Marc Coma, KTM the favorites in Dakar’s cycle clash

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Defending Dakar Rally champion Marc Coma’s pursuit of a fifth motorcycle victory in the event – and a 14th consecutive triumph for manufacturer KTM – headlines the two-wheel category before Sunday’s official start.

After capturing his sixth FIM cross-country rallies world championship in 2014, Coma leads a strong KTM Dakar team that also features the event’s last two bike class runner-ups in Ruben Faria (2013) and Jordi Viladoms (2014), as well as the UK’s Sam Sunderland, who scored a stage win last year for the Honda factory team.

Needless to say, KTM has plenty of bullets in the gun just in case their leader, Coma, encounters problems along the journey through South America.

However, Honda is determined to break their iron grip on the world’s toughest rally.

The biggest weapon for its Team HRC is Joan Barreda, who had five stage wins in last year’s Dakar but finished seventh overall after a crash and electrical problems on his bike in the next-to-last stage.

“Everything is great after a whole year of hard work,” Barreda said in a release issued today by Honda. “The hour of truth is upon us, and everything is all set. We’ll start off taking it easy in the first, short stage, but in the second we will have to start pushing for positions and try and stay ahead.

“From then on, we’ll take it day by day, see how the race plays out, and try and stay as focused as possible and avoid messing up. The aim is to establish positions for the second week which give us race-winning options.”

In 2015, he’ll be joined on the factory team by four others: Paulo Gonçalves, Hélder Rodrigues, Jeremías Israel and Laia Sanz. This quartet can hold its own with Barreda as well – particularly Gonçalves and Rodrigues, who finished second and fourth respectively in the 2014 world championship (Barreda was third).

Looking to be interlopers in the KTM-Honda war is Yamaha, which got three stage wins out of Cyril Despres last year but won’t have his services now as he’s switched to the car class and Peugeot.

However, Yamaha still has in the fold one Olivier Pain, who joined Coma and Viladoms on the overall podium last year. As the scrutineering winds down today in Buenos Aires, he’s ready to get going.

“The start is only a few hours away now and you can feel the anticipation,” he said through Yamaha. “The nice thing about the Dakar though is that it really is like a big family. We spend a lot of time together and share something very intense and that creates strong friendships. Plus, of course, this isn’t circuit racing, it isn’t a contact sport, essentially we are racing against the clock not each other.

“Obviously there is some rivalry but, for me at least, my biggest challenger is myself and the mental battle I have to stay focused and not make any mistakes. Then comes the desert, which must be treated with respect, and which is always a serious adversary.”

Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consecutive year

24 Hours of Le Mans

LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.