Luciano Benavides’ jumpy ride to the world cross-country rallies podium: “I said to myself I could do it, for myself, and the team”
It was 11am, April 4, when Luciano Benavides, still a junior, rode into the Red Bull KTM Factory Racings Rally Team’s paddock at Yas Marina Circuit as runner-up of the 29th Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge. A big smile appeared on his face when he took off his helmet. It was the take off the 23-year old Argentinian had been waiting impatiently for quite some time. “In this race I discovered the new me,” he said. The magic can’t be truly explained, but we can at least try.
Starting the last stage 4 minutes and 36 seconds behind the second-placed rider, Luciano Benavides knew he would have to ride the best special of his life. “I didn’t even drink during my last stage. I simply didn’t want to lose the flow I had got into. I’ve never experienced such focus, never raced that smart, and I’ve probably never had such fun. Judging by the lines in the desert, I saw my jumps were longer compared to those of the guys in front. I knew I was fast, and if nothing unpredictable came my way, I’d finish on the podium just after Sam,” he explained.
We asked him about his feelings on the night before the storm, fighting the storm, becoming one, and to finally storm onto the podium, but we also got the chance to get to know him better.
What was happening in your head on the night before the last stage, with the podium smiling at you?
“I don’t know how it happened, but I felt unusually calm. I slept well that night; despite the fact I had a lot to lose the next day. Before closing my eyes, I pictured myself on the podium, in second place behind Sam, and that’s exactly what happened. I said to myself I could do it, for myself, and the team.”
How did the last stage go?
“It was really hard, but mostly psychologically. The stage was shorter compared to the days before. However, to me it felt really long, because in every kilometer I was pushing like hell, trying to gain some time. I didn’t even drink. I know that’s wrong but I didn’t want to distract myself with pulling the tube of my camel bag. I was fully committed, fully focused on making it happen.”
Did you catch the famed flow the desert riders talk about from time to time with sparks in their eyes?
“Today yes, I caught it after refueling. When I arrived there, they told me I gained a whole 4 minutes in the dunes. That gave me an energy boost, but still there were 36 seconds left to make up in the fast piste, where everyone is going top speed. I knew I had to do something to win those seconds, to push more than ever. Then it was like entering a tunnel, I was only thinking of the race, of the track, and it felt like flying. I did twenty kilometers motocross style, attacking and jumping a lot. The bike felt lighter, and me as well. Before I had finished the stage I knew I had gained those seconds.”
How did you know that?
“I was looking at the lines of the guys in front and every time I jumped I saw I jumped farther, at least a few meters farther. As a result my last stage was also my best; I came second, while every stage before I had finished in 4th position.”
You were also a rookie in this race, right?
“Yes, and I will stay a rookie for more or less the whole season, till Morocco. This is the first time I am doing the complete season. My rally history just got a lot better with this year’s Dakar. Before that, I did three rallies and had two serious crashes. My entry in the world of rallies was painful, and the experience cost me greatly. It was devastating for my confidence, and motivation. After the big crash in the Dakar 2018, I was almost convinced I should have stuck to enduro, or maybe switch to motocross. Yet there is something more about rally so I wanted to stay, and try again.”
How did you find this race, the almost 100% sandy Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge?
“I love this race; I think this desert fits my riding style. I am aware though my answer would be different if it hadn’t gone well for me. But I found the perfect rhythm on the bike and every stage I felt more confident. On some occasions I was riding with Sam and following him, I learned how to cross the big dunes. My speed improved, and I also got to jump quite a lot, which is what I love.”
How would you compare this race to this year’s Dakar?
“If I had to choose, I would race the Dakar here. This year’s Dakar was much trickier because of fesh-fesh. Here in the Empty Quarter, the main problem are the broken dunes, while in Peru the most dangerous thing is fesh-fesh. I enjoyed this desert more because I could push more.”
The Atacama rally will be another first – what do you know about it?
“A new terrain is a double-edged sword; while it’s thrilling to discover new landscapes, the unknown can hurt you. What I’ve heard is that Atacama rally is very fast. The good thing is that now I am more aware of my limits and my weaknesses, so I know exactly what to work on. I am super motivated and planning to train very hard for the next rounds of the championship.”
There is a big-time difference between Abu Dhabi and Salta – have you spoken to your family?
“I know my mum was following the race, but now she would be asleep. We have a family WhatsApp group and I’ve already left a message there.”
In this race we saw you riding alongside your brother – how does that feel?
“It’s wonderful and complicated at the same time. To be honest, I don’t like when I am in front of him. I used to always be behind; every time I arrived at a dangerous place I knew he had already passed, so I felt relieved, knowing I’d see him at the finish. But in this race, I was beating him, and when I crossed the finish line, my only hope was that he hadn’t crashed in the big hole I narrowly missed. In the desert you are always thinking too much.”
How is it living in Salta?
“I love living in Salta. It’s a great city, with good weather all year round. Besides that, I live in the middle of a motocross track, so for me it’s paradise.”
Are you still studying to be an accountant?
“It would have been good for the family business, but I dropped out. After I signed with a factory team, I tried to keep up with my studies, but I wasn’t doing that well on the bike or at school. I wanted to give 100 percent to something, and that was my riding. My parents understood and that made my decision lots easier. I know I can still finish university when I stop racing. I like business, but I just like racing more. My biggest hobby is motocross, and I would like to try to race some MX and SX races when I retire from rallying.”
Your teammates call you Junior. You are a junior, but this is also your nickname. Who gave it to you?
“All silly ideas in the team come from Sam, but I don’t mind this one (laughs). Actually, I have another nickname – in Argentina people call me Faster. This morning at the start, I said to myself: ‘Hey, Junior, today you should do it Faster style!’”
How are the dynamics in the team?
“It’s really great to be in the KTM factory team. The guys always take care of me, so it’s like my second family. Every member of the team is as passionate about racing as us pilots, and that’s a key part of our success. Receiving a lot of support also between races, I couldn’t imagine a better place to improve as a rider and a person.”
What else makes you happy in life?
“This is what makes me happy. I love riding bikes. When I put on my helmet, I become what I truly am. As a cherry on a cake, in this race I discovered the better version of myself: smart, patient, consistent rider. I love to go fast, and I love jumps.”
Photos: Rally Zone