Dakar 2016 halfway mark: Red Bull KTM wins four of the first seven stages

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The Red Bull KTM Factory Racing Team has closed out the first week of the 2016 Dakar Rally with a win in stage seven, this time thanks to the team’s rookie Antoine Meo of France. Teammate Toby Price, who has won three stages so far, finished in fifth place just over four minutes off the pace. At the halfway mark of the competition the KTM factory team has won four of the six stages run so far.

Bad weather forced cancellation of the opening stage and also disrupted Saturday’s stage as the El Niño effect continues to register its presence. Storms, heavy rain and local flooding brought Saturday’s timed special to a premature halt at the 300k mark of the planned 353km.

With flooded roads making driving to Salta difficult, and with final times uncertain after several riders stopped to offer assistance to Red Bull KTM’s injured rider Matthias Walkner, the final results and standings only became clear on Sunday. As the rally has now returned to Argentina, teams spend the one rest day at Salta on Sunday.

While Price and the emerging Meo have produced highlights for the team, it was a big blow to lose the services of the talented young Austrian Walkner, who was in the running for a top finish in this year’s edition. Walkner, the 2015 FIM World Cross-countries Rally champion, was in third overall after the sixth stage but crashed just 15 km from the start and sustained a broken femur, ending his bid for this year’s title.

At the end of the first half of the rally Price is in second overall behind Paolo Goncalves of Portugal, but is only 3 minutes 12 seconds behind. Meanwhile, having come out of the high altitudes of Bolivia, Meo, now sixth overall, said he felt much better during Saturday’s stage. “I'm discovering the Dakar,” he said “It's still hard to judge. I wanted to be in the top 10 and, so far, it's even better. I try to be consistent and not to get too tired.”

Drawing a line under his stage seven ride and his performance so far Price said: “I'm happy with my performance. You must never drop your guard. It's the best way to make mistakes. I'm happy with the work we've done so far. It's far from over, a mechanical or a navigational mistake can destroy everything. My aim is to finish the race and get a podium spot. We had a good first week, no significant mistakes. Our objective was to get to the rest day in a good position."

The factory team’s Laia Sanz was 19th in the stage but only one minute off ninth place and continues to deliver strong performances. She wraps up her first week in overall 15th place. Teammate Jordi Viladoms is in seventeenth overall but he has been laboring under the affects of a fever for the first half of the race.

Riders have predicted that the nature of the rally will change dramatically in the remaining stage that take them back to the finish in Buenos Aires on January 16 and many expect much trickier conditions and bigger gaps in finishing times.

Commenting on the first half of the rally, KTM factory team manager Alex Doringer said: “The past week of the Dakar had ups and downs. A lot of ups with stage wins from Toby (Price) and another from Antoine (Meo), and with the performance of our other riders. The downs of course are the riders that are not racing any more. Unfortunately Matthias (Walkner) stopped when he was in a very good position and his crash was very disappointing for all of us. It’s a bad moment when someone gets injured. Matthias put in a lot of effort to succeed in this race, even though we know this is part of the game. I believe he will come back stronger than he left the Dakar 2016, and we all wish him all the best.”

Speaking of Walkner’s accident, Doringer said it had happened in the early part of the day when the sun was low in the sky and visibility was very poor for the riders. The Austrian rider was later transported to a hospital in La Paz. Doringer reported that the surgery in his broken femur leg had been successful. “The surgery went well. Some 22 hours after the operation he will be able to fly home.”

Speaking of the team’s strategy for the second week of competition the team manager commented: “We work day by day. Of course we focus on our advance thinking but something can happen every day. Our main goal is that our riders have to look after their energy levels and of course that they can look after the bikes so they stay together.”