2017 Dakar Rally Victory for Sam Sunderland

A first-time win for a dedicated British rally racer.

In the last kilometers he cried like a baby. Tears of joy were covering his young face, but also all the tension held for 12 long days and 8,881 kilometers that took the caravan of the Dakar Rally from Asuncion in Paraguay to Buenos Aires, in Argentina passing though a week on the Bolivian Plateau at 4,000 meters. “I still don’t believe it, I’m over the moon” were the first words of Sam Sunderland, winner of the bikes category of the 2017 Dakar Rally.

Since his debut in the 2012 edition, he had never finished the rally. This time he finished it as a winner. The records of the 27-year-old Brit, who moved to Dubai when he was 19 to train in the desert, look more like a war bulletin than a bio of a pro rider.

His first South American adventure took off on January 1st 2012 when he was only 22 years old. He finished 7th on the first stage before going out with mechanical problems the next day. 2013 seemed like a year of consecration as he signed on to the factory Honda Team. He won the Merzouga Rally, but crashed in the last test in preparation for Dakar while he was training in the Mojave Desert in California. He broke his wrist and couldn’t take the start of the rally. He tried again in 2014 but was forced to withdraw on Stage 4 because of mechanical issues. He then signed with KTM and won the first stage of the 2015 Dakar but crashed out in Stage 4. Maybe the fastest rider in the sand, he won the Morocco rally but then broke his femur in the Merzouga rally one week later. He had to watch the Dakar on TV one last time.

KTM Rider Sam Sunderland
KTM Rider Sam Sunderland wins the first Dakar that he has ever finished.Photo by ASO/A. Vialatte

“It’s not a very glorious record I admit, though if you look a little bit behind the DNFs and the failures to start, you can see that a lot of it has simply been down to bad luck. This year I decided that the Dakar was to be my only goal.”

People around him in the KTM squad found him more mature, more quiet. “I changed approach to the race. I tackled one stage at the time, without taking too many risks.”

With all the pressure on his team mate Toby Price, the defending champion, Sunderland could race without too much pressure, at least at the beginning. The key moment arrived on Stage 5 when he took the lead, while the two pre-event favorites, Honda's Joan Barreda and KTM's Toby Price, were falling out of contention.

Sam Sunderland
Sam Sunderland takes the victory home to his native England.Photo by E.Vargiolu

The Australian was forced to retire on stage 4 after breaking his femur in a crash, while a one-hour penalty for all the factory Honda riders for refueling outside the neutralization zone put the then-leader Barreda well down in the order and out of the fight for the win.

He rode an intelligent race when things got tough in the torrid San Juan, and the Chilean Pablo Quintanilla, second in the overall, crashed after getting lost in Stage 10 and running out of fuel.

“It has not been easy to keep the concentration. On a special stage you ride even 14 hours a day and I had so many thoughts spinning in my head. I was repeating to myself that a Dakar is not over till the last kilometer. I was trying to convince myself,” Quintanilla said.

Mattias Walkner
Mattias Walkner finished second on his KTM.Photo by F. Gooden

The eve before the last round, Rio Cuarto to Buenos Aires, 64 km of final sprint and 700 km of liaison to reach the podium in the Argentinian capital, Sunderland couldn’t sleep. With a final margin over his team mate Matthias Walkner, and 35 minute, 40 second margin over Gerard Farres Guell on a private KTM, he finally sealed his first ever victory giving KTM its 16th successive Dakar victory and a 1-2-3 orange podium.

Gerard Farres Guell
Gerard Farres Guell made it a podium sweep for KTM in third.Photo by E. Vargiolu

“I’m a specialist of the sand, but I struggled in Bolivia for the cold and the altitude. To finish the first ever one, and to win, it’s a dream come true. This race is massive, it’s a huge adventure and one of the toughest races in the world. The level of the riders is so high and to win you need consistency and to make the least mistakes rather than being the fastest guy.”

- —Sam Sunderland