Image gallery: Hero MotoSports' Dakar 2020 journey, Stages 1-4
It's Hero MotoSports Team Rally's fourth time at the Dakar, continuing a journey that began in 2017, in South America. And for the first time ever, Hero is at the Dakar armed with four top riders - Paolo Goncalvez, Joaquim Rodriguez, Sebastian Buhler and CS Santosh. It's been a long year of preparation for the riders and the entire team, with several updates to the Hero 450 Rally, all in anticipation of the entirely new challenge that Dakar 2020 in Saudi Arabia represents. Dakar 2020 is four stages in, with eight more to go, and this is Hero MotoSports' Dakar journey so far.
Hero MotoSports' Dakar 2020 lineup includes two top 10 finishers, with experienced Paolo Goncalvez (No 8) and Joaquim Rodriguez (No 27), while Sebastian Buhler (No 32) was the third placed rookie in last year's Dakar, and of course CS Santosh (No 50) is the first Indian to ever finish the Dakar, with a top rank of 34th
First thing on the cards when competitors and machines arrive in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is to prepare for administrative and technical scrutiny. Paperwork, safety equipment and mechanicals are pored over here, and any aberration could be the end of the rally
Paolo Goncalvez is one of the most experienced riders in the game, with 12 Dakars under his belt, four top 10 finishes and a best of second place at the 2015 Dakar. He's also quite like family, at Hero MotoSports, despite it being his first outing with the team. He's the brother-in-law to the next Hero rider.
J-Rod, as he's popularly known, took his first Dakar start in 2017, finishing tenth. The first stage of the next Dakar nearly ended his career, with a crash that broke his back. But the 38-year old has come back stronger than ever before, showing just what made him a supercross and motocross champ in the first place - grit.
25-year old Sebastian Buhler is not only the youngest in the Hero team, but also the the freshest to Dakar, having made his debut only last year. But with a top 20 finish making him the third best rookie of Dakar 2019, and a consistent performance so far, Buhler is shaping up to be Hero MotoSport's best bet
It's CS Santosh's sixth time at the rodeo called the Dakar, with a best of 34th in 2018. He's more than ready this year, saying he feels in the best physical shape in a long while, after a series of crashes in the early part of the decade that had a lasting impact.
Cordoned-off parc ferme (no work allowed on the vehicle) is where competitors must park before the start of the stage and after the scrutiny/podium procedures. Santosh hopped off his bike, spoke to us for a few minutes and then walked across to his hotel a few hundred metres away. Talk about prime parking!
Stage 1 saw riders cover 319km of Special Stage, with soil and rocky terrain making up the majority. CS Santosh had a fall while crossing a dry, rocky river bed, hurting his hand in the process, saying "I've never seen so many stones in my life!" Despite which, he finished the stage up in 39th place, from his starting position as the 50th rider.
Joaquim Rodrigues had a technical issue at the start of the 19km long neutralisation stage, and was forced to retire from Stage 1. But with the new wild card regulations, he is allowed to continue with the rally but is out of contention in the overall standings. Instead, the 'Dakar Experience' rankings will help him rack up invaluable experience in Saudi Arabia, where the Dakar will be held for the next five years at the minimum.
The bivouac boggles the mind - drivers, riders, teams, mechanics, media and support crew pitch tent, and then pack up and leave in the morning, only to do it all over again the next day.
On to the 367km long Stage 2, with a 12th placed finish for Paolo Goncalvez. The first day of the Super Marathon stage, it meant no external help for the Elite riders, and Paolo would have only 10 minutes of service time at the end of the stage.
Sebastian Buhler was the picture of consistency, ending the stage 21st despite having to deal with low visibility caused by dust from the rider in front. Buhler was placed 25th overall after it.
Riding through the pain of his injured hand, CS Santosh managed to finish the stage in the 53rd spot. Long sections strewn with rocks meant his hand took a beating, as well his overall ranking - the day ended with him in 48th.
Stage 3, the 404km starting from and ending at Neom, brought with it disaster for Paolo Goncalvez. Technical issues ground his bike to a halt, but he was able to swap in a spare engine brought to him by a truck competitor. Riding in the dark and showing incredible determination to not give up, Goncalvez managed to finish the stage in 127th place.
The Hero MotoSport team's best finisher for Stage 3, Sebastian Buhler, showed a level head on the fast stage to get to a 20th stage ranking, moving him up to 23rd overall.
With big air, CS Santosh picked up steadily in Stage 3, with a 50th stage finish putting him in 44th overall.
Stage 4 ran from Neom to Al Ula, with 453km of Special Stage and 219km of liaison. Very fast for the most part, certain sections were rocky enough that competitors thought they were on the wrong route. Buhler once again came in 21st quickest, moving him up to 20th in the overall standings.
CS Santosh is getting back up to pace, finishing the stage in the 44th spot, which means he moves up to 42nd overall. Neom is known to get snowfall, and though there isn't any now, temperatures were in the low 10 degree centigrade with Santosh remarking how cold it was in the day!
Paolo Goncalvez's setback in Stage 3 only served to light the fire for him! Storming to fourth in Stage 4, he's moved up to 79th overall. Even with this pace, it will be impossible to get a top finish, but a stage win may be the best consolation!