In response to the deaths of riders Paulo Goncalves and Edwin Straver on this year’s first Saudi Arabian edition, a number of changes have been made to improve safety by rally organiser Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) ahead of this January’s event.
The most controversial change is the move to limit the riders to only six rear tyres for the 12-day rally in an ostensible bid to encourage riders to slow down.
KTM rider and 2018 champion Matthias Walkner thinks that the change will not have the desired effect, and paradoxically will serve to increase the risks riders have to take.
“It’s a good approach to show that they want to change things, but there hasn’t been much reflection,” Walkner told Motorsport.com. “If you say that this regulation is to restore the adventure part and make the Dakar more exciting, it’s a good approach.
“But if you say that it is to make it safer – which was the idea – and to reduce speeds, then it is complete nonsense. It won’t make us slow down, at most it will lower the average by 3km/h.
“We always go to the limit and the more the tyre is worn, the harder it will be to control the bike. The good thing is that here [in Saudi Arabia] there is a lot of sand and this will not punish the tyre so much. But people should not make these decisions without us.”
Honda’s reigning champion Ricky Brabec added: “I do not agree with the new rules, I think they are more dangerous and worse than before. If we have six rear tyres for 12 days of the race, you have to go with damaged tyres without being able to slow down.
“That’s why I think it’s crazy, and even more so in Saudi Arabia, where we were last year and saw how fast we went in that open desert. I don’t think, no matter what they try, that we will slow down in competition.”
#1 Monster Energy Honda Team: Ricky Brabec
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Walkner was also critical of another change to the rules for the bike riders, who will no longer be able to carry out minor repairs to their machines during the 15-minute refuelling window and will instead have to wait until afterwards to do so.
“That’s another nonsense like that of the tyres,” said the Austrian. “Everyone should be able use those 15 minutes as they wish.
“It’s dangerous that you can’t do anything now until after those 15 minutes. Now you can only repair something quickly, because every second counts and you try not to lose too many.”
However, one innovation that has had a positive reaction is the move to only give riders access to the roadbook for the day’s stage 20 minutes prior to the start for all stages.
This practice was trialled on six days of this year’s event, and the roadbooks themselves were made more detailed to compensate for the fact that crews could no longer add their own notes the night before a stage, as had been common practice before.
“I see the possibility that the delivery of the roadbook in the morning [prior to the stage] will equalise things, which I like,” Honda rider Kevin Benavides told Motorsport.com. “I see it as positive; it will make us go a little slower.”
Benavides also noted that the now-mandatory use of an airbag vest to protect from injuries in the event of a crash will be “important for the safety of the rider”, but Walkner warned that it could make riders more prone to suffering from dehydration.
“The airbag is a good thing, although it comes a year too soon,” he said. “I’m not sure if it only offers advantages. I hope we won’t have problems with dehydration, because you sweat a lot with this plastic waistcoat for four or five hours in the desert.”
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