On the program from stage nine of the Dakar Rally, this Tuesday: the sand dunes of the Saudi desert Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter. They are “the worst dunes” to get through with a truck, says driver Martin van den Brink on the phone on Monday, during the rest day. “Everyone is afraid of it, whether they admit it or not” Yet he is not pessimistic. “It suits me. And you can make a difference.”
Van den Brink (52), from Harskamp in Gelderland, is a Dakar veteran with fifteen participations. But this edition is a special one for him. To begin with, he is second in the general classification after eight stages. In addition, his son Mitchel (20), who is on his third Dakar as a driver, took his first stage victory. Father and son both drive for Team De Rooy, Mitchel is fifth.
After eleven editions in South America – the Dakar Rally has long ceased to go to the Senegalese Dakar – Saudi Arabia has been the scene of the famous desert race since 2020. Dakar 2023, with a race distance of more than 4,700 kilometers, has a tough program, says Martin van den Brink. “The first and second day was a demolition party for everyone, material-wise. We thought: if it continues like this, it will be a tough edition.” And it shows. Only 19 of the 54 teams are still in the race for the trucks, in which many Dutch people are participating again this year. Sunday 15 January is the fourteenth and final stage.
On Monday, experienced racing driver Erik van Loon announced that he no longer wants to drive the Dakar. Van Loon said he experienced the biggest crash in his career on Saturday during the seventh stage. That got him thinking, he told Omroep Brabant. “We are in an atmosphere here that crashes are part of it, but at home you hear that dad is lying in a helicopter with a possible broken back. That is not good news.” There are also regular deaths at the Dakar Rally, for example, Dutch motorcyclist Edwin Straver died in 2020 after an accident.
You are participating for the fifteenth time. Are there still often anxious moments?
“Every stage you have one or two. You have to, otherwise you’re not driving fast enough. Sometimes you think about home, yes. I have also been going to the physio for two days, because of a sore neck and back.”
Van Loon will stop immediately. Is Dakar too dangerous?
“It’s a race, every man for himself. I saw Erik van Loon after his crash. He had already made three somersaults in the first week, then you might think differently about it. He thinks it’s enough now, but I don’t. I’m just going to keep going.”
Your son Mitchel hasn’t been riding that long. Were you able to give him some advice?
“My advice is the education he has had. He often rode in the truck with me. He drives fast and he uses his mind. At the age of 20, he was the youngest ever stage winner in a truck. But our focus is on the next day. With Team De Rooy we are in the top-5 with three drivers. The chance on the podium is huge. The chance of winning too. But, once you get stuck in the dunes and you fall behind.”
The organization of Dakar, the ASO, wants to be climate neutral by 2030. What do you notice?
“A lot. There is a lot of moaning at the rally, but Audi, for example, is driving three fully electric cars. That is not yet possible in the trucks, that is too much weight. But there is plenty of hybrid driving.”
Can you understand the criticism of an event like Dakar in the face of climate change?
“Yes. But I always say to people: we test material here under extreme conditions. I also think: it is a bit of today’s society. We want to argue about everything.”