6 months ago | Words: Andy Wigan | Photos: GASGAS Motorcycles

How about Daniel Sanders’ baptism of fire in the rally racing scene over the past 12 months? Midway through pandemic-plagued 2020, just two weeks after signing with the KTM Factory Racing rally team – and with no navigation-based desert racing experience under his belt – the 26-year-old Aussie won the final stage of Spain’s Andalucia Rally and put the who’s who of the FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship scene on notice that he’d arrived. And a few months after that, he blew everyone’s minds by finishing fourth Overall on debut at the 2021 Dakar Rally in what was arguably the deepest Moto-division field in the event’s history, topping the Rookie Class in the process.

So, come early June, it wasn’t surprising that the racing department’s big brass at KTM’s Austrian HQ announced that the likeable young Aussie would spearhead GASGAS’s new-look factory rally racing program – a ‘program’ that, until then, only had one RC450F-mounted rally rider on its Dakar Rally roster, Laia Sanz. Again, just weeks after the announcement, Sanders made his race debut on red and confirmed why he’s now widely considered as rally racing’s hottest young prospect. Despite some bad luck and a few navigational issues, he still ran a very competitive fourth Overall at Rally Kazakhstan. Then, just a few weeks after that, at the shortened Silk Way Rally in Russia, Sanders claimed three stage-wins from five starts and ended up fourth Overall, agonisingly close to the podium. After two rounds, he sits third in the FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship’s points standings, behind KTM’s Matthias Walkner and Husky’s Skyler Howes.

Yes, it’s fair to say that Daniel Sanders has adapted to this rally racing caper better than … well, better than anyone in recent history (apart from fellow Aussie, Toby Price, that is). But he seems intent on keeping his success in perspective. “I’ve not been in rally that long, so to be picked up and put on a factory team this early in my career is awesome. But I’ve still got a lot to learn, and I feel like I learned a lot over the past week,” he conceded, shortly after his standout ride in the Silk Way Rally. “I felt great on the bike, and I know I have the speed. But from here, my main focus will be on improving my navigation as this is where I feel I’m lacking a little bit. We’ll take a few days of well-earned rest now before turning our attention to the Rallye du Maroc in October,” he went on to say.

Despite GASGAS Rally Team Manager, Jordi Viladoms, acknowledging that his hard-charging young Aussie signing was new to rally and very inexperienced compared to his rivals, he also pointed out that Sanders was a very quick learner.

“Daniel’s impressive progress continued in Russia,” reflected Viladoms, after Sanders’ fourth place Silk Way Rally result. “It was a pity for him to miss out on the Overall podium, but there have been many highlights – especially with his three stage wins. He also opened a stage, which isn’t an easy thing to do. He rode very well on each stage and his potential is still very clear. Daniel was disappointed to just miss out on the podium and he knows what he needs to work on. For the next race, I’m confident that we will see him running up front once again.”

So, what’s on the agenda for Daniel Sanders ahead of October’s Rallye du Maroc? Well, what’s not on his agenda is swinging by lockdown-stricken Australia! “From Russia, I skipped a flight back home because of the Covid situation back there in Oz, and headed to Tallahassee in Florida for a couple of months. I now understand why so many guys train here in Florida; it’s hard work!,” he went on to say, referring to Florida’s hot weather and whooped-out sandy tracks.

With a name like Sanders, the bloke ought to feel right at home on those sandy tracks. Plus it’s the perfect training-ground for the predominantly sandy terrain that’ll greet him in Saudi Arabia this coming January, when the 2022 Dakar Rally gets underway. And how good is that showdown going to be!?

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