[Interviews]

Daniel Sanders: Australia’s Next Dakar Contender

2 months ago | Words: Adam Olive | Photos: AORC, KTM Images

Late last year, Australia’s Daniel Sanders absolutely smoked everyone at the ISDE in Portugal. Not only did he win the E3 class for the third time and finally nab the Outright win (after previously notching up a fourth, third and second Outright since his ISDE debut in 2015), but Sanders was bettering the world’s best enduro riders in many special tests by margins of 10-15 seconds! That’s simply unheard of at modern-day ISDEs.

But as the 2019 Australian Off-Road Championship (AORC) Outright champion was still between contracts with Husqvarna when he returned from the ISDE (most likely because he was fielding offers from race teams in both USA and Europe), there was conspicuously little exposure about Sanders’ incredible performance in Portugal – particularly when you consider how much was rightfully made of Daniel Milner’s E3-class and Outright wins at the previous year’s ISDE in Chile.

Of course, that doesn’t mean race team managers around the world weren’t paying very close attention to Sanders’ abilities, and clambering to get his signature on a contract. So, shortly after last week’s official announcement from KTM about Daniel Sanders’ signing with the KTM Factory Racing rally team, Motorcycling Australia’s Media Manager (and AORC Organising Committee member), Adam Olive, spoke exclusively to Daniel Sanders about the opportunity with the Factory KTM outfit, what it means to him, and how he looks back on his formative years racing the AORC in Australia…

Multiple World and Australian Off-Road Championship (AORC) Champion, Daniel Sanders, has been signed to the KTM Factory Racing team, joining former teammate and World Champion, Toby Price, in an Australian assault on the 2021 Dakar Rally. Sanders spoke exclusively to AORC as he prepared for what he says is, one of his biggest challenges. Sanders officially joined Toby Price, a two-time Dakar Rally winner, Matthias Walkner and Sam Sunderland (also Dakar winners) in the KTM Factory team just last week.
“It’s going to be the biggest learning curve for me,” concedes Sanders. “I’ve obviously got the bike speed, but I’ve never ridden the rally bikes before. It’s an awesome opportunity the KTM Group have given me and I can’t wait. They see me as the future in the sport and are putting a massive investment in me. And it’s a great opportunity for me to be with the KTM Group. It’s exciting and I’m looking forward to the development and to make it happen for me and KTM. I started with KTM and understand how the company works. As long as I’m under their banner, I’ll jump on the bike and do the best I can for them. They’ve got the best equipment, and they’re a massive name around the world and for what I want to do in the future. They are the brand for me and I’m looking forward to being a worldwide ambassador for KTM.”

The 26-year-old Victorian is realistic about the difficult challenge ahead, though. “I would love to go there and break records, but it’s a dangerous race and I want to learn and be the best I can be for me and KTM. I could be the fastest rider there, but it doesn’t matter if I can’t read a road map,” Sanders says with a laugh.

Daniel Sanders is no stranger to taking on the world’s best. In 2014, he would win his first AORC Championship, taking out the EJ class. In his first year in the AORC’s E3 class (2015), Sanders finished second to then teammate, Toby Price, and later that year won the Slovakian ISDE by taking out the E3 class. And he was a key member of Australia’s winning Junior team that year. In 2016, Sanders took out the E3 class win in the AORC, and also won the E3 class (and finished second Outright) at the ISDE in Spain. Sanders finished third Outright in the 2018 ISDE in Chile and was a key member of Australia’s winning World Trophy team. Last year, after notching up a fifth AORC title, he also won the ISDE Outright in Portugal and was crowned World Champion.

While Melbourne went into lockdown back in March this year because of COVID-19, Sanders began to planing his future with the first conversations happening back in May this year with his team and Aussie desert and enduro legend, Ben Grabham.
“I talked to key managers about rally and started putting the feelers out and seeing what the options were available, and spoke to Ben Grabham who has given me a lot of advice,” Sanders says. “I had a number of options after the ISDE win as the Europeans and Americans wanted me. I really wanted to win the Six-Day as my personal goal in my enduro career. I raced a season in EnduroGP and won Australian titles, but I liked the look of the desert rallys and the speed. I like the long races and the endurance side of the sport; that’s what appeals to me. After the conversations with managers, it just fell into place and I am so excited to make it happen with KTM.”

Sanders is no fool. He understands the significant challenges ahead, having never ridden a rally machine before or competed in races where temperatures can get to over 50 degrees. “It will be a big learning curve but a challenge I’m looking forward to,” he says. “Road maps and navigating will be the biggest thing to learn, and to ride fast at the same time in the sand. I don’t live anywhere near sand, so that will be a big learning curve. I think it’s the physical demand and speed of it that appeals to me, and the concentration that is required. That’s the challenge I’m looking forward to.
“We’ve been stuck in Melbourne and locked down for so long, but given the amount of time before Dakar, I think I will be fine as I have nothing to do other than learn, ride and train as hard as I can. I’d love to go and dominate straight away, but I’m realistic. I’m going into this discipline blind and learning how to ride again and read a map in the sand at speed.

Sanders is looking forward to re-joining his former AORC teammate, Toby Price, in Spain. “We raced together and were teammates in 2015 before he went off to do rally, and we will be living together so that should be fun. We will have some good fun as we both have a similar sense of humour and we get on really well.”

While his new home base will be Spain for a month or so before racing commences in Spain, Portugal and Dubai, Sanders says he’ll miss his family. “We’ve spent the last five months together stuck at home in lockdown because of COVID, so it’s going to be hard living away from them. They’ve really supported me and believe in what I’m doing, and it’s a shame we can’t even organise a going-away party as that’s not allowed at the moment,” he says.

Sanders is genuinely thankful for those who have supported his riding over the past few years. “I’d like to say a huge thanks to Husqvarna Australia for the last few years. It’s been amazing, particularly Jeff Leisk and Brad Hagi, the new Managing Director of the KTM Group in Australia, who have helped sort this deal out. We’ve done some awesome things on track and achieved a lot in the last few years, and I’m really thankful for that. Ben Grabham has also given me a lot of advice regarding desert racing. H’s been there before and will be a big part of my future.”

So how has competing in the AORC helped Sanders prepare for his next challenge?
“It’s everything. Australians dominate because of AORC; it’s helped us go on and win overseas. Through AORC and because of its intense competition, we’ve gone on to win world titles – in America, the Six-Days and European series. We dominate because our domestic championship is tough and when we go overseas, we are on another level; we are above world standings. Because of the range of events in AORC – from cross-country to sprints to enduros – the riders are disciplined and hungry to win. It’s competitive and everyone puts in a lot of work. The Championship is super-strong, and that’s why riders stay and compete. We love it. We love the sport.”

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