Dakar Rally Stage 1 features wins for Carlos Sainz, Toby Price

Dakar Rally Stage 9

Stage 1 of the 2021 Dakar Rally is in the books with Carlos Sainz winning in the car class and Toby Price taking the top spot in bikes in a route run from Jeddah to Bisha.

Here are some of Sunday’s highlights:

In the cars class, Carlos Sainz beat his X-Raid Mini JCW teammate Stephane Peterhansel in Stage 1 by the slim margin of 25 seconds. Most of the time he gave up came in the second half of the stage as Peterhansel charge.

But Peterhansel was not happy with the result and fears starting up front could actually be a deficit in Stage 2.

“We spent lots of time in the midst of the vegetation, with bushes, tight corners,” Peterhansel said. “We knew the bodywork would be in pretty poor shape by this evening, but when you want to be fast, you can’t drive too conservatively. Starting late benefitted us a lot, but things will be different tomorrow if we have to open the road.

“This wasn’t our strategy at all because we knew stage 2 will feature even more navigation. Yesterday we messed up, but we did well today. It’s one thing to have a plan and a different one to implement it. It would be better to start in fifth or sixth place tomorrow.”

Martin Prokop was pleased with his third-place finish, especially since he was beaten by two of the legends of Dakar. “Today was hard, both because of the navigation and because of the stones,” Prokop said. “There were loads of them. But the car is performing well and I think we did rather well. I don’t know if the result is going to change… but it ain’t half bad.”

Sebastien Loeb struggled in Stage 1 and gave up 24 minutes to the leaders.

Overall: Carlos Sainz holds an advantage of 00:25 over Stephane Peterhansel.

In bikes, Toby Price overcame a navigational error near the end of the stage, but was still able to beat Kevin Benavides by 00:31 in Stage 1.

Matthias Walkner was only one second slower in fourth.

It wasn’t a particularly good day for Americans. Skyler Howes was the highest-finishing U.S. rider in eighth, giving up a 05:25 advantage to Price. Andrew Short finished 12th and lost 08:50 to the leaders while Ricky Brabec lost 18:32 in 24th.

Pablo Quintanilla also was disappointed in his 20th-place finish. He lost 15:30 to the leader.

Erick Blandin was making his first Dakar start, but he retired after a nasty crash 127 miles into the stage.

Overall: Toby Price holds an advantage of 00:23 over Kevin Benavides.

SETTING THE LINEUP: Highlights from the Prologue stage

In side by sides, After Reinaldo Varela received a one minute penalty, Aron Domzala was awarded the win by 00:21 over Austin Jones.

Francisco Lopez Contardo finished third, 00:35 seconds back.

In lightweight vehicles, Cristina Gutierrez Herrero was able to edge Domzala and Jones by little over two minutes as this division is scored two ways. Also in a lightweight side-by-side, Seth Quintero finished 12th overall and third in class behind Herrero and Josef Machacek.

Overall: Aron Domzala holds an advantage of 00:15 over Austin Jones.

In quads, Alexandre Giroud waged war on the other quad drivers but won only 02:52 in Stage 1.

“The quad race was rather war-like today,” Giroud said. “It was a great stage! We got down to business. It was hard at the beginning because I was opening the road, so I got caught. You can see the dust trail of a quad from miles away. We then played cat and mouse for a bit.”

Giovanni Enrico finished second with an advantage of another two minutes over American Pablo Copetti.

Overall: Alexandre Giroud holds an advantage of 03:32 over Giovanni Enrico.

In trucks, Russia’s Dmitry Sotnikov spent most of the stage engulfed in the dust of his competitors but he set a strong mark in the opener with a 07:35 advantage over Ales Loprais.

“It was a hard day for everybody,” Sotnikov said. “All day long in the dust. It was a nightmare because we drove among the cars and the bikes.”

And Loprai agreed, saying “It was quite hard for an opening stage. There were loads of rocks and dust. It was hard to make our way among the buggies and overtake them, but in the end we finished in a good position.”

Sotnikov’s countryman Anton Shibalov finished only a few seconds behind Loprais in third.

It was a tough start for last year’s winner Andrey Karginov. His Kamaz suffered a mechanical difficulty that cost him more than an hour.

Overall: Dmitry Sotnikov holds an advantage of 07:35 over Ales Loprai.

Stage Wins:

Cars: [1] Carlos Sainz (Stage 1)

Bikes: [1] Toby Price (Stage 1)

Side-by-sides: [1] Renaldo Varela (Stage 1)

Quads: [1] Alexandre Giroud (Stage 1)

Trucks: [1] Dmitry Sotnikov (Stage 1)

Highlights from Stage 1 of the Dakar Rally can be seen on NBCSN at 7:30 ET.

Pfaff Motorsports parks in premier territory while punching above its weight in GTD Pro

Pfaff Motorsports Rolex 24
Jordan Lenssen/IMSA

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – After his team won the Rolex 24 at Daytona in one of the most stirring slam-bang finishes in the storied endurance race’s history, Steve Bortolotti’s phone blew up.

The general manager of Pfaff Motorsports received 370 text messages about the No. 9 Porsche being driven to the GTD Pro victory by Mathieu Jaminet over the No. 2 KCMG Porsche of Laurens Vanthoor (who helped Pfaff win the 2021 GTD title).

“I’ve never had my phone blow up like ever,” Bortolotti told NBC Sports. “I was like, ‘What the (expletive)? This is better than the actual race! It was awesome.”

His phone blew up again last week at Daytona International Speedway – but for an altogether different reason.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

The Pfaff Motorsports truck driver proudly had sent a photo to the team’s group text chat, showing that the No. 9 was parked directly beside the gleaming haulers for the new Porsche Penske Motorsports.

As the defending series champions in GTD Pro, Pfaff was situated beside the nine cars in the ballyhooed new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category with the next-best spot in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship garage.

It’s indicative of Pfaff’s impressive growth curve over less than a decade in IMSA, building in stature from plaid-clad Canadian underdog to GT powerhouse while continuing to punch above its weight against the biggest factory teams in sports-car racing.

“Everyone is like, ‘That’s awesome, we’re on the front side of the garage!’ ” Bortolotti said. “That’s really cool for my guys. I never even thought that it mattered. I just was like, ‘Oh shit, there’s going to be a lot of traffic and people around because we’re beside Penske.’ They’re looking at it as, ‘This is really cool and something I’ve always wanted.’ You really don’t know what motivates people, and they probably didn’t know they wanted that until they had it.”

Bortolotti has been leading Pfaff Motorsports, which is based in a 20,000-square-foot shop 20 minutes north of Toronto, since its inception in 2015.

Chris Pfaff (the team’s CEO and president) entered sports car racing as a sponsor promoting the Pfaff Automotive dealership network in Canada. He founded Pfaff Motorsports after discovering many of the Pfaff Automotive employees worked in racing on the side (and often competing against the Pfaff-sponsored car).

Within five years, the team realized its goal of reaching IMSA’s national series in 2019. Within the next three years, it had two championships (in GTD and GTD Pro the past two years) and the 2022 Rolex 24 victory.

“It all starts with a vision to know what you’re striving for or else, racing becomes a fast waste of money if you aren’t chasing something,” Bortolotti said.

It’s been a memorable run for a team that has only seven full-time employees and celebrates its gritty spirit as a Porsche customer team beating factory-backed operations with budgets that could be up to 50 percent larger. On the Pfaff Motorsports website, all of its team members are featured with mug shots and titles – as well as “Turbo Ted,” the shop dog.

Bortolotti is proud that the team has been kept mostly intact over the past eight years with technical director Andrew Marangoni (who started as an engineer) and car chief Corey Whiteman among the stalwarts in another example of quality over quantity.

“I’d rather have seven extremely talented people,” Bortolotti said. “I’d put my seven up against anyone … give me seven in those equal jobs in other teams, I bet mine are better. I think that confidence I have in them, and they need confidence in themselves but can’t be cocky. There’s a very fine line between confidence and arrogance. I’m glad that most of my guys are confident in their abilities and not here to become celebrities. They’re just here to win races.”

With an influx of cash and staffing this year in GTP (which added Porsche and BMW), Bortolotti fretted that some of his team would be peeled off by the premier prototype division, but its tight-knit culture held firm against recruitment from the factory programs.

“One gentleman was approached hard by two manufacturers and told them ‘I go racing because I enjoy it here,’ ” Bortolotti said. “He’s worked for those programs, in Formula One and elsewhere. He said, ‘Look, I wake up every day and enjoy doing stuff with (Pfaff). It’s not worth another however many thousands to (leave Pfaff).’ That was nice to hear we’re building something great.

“I’m very adamant there aren’t a lot of egos within our team. I feel that’s a huge detriment in racing.”

Pfaff’s lowest moment came just before its biggest successes.

The COVID-19 pandemic was doubly hard for the team, which faced the specter of economic hardship layoffs mixed with quarantine restrictions that lasted through June 2021 and made travel extremely difficult across the border.

But Pfaff soldiered through and added Vanthoor (who was left without a ride Porsche shuttering its GTLM team) to pair with Zacharie Robichon for the 2021 championship season.

“The worst year of my life was 2020,” Bortolotti said. “I never knew if we were going to get back here. A lot of people had to make a lot of sacrifices. Everyone took it with a smile on their face. Leaders of companies are really judged on how they handle those situations.

“As much as it hurt not racing in 2020, it was the way we handled it and came back, which allowed us to continue building what we had started in ’19 and ’20. If you look at ’21, you see a huge ramp up of our results after Watkins Glen (in late June). We finally got to go back to testing and learning and getting back in the swing of things.”

After winning the 2022 Rolex 24 and the GTD Pro championship with Pfaff, its trio of Jaminet, Matt Campbell and Felipe Nasr moved on to Porsche Penske Motorsport in GTP. It’s another sign of Pfaff’s appeal to world-class drivers.

“They want our car,” Bortolotti said. “I feel this pressure that these guys are finding me on Instagram and DM’ing to request us. That’s kind of cool. You have the seat that everyone is wanting.”

He believes the team’s success of as a customer team that can beat factory-backed operations is a preview of the future in GT professional racing.

“They’re spending how many of millions to compete, and we’re paying them to do it,” Bortolotti said. “So from a business standpoint, it’s quite attractive for them to be in this situation.

“I think the days of a full factory effort, as financial changes happen in a global economy, are numbered. The way we’ve done it with commercial support and raising money and partnering with a factory where they put some in, we put some in. I think that’s truly the way forward in pro level GT racing because there is something to sell. There is no reason for one manufacturer to have to pay for it all themselves. It doesn’t really make sense at the end of the day if one person is spending $5M to go racing.”

The team will have a factory-level talent with the return of Vanthoor as its endurance driver in a lineup that also includes Patrick Pilet (a 2015 GTLM champion and 2014 Rolex 24 winner) and Klaus Bachler. In addition to new drivers, the team also has a new car in the Porsche 911 GT3 R (992).

There was no bitterness over a reunion between the team and Vanthoor, who was lobbying Bortolotti to return just months after his heartbreaking defeat in last year’s Rolex 24.

Daytona is the only long-distance race missing from the CV for Vanthoor, who has won the 24-hour races at Le Mans, Spa and Nurburgring. The Belgian driver told NBC Sports he “cried like a baby” on the cooldown lap and then needed 10 minutes alone to regain composure.

But he then sent congratulations to his former and future team.

“With Mathieu and Pfaff, that was the first thing I did was congratulate them and give them a handshake because they are very good friends,” Vanthoor said. “And we were there trying to win and they fair and square won. There’s nothing to be angry about; I have a ton of respect for them. And that was it.

“There were no hard feelings. I was very happy for Pfaff to win it.”

Bortolotti said Vanthoor requested a spreadsheet with mugshots of all the Pfaff team members so he could greet everyone by name upon his return.

“After (the 2022 Rolex 24), I gave him a big hug, and I was heartbroken for him because I knew how bad he wanted it, how hard he tried and how great a fight he put up,” Bortolotti said. “I’m excited to have him back. He’s a great guy. We want redemption for him as a team as much as he wants redemption for the finish last year.

“It’s almost been a cool way to motivate our guys to try to do it again because we got it last year, let’s get it for Larry this year. We’re extremely motivated to get him his Rolex this year because we get ours last year.”