Merzouga Rally 2014 Race Report
Words Maria Guidotti, pics Sabatier-Rophé & Paolo Rugiero
The start of this year's Merzouga Rally, held on 18-24 October 2014, saw more than 130 riders from 25 different nationalities lining up. This was quite a different scenario to that of the first edition held five years ago, where 40 riders participated.
Promoted by the 34-year-old Italian Edo Mossi, the 2014 edition boasted a great line up of riders in all three categories (bike, quad and SSV), including Laia Sanz, Johnny Aubert, Pal Anders Ullevalseter, Deny Philippaerts and Francisco Arredondo to name just a few. With rally and enduro riders of such a high calibre in the mix, the event promised non-stop action from start to finish - and it did not disappoint.
Adding to this already challenging event was the roll-out of a renewed formula; five race days of racing plus a Prologue stage, a Marathon stage on the second race day, two special stages with a Le Mans-style start, the addition of an Extreme category, and the separation of Pro and Expert competitors. With an emphasis on ‘fun to ride’, the Merzouga Rally continues to focus heavily on the use of the road book and offers technical and navigated stages designed specifically for bikes, quads and SSVs.
The thirteen-time Women's Trial World Champion and ten-time Women's Trial European Champion Laia Sanz, who joined the Factory HRC Rally Team this year and will take part in the 2015 Dakar Rally, was the last to enter. On board of her Honda CRF 450, Sanz's participation in the Merzouga Rally formed part of her training for Dakar 2015, with the aim of improving her navigation skills with the road book and GPS - a key factor at the Merzouga Rally.
In the Prologue, Sanz had her rivals eating her dust when she clocked the fastest time. Then in the super pole round, where the ten fastest riders from each category challenge themselves to determine the starting positions for the following day, Sanz once again set the best time overall, even whipping the men. Not a bad way to start.
Sanz opened the track almost every day, as well as claimed the win in stage three. “The Prologue was good fun and I was surprised to see my name on top of the time sheet. Merzouga Rally was really a great experience," commented the Sanz. "It’s a demanding race with each stage around 200 km, which we, in the Pro category, do in five to six hours. It is a good test before heading to South America for the 2015 Dakar Rally."
Two-time Enduro World Champion Johnny Aubert claimed a victory in the second stage, the 304 km marathon stage. The last time the Frenchman participated in the rally was in 2012. His return to this rally was to test a Beta Atacama machine, developed by the Boano Racing Team, in race conditions and on sandy terrain for the Dakar.
Deny Philippaerts, Aubert's teammate and the brother of Motocross World Champion David Aubert, is another familiar face in the enduro world. The rally also helped Deny with his navigation and riding on sand, something you cannot simulate at home. Deny learnt quickly and was among the riders in the front, where a ding-dong battle took place.
Also among the favourites to win was Norwegian Pal Anders Ullevalseter, who placed second at the 2010 Dakar and has seven top-ten finishes to his credit. Having won the first and third special stages, Ullevalseter proved unbeatable and was the first to cross the finish line on the fifth and last day of racing. This last leg is the Extreme GP, 55 km of pure fun in the Merzouga dunes after a spectacular start Le Mans style.
The Norwegian was all smiles as he claimed the top podium spot in the Pro category standings, in front of Johnny Aubert in second overall and Deny Philippaerts in third overall. Sanz came in fifth place overall and is the first woman to win a stage in an international rally. If it had not been for an hour's penalty, the Spanish champion would have been on the podium.
Said Pal Ullevaalseter (KTM), "I have done many rallies, but honestly I have never done such as a demanding rally in terms of navigation as this one. The route was very good and I also enjoyed the start Le Mans style, which is unusual for a rally, as well as the extreme GP of today that was like a motocross race. Happy to have been here for the first time and great satisfaction to win."
Added Johnny Aubert (Beta), "I’m happy with this result. I’m back in the rally since Dakar 2012 and at the beginning it cost me a bit to switch my mind from enduro to rally, both in terms of navigation and riding style, but in the end everything went well. There was also good team work with Deny and the Boano Racing Team. The feeling with the Beta Atacama is really good. In the five days of racing we never had any technical problems, so now we are all looking forward to continuing this project, aiming high."
Commented Deny Philippaerts (Beta), "It was my debut on the rally but also on this kind of terrain. I trained before coming here but in a test you cannot replicate the navigation under race conditions as well as the dunes and the sand. It was a great experience and I think this is just the beginning."
Says Laia Sanz (Honda): "It’s a pity about the one-hour penalty that put me out of the fight for the podium, but the balance is really good. The Merzouga Rally is very demanding in terms of navigation. I have opened the track in several stages, learning a lot. The stages were demanding and there were long days, five to six hours almost every day. I really enjoyed today’s Extreme Grand Prix in the big dunes of the Merzouga desert."
To meet the requirements of all the riders, Edo Mossi introduced a second category called Expert. Riders in the Expert category only had to complete 75% of the entire route, so although still challenging, it was less extreme.
"The idea," explains Promoter Edo Mossi, "is a rally where both pro riders as well as amateurs can be at ease. The pros are here to train for the Dakar and they find a challenging race in terms of technical navigation as well as riding, as our route is designed specifically for bikes, quads and SSVs. We cannot forget that there are also many amateurs that want to challenge themselves in the desert, but also want to enjoy the race. The Expert route this year was 30 % less of the Pro route. Next year, the gap between the two categories will be bigger. In addition, in terms of entry fee, the Expert category is more affordable. So stay tuned because we are already working on the 2015 season. Each year we improve and we want to take another step forward for next year. The date is always in October, in time for the riders and teams participating in the Dakar to prepare and ship their vehicles to South America."
The overall winner of the Expert category was Italian Oscar Polli, with Stefano Dalla Valle clinching second place and British rider Andrew Newland in third. Oscar was at the rally as a coach to two young Italian riders, who are part of a project to support young rides in all disciplines (road racing as well as off road), which is supported by the Italian Federation,.
In the Quad Pro category, the podium was dominated by the Spanish riders. In first place was Diego Ortega Gil, Alejandro Feliu came in second and Eduardo Marco Echaniz third.
In the Quad Expert category, it was Italian Stefano Dalla Valle who clinched first place, in front of Frenchman François Sebastien.
The SSV category was a great success this year with 27 machines at the start - three times bigger than last year. The experienced crews of AT4R and Los Amigos, who have been participating in the Merzouga Rally since its inception, challenged the Spanish crews of Delfi Sport and Enjoy Quads and the XtremePlus crews. Only three teams held the Italian flag high, with Dakar driver Roberto Checco Tonetti leading the pack. Each day turned out to be a tightly contested affair among the riders in this class, with the Polaris machines really quick and very competitive over the varied Moroccan terrain, especially the dunes.
In the SSV category, first overall went to the French crew Henrichy-Bersey (AT4R), followed by Abel-Montagne (Los Amigos) in second and Duclos-Lichtleucther (XTremePlus) in third. In the Rally Pro category, Duclos-Lichtleucther (XTremePlus) claimed the win in front of Fidel-Ventaja (Delfi Sport) and Abel-Manez (Los Amigos). In the Lite Pro category, it was the crew of Henrichy-Bersey (AT4R) who claimed the top spot on the podium, with second place going to Abel-Montagne (Los Amigos) and Garrouste-Patrice in third.
Commented Henrichy and Bersey, "It’s our fifth Merzouga and year after year, the rally has grown. This year there were 27 SSVs at the start and a very high level of competitors. It was a hard battle and we really enjoyed it."
Said Abel and Montagne, "We won last year's edition and this time we finished in second, so we renew the challenge for the next edition. Congratulations to Edo Mossi for the great organisation. The level of competition was really high and also an important line up. We had fun and we will be back."
Concluded Duclos and Lichtleucther, "The Extreme GP, which is 50 km of pure adrenaline in the dunes after we all started together Le mans style, was really exciting. It was a great race."
Our thanks go to all organisation staff who helped make Edo Mossi’s dream come true, as well as to the partners of the event, Northon Club Geneva and Club Sport Mecaniques Grand Magreb.
For more information about the race and results, visit www.merzougarally.com
Source: DO IT NOW