The Silk Way Rally is underway in Russia for its ninth annual edition. The grueling rally crosses Mongolia from North to South and ends in the ocean of dunes that is the famous Gobi desert.
The most populous category of this year's Rally is the all terrain cars, in which 54 vehicles will battle it out for the top spot. In the truck category 16 crews have been announced and this year, for the first time in its history, the race also hosts the motorcycle category with 24 bikers.
The first stage was only 51 kilometres long but all the riders faced major challenges to make it through their first ever Silk Way Rally unscathed.
The technical nature of the track, through the Siberian forests from Irkutsk to Baykalsk, was made even trickier by heavy overnight rain. And clearly the mud and water suited the riders coming from an enduro background, with three ex-enduro riders taking the first three places.
Fastest was the Argentinian Kevin Benavides (Monster Energy Honda Team), beating his younger brother Luciano (Red Bull KTM Factory) by just 36 seconds. It was the first time they have ever managed a ‘one-two’ on an FIM rally stage and both were clearly proud of their ‘family performance’. A few seconds behind them was the Frenchman Xavier de Soultrait (Yamaha Rally Team), despite having to slow down after his radiator became full of mud, causing the engine to show signs of overheating.
The top five was rounded out by Joan Barreda (Monster Energy Honda Team) at 1’06, with British rider and current championship leader Sam Sunderland (Red Bull KTM Factory) in 5th at 1’15. In the quads the day’s special was won by the Polish rider Arkadiusz Linder 4’37 ahead of the Russian Aleksandr Maksimov.
In the cars, Nasser Al-Attiyah and Mathieu Baumel (Toyota Gazoo Racing Overdrive) had just one strategy: post the fastest time. Taking advantage of the slow puncture of their team mate Yazeed Al Rajhi (Toyota Gazoo Racing), who started three minutes ahead of them, the Dakar title holders set a blistering pace to take the early lead on this year's Silk Way Rally. A victory and a smart strategic move, which should see them ideally placed, in two days time, for the first long stage to Oulan Bator.
In the trucks category, Siarhey Viazovich (MAZ) has already made his mark on this Silk Way Rally. Aboard his new ‘long nose’ truck he was determined to get ahead of the Kamaz on their home turf. Chucking his powerful monster sideways over the slippery tracks, the Belarus driver finished 56 seconds ahead of Anton Shibalov and his Kamaz, who was loaded down with spares in case his teammates needed them.
The up and coming Russian driver avoided a MAZ one-two by relegating Vishneuski to third place and in doing so avoids having to carry extra weight tomorrow. First on the road, the 2018 winner Andrei Karginov (Kamaz) was more prudent. He leads the fifth placed Renault of Dutchman Martin van den Brink by a handful of seconds.
Tomorrow's second stage will go along stony roads, upwards through a mountain pass and then downwards.
Participants in the 2019 Silk Way Rally will race for a total of 5,000 kilometres, with their route crossing three countries that offer the perfect balance of technical difficulty, variety and beautiful landscapes.