Toby Price’s Take on Dakar’s Rule Changes

4 months ago | Words: Andy Wigan | Photos: Kin Marcin, Flavien Duhamel, Marcelo Maragni/Red Bull Content Pool

This coming January will be the second time the Dakar Rally has been staged in Saudi Arabia, but the first time a raft of new ‘Safety First’ rules will be introduced. And it’s fair to say that the introduction of rules specifically designed to slow riders down has divided opinion. Big-time!

We’ve already had our say about the each of these new rules. But more importantly, what do the competitors thing about them? And who better to ask that question of than Australia’s Toby Price – a bloke who, in six Dakar assaults, has come away with two wins, five podiums and one busted leg!

Here is Toby’s take on each of the rule changes that have sparked so much pre-event debate…

TM: No doubt you and the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing rally team have put a lot of thought into the rules changes that’ll be introduced to the 2021 Dakar Rally, Toby.|
TP: Yeah, we have. I mean, these new rules have the potential of completely changing the look and feel or the race. And they definitely have implications for race strategy.

In my view, a few of the new rules actually have the potential to create an unintended consequence and reducing rider safety. Sure, we don’t want to criticise organisers before we’ve even had the chance to see these new rules in ‘action’, but what’s been your gut reaction to a series of new rules designed to slow the racing down?
Mate, I could probably talk about each of the rules changes all day long [laughs]. Let’s just say that I’m not in support of them all. I mean, they’re trying to slow us down, and that’s never going to something that racers are going to like, is it? I mean, racers just don’t understand the idea of someone telling you to slow down when you’re racing. Doesn’t compute [laughs]!

Righto, let’s take each rule at a time and see how we go. First up: The roadbook will now be handed out 20 minutes before the start of each special to put all riders on an even footing when it comes to navigation…
For sure, it puts all riders on a level playing field. But then it’s also possible it will compromise safety. Previously, we’d spend two to three hours studying the road book the night before and making our markings on the thing. So the new rule will cut a lot of that time out, meaning we get more time to recharge, gets the proper nutrients back in our body, hydrate, get some more sleep, and prepare ourselves for another day of racing. My concern is that there’s no sanity-check for the roadbook. Previously, just from looking at the way some instructions were drawn or explained in the roadbook, they clearly didn’t make sense. So the night before, riders had the opportunity to point out these mistakes to organisers, who could then update the roadbook overnight. So, yeah … it’s a good thing. And it’s a bad thing. I’m a 50/50 on this one.

Second: The addition of oral warnings and slow zones to the roadbook, which already highlights danger zones, and the fact that tricky and hazardous sectors will be categorised as “slow zones”, where the speed limit is adjusted…
My concern here is that anything that takes your eyes off the terrain in front of you – while you’re looking down to check your speed on your instruments, that is – actually increases the risk of crashing. So I think it’s really important that organisers select the right tracks and terrain type where they implement these slow zones to make sure safely is enhanced, not compromised. We’re yet to see much detail in how this will be policed or what penalties will apply too. I think the intention of this rule change is good; making it safer for us. But I also feel there’s been so many rules changes over the past three years relating to zones where speed is limited, and that’s made it hard to get used to a set of rules and working to that system.

Third, and arguably the most significant changes for riders: Each motorbike will be granted a total of six rear tyres for the entire rally. As you’re notorious for being gentle on the bike (not that it ever looks like that from the outside, Tobes!), this one could work to your advantage, right?
Maybe. We’ll see if it works in my favour. This rule change, I don’t really understand. And it was a big surprise to me. One minute, they’re bringing in rules to enhance safety, and then they limit us to about half the number of tyres we normally use, which means we lose grip. And losing grip generally makes things more dangerous, not safer. Previously, most riders would typically go through at least one rear tyre per day, except in the marathon stages, where we have to use a set of tyres for two days. So this rule change means we’re essentially going to have six or seven marathon stages in the 2021 race, even though they’re not all classified as marathon stages. As a team, we voiced our opinion about this new rule, but that didn’t make any difference. We really struggled to see how limiting the number of tyres is going to force racers to ride slower. The other thing is that you can get big variations in tyre or bib mousse construction. This year, when I had the problem with the tyre rolling off the rim, it was brand new tyre with a brand new mousse. I’m not a fan of this rule at all, but we just have to find a way to make it work for us this coming year.

What if you have no choice; if you burn through six hoops and need to use a seventh, eight or ninth tyre to get you to the end of the race? Have organisers said what the penalty for each additional tyre is?
We’re yet to get that level of detail from organsiers. But it’s definitely one of the questions we plan to ask them. If the penalty is, say, 15 minutes, and you’re coming into the final day with a 30-minute lead, then it may be worth sacrificing that 15 minutes to give you the peace of mind and safety.

Fourth: Airbag vests are now mandatory for the motorbike and quad categories…
Yeah, the jury is out on this one too. I feel that the way it’s been introduced to rally racing has been a bit chaotic. Again, it’s a great idea in principle because it’s about improving rider safety and minimising injury. And we’ve seen this technology work really well in road racing. The rally vests have been in development for a few years now, and we’ve been wearing little accelerometer-type modules for a few years to help them collect data on the forces at work in rally racing. That’s all been for the vest manufacturers to create an algorithm that ensures their vest deploys in the right situations. But there are a few question marks for me. First, the vests really restrict airflow, which leads to more dehydration and fatigue. And I really felt more fatigued at the recent Andalucia Rally in Spain, where we raced with the vests for the first time. Second, when the thing deploys, it’s a pretty violent ‘explosion’. So if the algorithm gets it wrong and the airbag goes off when you hit a big-fast G-out, for example, it’ll hold your body in a really straight and rigid position, making it very hard to control the bike properly. So I think organisers have been premature in making them mandatory for the 2021 Dakar. In my view, there just hasn’t been enough testing with them yet – mainly because of all the cancelled racing this year.

If you do have a minor crash and the vest goes off, what then? No protection for the rest of the day’s racing?
No, you have to get the vest recharged at the next fuel stop. I hope I don’t crash at all in January. But realistically, I’m probably going to have one or maybe two where the bag does go off. But for the privateer guy who’s entered Dakar mainly for the adventure and to tick it off his bucket list, I’m guessing he’s going to crash five, 10 or even 15 times a day. What, does he have to recharge the vest every time? He’d have to bring two gearbags full of bottles to the event, just to recharge his jacket. Not only does that add cost, it also means riders are going to have to carry a bunch of bottles with them to get through a day.

Fifth: Time penalties will be applied starting from the second piston change, even if the rest of the engine remains the same…
This rule has favoured us a lot because KTM’s engine reliability is incredible. Both times I won Dakar, in 2016 and 2019, we did the entire race with the same engine and same piston. I know that in 2019, all our compression checks came back virtually the same from the start to finish of the race. So we’ve come a long way from the early days of the 450 bikes at Dakar, when every manufacturer accepted that you needed to do at least one piston and/or engine change to get through the race, and they simply accepted the 15-minute penalty I think it was for each change. Nowadays, all the bikes are a 80 to 90% chance of making it though the race with one engine and piston. The fact that KTM is a fair bit higher than that gives us a real advantage this year. For such a big race, you don’t want to gamble on a 10 or 20% chance of engine failure.

Plus your mechanics say you’re incredibly kind to your bikes. Didn’t you do the entire race last year on the one clutch?
Yeah, I am pretty easy on my bikes. The boys reckon that when they pull my clutch plates out on a rest day and measure them, they’re barely worn. A guy like Marc Coma, on the other hand, needed to have a fresh set of plates in his clutch every single stage.

Sixth, and finally: Riders will no longer be allowed to work on their motorbikes at refuelling stations. The 15-minute stoppage will be reserved for refuelling and resting…
Another strange one, in my view. Actually, I think it’s a bad rule. It’s supposed to encourage competitors to take good care of their bike, but then not being able to work on your bike when it needs work means they’re not taking good care of their bike. And that’s not adding to rider safety. It will make riders more aware of the fact that if we do mess up and bust something on the bike, then it’s going to cost us more time to fix the thing outside of the refuelling station because we have to fix on during the stage. It’ll be interesting to see whether everyone complies with this rule too, or if they sneak off to a corner of the refuelling area to not work on their bike [laughs].

Thanks for your time and honesty, Toby. And all the best for Dakar. Rip in and bring it home, mate.
All good, brother. I’ll be giving it my best.

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