Interview of the Month: Sam Sunderland – Winning Dakar
Sam Sunderland talks to the KTM BLOG about finishing the Dakar Rally for the first time, and taking an incredible victory, KTM’s 16th consecutive win, at the notoriously tough event.
Coming into the Dakar Rally what was your expectation, your own pressure and how was your approach?
“Obviously it’s my job and the main goal of the year is Dakar. I had a lot of problems in the past – some of them my fault, and some of them not my fault. In the end they all play badly on your name regardless of fault, and it’s part of the game, so you have to manage it the best you can. This year sure there was pressure there to finish but at the same time if I went there and finished 10th or outside the top 10 I’d be really disappointed. I’m a racer and I prepare myself as best as I can to fight to win. That was always my intention. Sure you try to learn from your mistakes, but I went out of one Dakar due to a crash, which was the one with KTM. The other one I didn’t arrive at due to breaking my femur, and the other ones were engine problems. So theoretically I went out of one race, that’s all. I came into this one with some pressure to finish, and I tried really hard to learn from that crash I had there in Morocco. It really got me down as a person not just as a rider. To go through that whole experience with the operation in Morocco was really bad and it really played on my mind a lot. To come back to races sure it has changed me a bit and to have the mentality where I need to have the rule number one as safety, and to at least try to keep it in the back of my mind.”
We know your first goal was to finish the race, what was your strategy to achieve this?
“Obviously if you can say there’s a favorite then it has to be the guy from last year and Toby was strong in all the world championship rounds. I think the level at the Dakar Rally is high, it is completely a different sport than five years ago when I started. I think we’re all quite on the limit. If you said today I’m going to go and ride at a pace where there’s absolutely no chance I can fall off, then you’d be 30-minutes behind by the end of the day. I think before the start any one of 10 guys can win. Really that was my goal this year, to stay safe for the first week, not lose too much time, and try to be top five or top six then arrive to the rest day to see where we’re at. From the start you can say 10 guys can win, then at the rest day there are probably five guys that can win. I think you can definitely say that was part of my plan – to really try and stay calm to the rest day.”
At the start of the race there were a lot of eyes on your teammate Toby Price [last year’s winner], but he went out in stage four. Did the team attitude change towards you and Matthias [Walkner] after that?
“When Toby went out obviously it was a big blow to the team. He was the favorite from last year; he’s a good friend of ours, and especially mine as I get on well with him. Matthias went through that injury [broken femur], I went through that injury and now Toby has, all in the space of a year. It was a big blow, and I don’t know if the pressure on Matthias and I went up, nobody said anything, but in the end we know what we’re there for. Just because somebody says now the pressure is on it doesn’t mean you’re going to go 10 minutes faster per day, we’re already making the best job we can anyway. Of course it sucked for the team and sucked for Toby, but we had to just get on with it.”
Navigation was a key element this year – how did it compare with other years you’ve done?
“I think the organizers were trying to slow the race down and change it up a bit by making it more navigation based and I think for me they went a little bit overboard. It was too much with not enough information, but at the same time they are testing the system to see where the limit is. I think when car drivers are lost and they have professional navigators sat only navigating then you know it’s really tricky. I think everyone had their issues on certain days and got lost at least once – I also did on day 3 and day 10. It was hard! Really hard!”
How do you deal with the exhaustion and the extremes of the conditions?
“The weather sucked to be honest. You went from 45 degrees in Paraguay and it was crazy humid where you were sweating, then the next thing we’re at 4000 meters at 2 degrees and it was raining like hell, then back down to Argentina where it was over 40 degrees – it was heavy! Even if you were out doing nothing all day in that weather you’d feel bad. It’s the humidity that really gets you. The whole thing is so heavy, the riding this year was really technical. You could do 100km down gravel tracks sat on the back mudguard wide open and 10km through stony riverbeds full of bushes, which is way, way harder. So the kilometers is not really a good indication of what actually happened. Sure a long day is a long day, we did 1200km in one of them, but at the same time the kilometers are all relative, as for example 50km through dunes, riverbeds and camel grass is much harder. I think this year was really difficult – we had days that were cut with the rain, but it was still really heavy. I trained as much as I could, I bought an altitude tent to sleep in at home to prepare for that, but I was feeling it for sure.”
You were leading from stage five; knowing what was at stake did the pressure affect you?
“Yeah definitely. When you’re losing all you’re thinking about how you can win, and when you’re winning all you think about is how not to lose it. It’s hard not to lose focus, especially when you do make a small mistake. It can quickly become a big thing in your head and spiral out of control. When you’re in the bivouac you have the team there and friends there to reassure you, but when you’re on the bike for 12 hours alone all day lots of things try to creep in and you end up having a fight in your head to keep on the positive and think about what you want. It was a lot harder than I would have expected. I’ve led world championship races where there’s a bit of pressure, which is tough because it’s something you really want and you’ve worked hard for, but for dealing with leading Dakar for six days was really hard.”
The relief to just finish must have been huge and also a proud moment to be part of KTM’s consecutive win history, especially with a 1-2 finish?
“It was special to get to the line with Matthias, because both of us have been through the broken femur and we both shared a camper this year. Of course we started to talk about it [getting a 1-2 finish] and when we got into first and second in the race it was crazy – we hadn’t imagined at the start of the week that we’d both be sat in the camper in the first and second positions in Dakar. It was a cool feeling. We are lucky to have the camper; outside it’s noisy, hot and windy yet for us it’s a luxury. Like glamping. It helps get away from the chaos.”
What have you learned from going the distance?
“It’s been good to confirm that what I tried to do differently this year really works. I tried to not take additional risks, to arrive back safely at the end of each day. Where there were riskier areas I took a bit of extra time instead of rushing through. Whenever I was in dust I took it easier. When I came into rally I would want to fight in any situation, and try to pass the guy ahead as quickly as possible. I wouldn’t take the time at a river crossing to check and take time to ensure it was okay, I’d rush through it. I’m 27, but I’m still quite young in the rally scene and I think you have to learn, and sometimes the only way to do that is the hard way. To get through and finish this Dakar and win it confirmed to me that to have a bit of patience sometimes really pays off. I’ve heard people saying ‘oh Barreda got an hour penalty, he would have won’ but it’s a stupid thing to say because obviously I would have been racing a different race had the situation been different. I was controlling the lead, I didn’t need to fight, take risks and fight for stage wins. As difficult as it was for the mind to try to stay calm and ride easier, it’s cool that it’s paid off.”
How did it feel reaching the finish as the winner?
“It felt amazing. The emotions kicked in as I went over the finish line there. I didn’t realize how much weight I had on my shoulders until I finished, and when I got there I felt a huge sense of relief. The emotion took over and I was whimpering like a baby! I think when you go through something so crazy with all the preparation, all the ups and downs, the sacrifice I think it makes it mean so much more. Like, if say someone gave you a Ferrari one day, it would be cool and nice, but if you worked for it for years saving all your money up it would feel incredible as you know what you’ve put in. At that point I knew what I’d done to get that and obviously it’s really cool to be part of that winning streak, carry it on. It’s incredible that KTM has 16 in a row, it’s unreal if you think about how many factors can happen in the Dakar and the team always seem to pull through to get it done. It’s really a credit to the guys in the team.”
What have you been doing since the race?
“Since the race, a lot of this! Interviews! I’ve talked a lot, but it’s really cool and I feel lucky to be in this position.”