The 2019 Silk Way Rally crossed the border from Mongolia today and entered China, with the non-competitive Stage 7 predominantly involving the transition and customs procedures.
Looking back on the first six competitive stages so far, Argentina's Kevin Benavides (Monster Energy Honda Team) won the historic first stage in the first ever Silk Way Rally open to bikes.
But Great Britain's Sam Sunderland (Red Bull KTM Factory) has been virtually faultless over the first stages and has the overall lead in the bikes category.
In the cars category, Nasser Al-Attiyah (Toyota Gazoo Racing Overdrive) and co-driver Mathieu Baumel have been on fire, dominating from the start with six wins over six stages.
We've seen some spectacular driving as drivers and riders have had to contend with all sorts of demanding conditions over the first six days, from muddy forests to dusty trails.
In the trucks, MAZ and KAMAZ have had a non-stop battle for the lead since the start and competition between them remains as strong as ever. With three victories out of 6 stages and overall leader since the first day, Siarhey Viazovich (MAZ) has given the Kamaz-Master team a hard time.
Unused to such resistance Andrei Karginov (KAMAZ), winner of the last edition in Russia, Anton Shibalov and Airat Mardeev (winner in 2012 and 2016) have launched several unsuccessful offensives. For Viazovich and his red long-nose truck, there’s no doubt, the final victory will be decided in the Gobi Desert. “It all depends what the conditions will be like on these three last stages,” he admits.
But there's also been plenty of drama. Russian racer Anastasia Nifontova was just one rider who had a nasty crash. She had to be airlifted for medical treatment but fortunately escaped with a fractured clavical.
There was also a close escape for Joan Barreda who crashed his Honda while trying to overtake Luciano Benavides. Fortunately, only the bike was damaged and he managed to finish the stage.
And with two-thirds of this year's Silk Way Rally covered, it's still wide open for frontrunners in the trucks, cars and bikes categories as more than 1,800 kilometres remain over the next three stages in China, with an exciting epilogue awaiting in the heart of the giant dunes of the Gobi Desert.
_"In China the scenery will change completely. The ground becomes more arid and the competitors will discover conditions not dissimilar to those of Morocco. They’ll need to watch out for sharp stones and we will get into the sand on the first Chinese stage, with the second, between Alashan and Jiayuguan, being 100% sand with the famous giant dunes. The driving style will change and the navigation will become much more complicated in places. Where the gaps could be counted in minutes in Siberia and Mongolia they can sometimes be calculated in hours in the dunes," _said SWR Sport’s advisor Luc Alphand.
"In the cars and the bikes Nasser (Al-Attiyah) and Sam (Sunderland) have managed to build up a lead that will allow them to tackle what is to come without having to rush at it. But they know that everything could unravel if they get stuck in the sand or make a big navigation error. Even if they have experience in the dunes neither of them knows the Gobi Desert. Knowing the determination of the Kamaz-Master team, Viazovich won’t be able to sleep easy until the final finish line in Dunhuang,” he added.
Tomorrow's Stage 8 has a total distance of 785 kilometres. The eighth stage is not only the longest, but also the most challenging one, as it offers a full variety of surfaces. The first high dunes will set an initial challenge for those with little driving experience, and after catching the correct direction they will face a range of new obstacles – not just sand, but also dry riverbeds, ravines, canyons and steppes.