In the 34 year history of the Dakar Rally in Africa and South America, 16 Australian riders have tried, and only 9 have completed it successfully. Condobolin’s Jacob Smith would have to be one of the youngest to achieve his goal of completing this toughest off – road race in the world, across the desert dunes of Chile and Argentina.
After many months of preparation at home and nearly one month in South America, 22 year old Jake Smith (#113), was one of four riders in the GHR Honda Australia team, the single largest Australian backed campaign in the Dakar Rally’s “moto” class for motorcycles. The others were: Mark Davidson (#117), Simon Harslett (#181) and Warren Strange (#121).
Jacob finished the 2011 Dakar in 32nd place on 16 January 2011, 13:14:57 behind Rally winner Marc Coma. His hopes of a top 10 finish were thwarted by a series of issues with fuel tanks and navigation equipment, poor position in the starting order and a crash on the final stage. Importantly, Jacob made it to the finish and the engines remained utterly reliable.
It appears that approximately 6km into the 181km special, Jacob ran off the road at fairly high speed, causing significant damage to the bike. The mission-critical aspect of the crash damage was the hole punched through the radiator. Jacob lost nearly an hour on the first leg as he affected repairs, but most importantly he was able to get the bike over the line. He finished 89th for the stage, giving him 32nd overall for the event.
While not the result any of the GHR crew wanted, Jake and the team can say with pride that he finished the event in the top third of the field that had shrunk to only half the number of starters- only 94 of the original 186 entrants in the moto class finished the gruelling event which some competitors described as one of the toughest Dakars ever.
Jake’s father Geoff Smith said that he and the family were both immensely proud and relieved that Jake had finished the rally. Jake had told his father by phone that he was surprisingly healthy – he felt worse after the first week with only now a little soreness in his bruised shoulder. Not only was the race of up to 377 kilometres per day, physically demanding but so were the off course conditions. There was a lot of extra walking kilometres between showers, meal areas, briefings and so on, Jake was often getting to bed at 11 pm for a 3 am start.
The spectators were something else Jake relayed: 600,000 watch the start live with over 4 million registered spectators along the way. For each section of the rally – it was the equivalent of lining the road with people between Condobolin and Canberra! They are full of enthusiasm and fantastic support for the participants, even when stopped at traffic lights, Jake was swamped with 70 fervent followers.
Jake is a bit disappointed with his placement but said he has learnt much from the experience (especially the GPS navigation) and will be even better prepared for next year’s rally.
Team owner Glenn Hoffmann was under no illusions about how tough the Dakar event was going to be, and while hoping to do well the main objective for this year was to finish and gain the experience for the future.
Mark Davidson withdrew from the event at the end of stage 4. Davidson had suffered from altitude sickness when crossing the Andes mountains at over 4,500m elevation and was forced to ride the day’s timed section amongst the racing trucks. A crash at high speed in their dust left him with broken ribs. Not to be defeated by the event, Davidson chose to stay with the team and assisted Jacob Smith with his daily preparations.
Warren Strange had been riding well in the event, but his race was also cut short when he crashed heavily just before the end of stage 5. Unable to continue due to a shoulder injury, Strange flew home to Australia for treatment shortly after.
Simon Harslett was unfortunately forced to withdraw from the race before it even started and he returned to Australia. Glenn Hoffmann has described the whole experience as “the first month of a three year programme”.
Although the event is now finished, the GHR team face two days of work packing up their bikes and equipment before leaving Buenos Aires on Wednesday. They arrive back in Australia early on Thursday evening after 27 days of sleep deprivation and hard work.