The 2014 Dakar Rally got underway Sunday with the first stage between the Argentine towns of Rosario and San Luis. Leading the way in the motorcycle category was Joan Barreda, who gave Honda the victory with a Stage 1 run of 2 hours, 25 minutes, 31 seconds – 37 seconds ahead of fellow Spaniard Marc Coma and 1 minute, 40 seconds ahead of defending Dakar bike champ Cyril Despres of France.
“The stage wasn’t long, but it was a difficult one,” said Barreda in a Honda statement. “We raced on hard-pack terrain with stones and blind corners. The course was twisty and you had to stay focused. I was doing fine, finding my rhythm soon and keeping it to the finish. I will enjoy this evening!”
In the car category, Portugal’s Carlos Sousa (pictured) collected the victory and sits 11 seconds ahead of Argentina’s Orlando Terranova. Qatar’s Nasser Al-Attiyah is third, 47 seconds behind Sousa.
The United States’ Robby Gordon, also competing in the car category, had a disastrous beginning to his 2014 Dakar and after Stage 1, he’s already two hours and eight minutes off Sousa’s pace.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said to the Dakar website. “Everything went smoothly when we took things easy on the link section, but from the moment we started the special [stage], we had vapor lock problems and we had to stop. Then, all the other fluids started to overheat, so we had to stop at least five or six times…
“At the end, we had stopped for the umpteenth time when Competitor No. 390 offered to tow us to the end of the special. Honestly, it’s strange, I don’t know why this happened. We’ll have a look at it in the bivouac, although it’s disappointing to lose two or three hours on the very first day of racing…It’s worrying.”
Ignacio Casale of Chile earned top honors in the quads ahead of 2013 Dakar class champ Marcos Patronelli (+ :21 behind) and Lucas Bonetto (+ 1:17 behind). In the trucks, Ayrat Mardeev of Russia leads by ten seconds.
Tomorrow’s second stage will see the competitors remain in Argentina and head from San Luis to San Rafael. NBCSN will begin broadcast of Dakar highlight coverage starting tomorrow at 5 p.m. ET.
“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.
Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).
Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.
“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.
Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.
“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.
They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.
For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.
“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.
Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.
“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.
Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.
“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.
“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”
As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.
“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”