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The highs and lows of the 2019 Dakar Rally – Sam Sunderland


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The highs and lows of the 2019 Dakar Rally – Sam Sunderland

Posted in People, Racing

Sam Sunderland talks openly about how tough the 2019 Dakar proved to be with extreme highs and lows arriving with each stage of the infamous rally.

No offroad sport is more mentally taxing than the Dakar Rally. 10, maybe as much as 15 hours alone inside your helmet racing at high speeds across unknown deserts in tough riding conditions for day after day, all on top of four or five hours sleep a night. This is Dakar they say and for rally racers like Sam Sunderland and his Red Bull KTM Factory team-mates these are the realities of racing the toughest race on earth.


Sam Sunderland (GBR) 2019 © Sebas Romero

For Sunderland the 2019 Dakar Rally threw a wild mix of issues above and beyond the norm. Dealing with a badly injured fellow competitor, stage wins and mechanical issues including riding with no brakes, were all in the script. The biggest blow came when he was incorrectly docked an hour time penalty by race organizers – but that came later …

The list of events “derailing” Sam’s plan for Dakar 2019 began in week one, stage five when he witnessed and helped deal with a crashed rider, Paulo Goncalves.

“I saw him crash, directly called the helicopter and assisted him as I could with some water, getting his gear off and trying to make him as comfortable as I could even though he was in a lot of pain,” explains Sunderland. Pro racers are focused individuals naturally, but still humans and a fellow competitor’s well-being comes first.


Sam Sunderland (GBR) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin

With the medics on the scene Sam was back on his bike again but both lost in terms of his pace and position in the race and unsettled: “I thought all of my work and the team’s work was going down the pan because I’d stopped to help another rider. I was a bit angry and really was just swinging off it trying to get by all these slower riders. I didn’t really have any reference to know where I was in terms of time.”

The result was a stage win for Sam, a fact ordinarily you’d expect to be a positive for a rider? “The problem was nobody wanted to win that stage because everyone was petrified of opening the Tacna stage [following day] because they knew it was going to be hell!” says Sam.

“I got to the finish and the media was there all going, ‘congratulations Sam, you won the stage’ and I was like, ‘Nooo!’ Outwardly I was having to be cool but riding back to the bivouac I was almost crying in my helmet thinking I’d just jacked up my whole race.”


Sam Sunderland (GBR) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin

The drama wasn’t over yet. “I actually opened Tacna really well and was super-pleased with my navigation.” But things took a turn quickly when he unknowingly hit a rock and broke his rear brake disc.

“I looked down the whole disc was off the hub somehow. Every bolt had bust off and I still had 100-odd kilometers to go in the special. I continued but the caliper came off and started to hit me in the leg so I had to stop and pull it all off, cut the brake line and that’s where all the time went.”

Riders must learn to deal with these set-backs (including riding 100s of kilometers in sand with no brake!) and must adopt a psychological reset button or an emotional mute button inside the head to lock away the problem and deal with what is in front and not behind.

“The next day I won the stage because I had no choice. The only thing I could do was try and make up time by going all out to win. From that point onwards I could only deal with what I had,” explains Sam, perfectly illustrating the point.


Sam Sunderland (GBR) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin

But Sunderland’s Dakar took yet another twist the following night after stage seven when organizers issued an hour time penalty.

Sam explains exactly how events unfolded: “I went to go in the stage and they stopped me saying there is a problem with your iritrack, there was no power, I changed the fuse and I was ready to go. I could have left sooner but they re-seeded me to fourth place at the start line.”

Innocent until proven guilty? Not in Dakar. Back at the bivouac race organization made the leap Sam had deliberately tampered with his bike in order to not be first on the stage. “I was fuming,” explains Sam. “I had big discussions with the organizers, the FIM, with my team manager and it was no budge. They were standing firm on it and I was out the rally effectively.”

In the rider’s mind at this point all is lost. 12 months leading up to Dakar, all the issues already overcome during the 2019 rally were blown away with a blown fuse. Sam says he was so angry he was ready to throw in the towel but out of respect for his mechanic and the KTM rally team he continued onwards.

“Having four or five hours sleep each night and riding for hours or whatever is tough but to have all this other stuff piled on is difficult,” explains Sam.

The perhaps unseen effect of getting a penalty from the organizers is how you are then viewed by your peers: “When the organizer gives you the penalty it is like a stamp of confirmation that you did something wrong. It looks to everyone else like they found factual evidence – of course I knew I hadn’t but from everybody’s side it looked like I had.”

“How did I deal with all that piled on top? Not very well to be honest, my head was in the clouds,” says Sunderland. “The worst was day nine because it was a long stage, I got lost a lot, made mistakes, rode in dust a lot and it was tough.”


Sam Sunderland (GBR) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin

In the end the Dakar organizers quashed the penalty but only after the race had finished and after Sam had raced two stages with his “head in the clouds.”

Emotionally, every sportsperson takes knocks physically and mentally. In offroad sport those knocks can come with a turn of the wheel but at Dakar, the toughest race on the planet, those knocks can be with sledgehammers.

Last word to Sam: “I race to win, I was in really good shape, did all the hard work and went to Dakar to do that job but we didn’t get to play the full hand of cards. In the end, after everything that happened, I’ll take that third place and live to fight another day.”


Sam Sunderland (GBR) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin

Photos: Sebas Romero | Marcin Kin


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      Philipp and Peter Öttl
      “Three o’clock on the dot, we would always head out to grandma’s to drink coffee. As a kid I would watch old videos of my dad racing,” Philipp Öttl says. Though the current Red Bull KTM Tech3 Moto2™ rider never actually saw his dad race in a Grand Prix, the 23-year-old knows how impressive his father’s racing skills were in the lighter classes back in the day.
      During his career Öttl senior collected a total of five Grand Prix victories, both in the 80cc as well as the 125cc class. Later on, Peter Öttl would share his racing experience with son Philipp, in an attempt to help the latter reach the highest possible in motorcycle racing. “When he was just a kid, Philipp would mostly race motocross and supermoto. When he decided to switch to road racing, I was quite surprised. He started out on minibikes at age ten or eleven, only to make the switch to the ADAC Junior Cup the next season. I could really apply what I had learned over the years in helping him – it turned out quite well. Getting on in racing didn’t seem to cost him much effort.”
      Philipp adds: “In 2008 we went minibike racing and just four seasons down the road I entered my first Grand Prix. Looking back on it now, I think we made a very progressive climb in results in my career.” The quick rise up the ranks is the result of Peter and Philipp working closely together. However, starting this season, things have changed.
      Philipp currently competes in Moto2™ for the Tech3 squad. Peter, in the meantime, is in charge of the Sterilgarda Max Racing Team in Moto3™. “It really is a completely different situation compared to previous seasons, but to be fair, it does not feel like much has changed,” Philipp explains. “Obviously we see each other in the paddock all the time and when things go wrong, I can still go to my old man for advice.” Peter nods.
      “Together we’ve achieved some great things in the past. Where Philipp is now, it’s all down to the details. I feel like it’s no longer necessary to work together as closely as we used to. Of course, as a father, it’s hard to let go. In the end I feel like it’s good for him. Carrying on without me there is the next step in his development as a rider. He’s his own man now.”
      Philipp Oettl @ Gold&Goose
      Good mix of traits
      Öttl senior and Öttl junior obviously are blood related, and it shows – sharing certain character traits. Peter explains: “I really recognize things I do in Philipp, too. He’s got his head firmly on his shoulders and won’t shun hard work; I was just like that at his age. I’m glad he’s not a carbon copy of me, though; he’s clearly got a bit of his mother’s character, too. If you’d ask me, that gives him a good mix of genetic traits.”
      Racing nowadays is hard to compare to how things went back in Peter’s GP racing days. The 54-year-old German observes an obvious difference between racing now and how it went down back in the nineties, when he himself was successful. “The bikes are much more equal today, putting the responsibility to get results firmly into the hands of the rider. In my day you had to have a works bike in order to even be able to make a claim. That was the main reason for me to stick to racing 125’s. In the 125cc class I had a good bike to race; moving up to the 250 class would have seen me on a production racer. Of course, I contemplated a step up, but in the end I couldn’t find any conclusive reasons to follow through. Being competitive was far more important to me than moving up through the ranks, purely for sake of moving up. And don’t forget; 125 racing was very popular back then. Certainly, among German race fans.”
      Philipp Oettl @ Gold&Goose
      While the nature of racing changes over time, the goal most racers hope to achieve does not. Winning is always on the mind of a racer. Both men from Bad Reichenhall in Germany know the euphoric sensation of taking the checkered flag first. Peter managed to claim five Grand Prix victories, with his son finally finishing a world championship race in first place last year.
      At Jerez he managed to outperform Marco Bezzecchi – who would go on to become the Moto3™ runner-up that year – in a thrilling finale on Spanish soil. “It’s hard to describe the feeling. You really have to experience it to know. When you win your first race, it feels like all the hard work put in all those years pays off. Like an explosion of emotion; something I found very special to share with my father.” Peter: “Of course I never forgot how that first win feels; it doesn’t compare one bit to coming third or even second. Podium finishes are great, but winning a race… That’s ten times better.”
      Brad & Darryn Binder @ Guus van Goethem
      Brad and Darryn Binder
      They’re clearly having to adjust being sat next to each other for an interview. It’s not that often that there’s a request to interview them both at the same time, although the South African brothers have been racing in the World Championship for a couple of years now. They even competed together in Moto3™, during 2015 and 2016. But that wasn’t the first time the Binders went head to head in the same racing class.
      “We started out racing go karts,” 21-year-old Darryn explains. The youngest of the two continues: “Well, when I say we, I mean I started out in go kart racing. Brad wanted a motocross bike, and my dad gave him one, but he hardly rode it. After watching me race on four wheels, he wanted to have a go too.” Brad managed to win the championship in one of the talent classes, with Darryn following suit a year after. But it wasn’t long before race bikes started to come into play. “We were both really passionate about go kart racing for a while, but we started to grow out of it – we wanted to race bikes instead.”
      Both brothers made their way onto the GP stage through the Red Bull Rookies Cup – Grand Prix racing’s talent pool. It would become a venture into the unknown for the Binders, seeing as no-one in their vicinity had made it to a level like that before. “When we were younger, our father would race in local championships, but he was already quite old when he started racing. I think he must’ve been about 27 when he first raced,” Darryn says.
      The conversation takes an interesting turn, when Brad stops his little brother from continuing. “Are you kidding? Have you been drinking? He had me when he was 27, so he had to have started out racing even later. I reckon he must’ve been well into his thirties.” Regardless of father Trevor’s age when he made his racing debut, he did manage to inspire Brad and Darryn to follow in his racing footsteps. Brad: “From an early age, we we’re constantly surrounded by bikes, and as we grew older the bikes simply got bigger.”
      Brad Binder @ Gold&Goose
      Training together
      During the season, the brothers reside in Spain. It serves the two with quite a few advantages. “Being South African, it isn’t easy to go and race in the World Championship, simply because the level of road racing back home is hardly worth mentioning. Moving to Europe, it really helped knowing we were in this together,” Darryn believes.
      “And obviously we get to train together, too. Brad and I share a passion for cycling, but we’re also very competitive. Everything turns into a competition for us – I’ll always try to beat him. Starting the final climb when we’re out cycling, I usually keep my cards close to the chest – saving energy. When Brad suggests taking it easy for the climb, that’s my cue to push. And when I do, Brad immediately picks up the pace, too – and then we have a race.” Brad adds: “At least it helps motivate us to keep pushing. Sharing your training time also makes it a lot more fun. Going at it alone would get old fast. Same goes for living alone and traveling alone.”
      Darryn Binder & Gold&Goose
      Their focus on racing paid off in 2016, as it would be an excellent season for Brad. The elder of the two Binders claimed the Moto3™ World Championship title that year. “That really was something special,” he states. “Every single rider on the world stage, sets himself the goal of becoming world champion. It greatly improves your chances of making it to MotoGP. It definitely was the best year in my career.”
      When his brother claimed the title, Darryn was right there with him, mainly because at the time they were both racing in Moto3™. “I remember that race so well. Aragon was a terrible race for me, but after finishing the race, I looked at the big screens right away – to see if Brad had collected enough points to take title. It was such an amazing day; I could not have been happier for him.”
      Zonta & Jurgen van den Goorbergh @ Guus van Goethem
      Zonta and Jurgen van den Goorbergh
      This season, 13-year-old Zonta van den Goorbergh walks the paddock grounds. Son of former MotoGP™ rider Jurgen, Zonta managed to claim a ride in the Red Bull Rookies Cup. “Last year he made his debut in the European Talent Cup. With that experience, we felt the timing was right to sign him up for the Red Bull Rookies Cup qualifiers. If Zonta hadn’t raced in the ETC, we probably wouldn’t have even considered to step up. To our surprise he got the ticket for the 2019 season.”
      Father Jurgen, without a shadow of doubt, is very proud of how far his son has managed to come considering his age. However, the former racer is also very much aware there’s a long way to go if Zonta wishes to achieve his goal. Zonta: “I want to race in MotoGP; that’s what I’m aiming for. I’m sure it won’t happen overnight, though. It will take a lot of work and effort to make it, but I am more than willing to do whatever it takes.”
      The talented Dutchman has been introduced to motorsports at a young age, though at first only at the motocross track. “When I was three years old I got my first electric trials motorcycle, but I wanted more speed. Trials and speed don’t mix; that’s why we got into motocross. Two years ago, I made the transfer to road racing.” His background in trials and motocross gave Zonta an edge in adapting to his new home in road racing.
      With his father sharing his experience, undoubtedly that helped the youngster. “If Zonta had stayed in motocross, my own racing experience wouldn’t have been as effective as it is now. Had he intended to work his way up in motocross, we would’ve had to find a trainer with MX experience. Now, however, I can train him myself.”
      Zonta van den Goorbergh @ Shot Up Productions
      Taking revenge
      Jurgen’s own career and the experience gained over the years, shall help Zonta excel. The 49-year-old Dutchman has more under his belt than just racing in MotoGP™, since he has also competed at the Dakar Rally. “It’s not just tips and tricks in racing itself I can help Zonta with. Having my last name opens doors for him as well. People remember me from when I used to race and my contacts from back in the day pay dividends for Zonta now. It smoothens out a few bumps in the road to the top.”
      Having developed a keen eye for talent over the years, Jurgen knows putting in the effort early is of the utmost importance for Zonta. “I could do another Dakar if I’d wanted, but focusing on my son’s career is my priority now. That way we won’t look back later, thinking we could’ve done better; thinking we should’ve put in more energy and time into Zonta’s career. No should’ve, would’ve, could’ves here.”
      Though there’s still a long way to go before Zonta makes it to MotoGP™, the 13-year-old can already look back at battling Marc Marquez. The talented youngster took part in the Allianz Junior Motor Camp in 2017; an event organized by the seven-time world champ. “His brother Alex was also on hand to help. That was an amazing experience. I almost beat Marc in the dirt track event. In the end, he managed to overtake me on the inside, carrying a little bit more speed to the line. I hope to be able to take revenge for that in a few years’ time.”
      Zonta & Jurgen van den Goorbergh @ Guus van Goethem
      Photos: Guus van Goethem, Shot Up Productions, Gold&Goose