, Nacho Cornejo, and Joan Barreda, the fight for the title remained a question between the Argentinian, his teammate and title defender Ricky Brabeck, and KTM Sam Sunderland.

“As we arrived at the very end, the gaps between the front runners were so tight that there was not so much we could do. We had to attack, even if this meant to take more risks”, confessed the newly crowned Dakar winner. “I knew I had to remain calm and focused”.

Third on SS10, again third on SS11, Kevin Benavides arrived on the eve of the final stage with a fix point and many incognita. “On the Dakar anything can happen up to the very last moment. I learned this many times at my own expense. Last year, for example, I did a good job; I won a stage, but then the engine broke and it took me four hours to get out of the desert before getting a 15-minute penalty. I continued, but I was out of the game for the overall win”.

The road to victory

It takes a team to win and on the eve of the final stage – 455km with 225km of special stage from Yanbu to Jeddah – the Monster Energy Honda Team had two riders in the title chase: Benavides and Brabec.

The atmosphere at the bivouac was special. The rain that fell in the Saudi desert in the afternoon did not relieve the tension that was felt in the air. The trepidation of waiting was unique at the Honda booth with the possibility of a 1-2. Benavides was leading overall after 45h0144” of racing – in front of Sam Sunderland in 2nd. Eventual stage winner Ricky Brabec, third.

It was a particularly torrid night and it was still dark at 05:30am, when Kevin Benavides came out of the team motorhome. His mechanics were there to support him. He started the bike and the team accompanied his first meters clapping their hands. The same for Ricky, who took firm and solid steps out of his motorhome a few minutes later. Only the roar of the bikes and the mechanics clapping their hands were the momentary farewells of the team to their two heroes that were tackling the ultimate challenge.

As in the best script, the thrill was around the corner. “There was a moment on stage 12 when I thought I had lost the race”, said Benavides at the finish line. “I was opening the way but at kilometer 14 I made a mistake and I had to make a u-turn and try to find the right way. I was worried that this would have cost me the victory.

“It is impossible to do a perfect Dakar. I’ve made my mistakes and known pain. I fell, I cut my nose, I took a big blow to both ankles, but the desire to win prevailed. I realized I had won only at the very last meter”.

The finger pointing to the sky and in the eyes the embrace of all the mechanics, lined up next to each other at the end of the last special, Kevin Benavides dedicated his first Dakar win to a person “who has always been with him. Paulo Goncalves”, their team mate who had a fatal incident on the 2020 Dakar.

Ricky Brabec was the fastest that day. He won the final stage and gained 2’17th but this was not enough for the golden Touareg trophy. With only 4’56’ to the leader the American signed off with a superb second place, and gave Honda a fantastic 1-2 finish. Confirmation that winning the Dakar is a team effort: individuals may win, but behind them there is a squad who dream, suffer and are there for them.