Honda HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto took everyone by surprise last year in Buenos Aires when he declared that "for Honda the Dakar Project is second only to MotoGP." More important than the World Superbike, the MXGP and the Enduro, Honda aims at winning the toughest race in the world. To meet this purpose, the Japanese giant returned to the Dakar Rally with a factory team in 2013 after 23 years of absence. The 2016 Dakar will be their fourth attempt to win the crown and to break the KTM supremacy of 14 consecutive successes.
The presence of Nakamoto at Buenos Aires this year also confirms Honda's determination to win and this time the Number 2 of HRC will also spend the first three days of the rally with the team at the bivouac - a true declaration of 'war' for those who know the Honda style well.
"It's true", commented Martino Bianchi, Team HRC Rally General Manager, "after MotoGP comes the Dakar project. It's very important for Honda because the South American market is crucial. The race is back to the importance it used to have in its golden years in Africa and the media attention is huge. It's the toughest rally in the world! This endurance race is also very important to test technology to transfer on the commercial bikes. Thirteen race days and more than 9,300 kilometres of tracks, dunes, mountains and rivers will be demanding for the riders and the vehicles as well. It's a team work".
"After the second place last year with Paulo Goncalves, our target is to improve", continued Martino Bianchi, "Honda is at the Dakar to win, but we know that you cannot give anything for granted in this special and extreme race. Taichi Honda, the Project leader, and the HRC engineers worked hard to fine tune the bike, which is an evolution of the CRF 450 Rally that finished second last Dakar Rally. We worked a lot on the reliability, which is the number 1 priority for an endurance race, and on the bike maintenance. I believe that the two marathon stages will make all the difference and it's important to have an easier bike not only for the mechanics but also for the riders. Regarding the route, the second part of the Rally, from Salta in Argentina to the end, will be particularly demanding because we arrive from very cold stages in Bolivia at very high altitude to a torrid region. The starting procedure will be a bit different with a mix of bikes and probably cars and trucks. It will be an interesting race as usual. I think that Marc Coma did a good job with the new procedure of three minutes instead of two between each rider [for the first 10 riders]. This makes the navigation even harder. Race strategy will also be the key because the gap between the top riders and their water boys will be much bigger compared to the previous editions".
Honda will line up five factory riders: Joan Barreda (32), Paulo Goncalves (36), Michael Metge (36), the veteran Paolo Ceci (40) and the young American Ricky Brabec (24), who will make his Dakar debut.
No doubt that Barreda and Goncalves are the top riders and they can count on the support of Metge and Ceci, the water boys. The Spaniard, in particular, is fast on any kind of terrain and he can boast 13 Stage wins in his last four participations (2012-2015). The Portuguese is a consistent and expert rider and his strongest point is his race strategy. "If an HRC rider wins," he said, "it's like we all won."
"To claim a victory in the Dakar," Barreda said, "is the result of long and meticulous preparation. I have had several injuries this year that prevented me to do many kilometres on the bike but, despite this, I have never felt so close to the target as this year. It's my third attempt with the Honda squad and I want to do well. In the last two years I have been very competitive, I have shown a good level of speed and race management, but then many things can happen which are out of your control, like remaining without fuel or the salty water of the Bolivian lake. You need to understand when to be conservative and when to push. Especially this year with the first 3-4 days that will feature hard fast paths with not so much navigation, then Bolivia and the extra challenge of the altitude and finally the last and more demanding part, where we will face torrid temperatures like in Fiambala and more navigated stages".
If Joan Barreda is considered one of the favourite to the crown, Honda is investing also on young talents. "We believe a lot in Ricky Brabec, a fast rider used to tackle the American Bajas", said Martino, "he was 5th at the Abu Dhabi Rally and in Ruta 40, so he is a great talent, but we will also have two promising riders in the Honda South American Team that Honda HRC supports with a four rider line up (two Brazilian and two Argentinian)".