Red Bull KTM Factory Racing’s Sam Sunderland and Luciano Benavides have arrived in Chile to contest the 2019 Atacama Rally. Currently lying first and third in the FIM Cross-Country rallies World Championship, the two riders will be joined by teammates Toby Price and Matthias Walkner as they each return to competition following injuries sustained earlier in the year.
Enjoying an exceptional start to the 2019 world championship, Sunderland and Benavides claimed the top two places at the opening round in Abu Dhabi before finishing first and third at round two – the Silk Way Rally – in July. The goal in Chile is to score as many championship points as possible whilst also working hard to further improve the set-up of their KTM 450 RALLY bikes, ahead of next January’s Dakar Rally.
The Atacama Rally is held in the Atacama region, close to the Chilean mining town of Copiapó. The event kicks off with a short Prologue on Monday, September 2, followed by five full days of racing in the desert, covering a mixture of terrain including large dunes and fast, rocky tracks. The Atacama, one of the driest deserts in the world, is often devoid of any vegetation and makes for an extremely bleak and difficult landscape to navigate.
Leading the FIM Cross-Country Rallies ranking coming into round three, Sam Sunderland knows how important the Atacama Rally is, not just in terms of the championship but also as preparation for the Dakar Rally. Forced to retire from the 2018 Atacama event after sustaining an injury to his foot, the 2017 Dakar Champion is keen to make amends this year and come out of the event with an even greater championship advantage.
Sam Sunderland: “I’m hoping for a good run in Chile this year. I clipped my foot on a rock last year on day four, so that wasn’t too good. Hopefully I’ll have a bit more luck this time. I’m coming into round three with a nice little lead, so the plan is to get through the rally safely and make the most of the time on the bike. There are a lot of Chilean guys who ride really well and there is a certain amount of home advantage as a lot of the tracks we cover are the same every year. Navigation at the Atacama can be tough too – the road book is sometimes not as detailed as it could be, if you know the terrain you can ride quite well by feeling, which is a huge benefit to the locals. Training has been going well – I jumped straight back into it after Silk Way and spent some time in Spain recently working on my road book skills, too. I need to stay focused but as always the goal is to get through the rally safely and hopefully pick up some good points for the championship.”
Showing both increased maturity and pace this season, Luciano Benavides has enjoyed an extremely impressive 2019 to date. His two podium-position finishes have shown he can really mix it with the more experienced riders and his performance at the inaugural Silk Way Rally reflected his increasing ability to manage both navigation and consistency on the longer, more demanding stages. Currently leading the Junior Class of the world championship, Luciano will be aiming to defend that advantage in Chile.
Luciano Benavides: “Since the Silk Way Rally I have been training a lot – working on my navigation and trying to find a good rhythm on the bike. I’m feeling really good in myself and I’m looking forward to the race in Chile. We’re past the halfway point of the season now and so this is a really important race in terms of the championship. We know the Atacama can be a very demanding race and often the navigation is tough with a lot of sections that can catch you out, so the plan is to get through it safely, hopefully with a strong result. We made some changes to the bike before the Silk Way Rally, mostly to my suspension settings. They seemed to work out really well and so I’m hoping we have a good base for the Atacama. The goal this year has always been to win the Junior class of the World Championship and so far, it’s going well. I’m leading on points with two races left to go and a good race in Chile will really help my chances.”
Putting in a heroic ride to win the 2019 Dakar Rally despite riding with a broken wrist, Toby Price cemented his position as one of the greats of the sport. Following his Dakar win, the Australian has spent his time recovering and rebuilding his strength. Although he has been able to train on a bike during his time off, the Atacama Rally marks Toby’s first competitive outing on a KTM 450 RALLY since Dakar. Although looking forward to the event, Price is realistic in his goals and knows the importance of slowly building up both his speed and navigation.
Toby Price: “I’m looking forward to being back on the bike and setting up for the Atacama Rally, it’s been a few months since my last race at Dakar. We’re getting prepped and organised for the event now and I’m really excited. I’m not expecting too much from the race or myself, it’s just good to get some time on the bike and do some roadbook stuff and training. If we come back safe and I have no issues with the wrist then we can start to push for the last round in Morocco. Hopefully, good times ahead and I’m looking forward to it!”
Also returning to competition in Chile, 2018 Dakar Champion Matthias Walkner is looking to use the Atacama and the final round in Morocco to get back up to speed and put in some valuable hours on his rally bike. The experienced Austrian has undergone a long period of rehabilitation following an injury sustained earlier in the year but is now feeling close to his best and is ready to take on the tough five-day event in Chile.
Matthias Walkner: “I’m feeling really good right now. I was able to start training on the rally bike recently and it went very well – I immediately felt comfortable. My ankle is still not 100 percent – I still get some pain now and again, but I’m ready for the Atacama. I’ve missed a lot of hours on the bike compared to some of the others, but I feel in good shape, I just need to clock up some miles in Chile and later on in Morocco in preparation for next year’s Dakar. The Atacama Rally is one of my favourite races – I have some good memories from there. Navigation is often tough but the terrain is really nice with some cool sand-pistes, big dunes and some rocky sections. It’s a good mix and perfect training for Dakar. It’s difficult to know what to expect from the event, after so long off the bike I imagine it will take some time to get back up to speed. The goal is to finish the race, support my teammates and get some good hours on the bike.”
The Atacama Rally commences with the Prologue on Monday September 2, followed by five days of racing with the stages covering a total of 1,685 kilometres, 1,346 of which are timed specials.