The Dakar Rally is one of the toughest motorsport events in the world to participate in and completing it is no small feat. In this case, what would you call someone who is going to win? A superhuman, right? Well, I would. Imagine a person navigating the most dangerous terrain every day for two consecutive weeks and doing it faster than over 100 well-trained participants from around the world. Nothing less than superhuman!
During the 2022 Dakar Rally, the example of a superhuman was 32-year-old British driver Sam Sunderland representing the official GasGas team. For the uninitiated, this is Sam’s second victory in the rally, the first being in 2017 with the factory Red Bull KTM team. The rider suffered a big setback in 2020 when he broke five vertebrae in a nasty motorcycle accident. Despite that, he came back strong, finishing third in 2021 and winning in 2022.
This resilience and willpower that Sam showed intrigued us enough to talk to him. Although we haven’t been able to see him in person, we were lucky enough to have an online interaction with him recently.
BW: This is your second win after the 2017 season. Who do you think was the toughest in terms of competitors and overall challenges?
Sam: I think they were both tough, like every Dakar. My first was very difficult because I had never won before. It was a huge weight, carrying the head from day 5 to keep it all together until the end of day 12. But I had a 30 minute lead. This year’s win was different as I won by 3:30 after 40 hours. So the pressure was huge, and I really had to dig deep after the big crash I had on day 4 when I got concussed and had a lot of neck pain. Continuing to race at 100% and fighting for every second after this crash was something I look back on and feel good about!
BW: What factors made the last leg so difficult?
Sam: The last day was super tough for a lot of reasons. First, I felt like I could almost touch the trophy, which is never good to think about in racing. Then the navigation was super tricky with few references available on the flat terrain with lots of trails. Also because after 12 days of racing and a lack of sleep, you pray that everything goes well and that you can reach the finish.
BW: How was the course this year in terms of difficulty? Was it very different from previous editions?
Sam: I think the course was as tough as any year but I was quite happy to see a bit more sand than last year when there were a lot of rocks.
BW: What impact has the rainfall had? Did that make the terrain even more difficult to traverse?
Sam: The rain didn’t seem to affect much of the race. Maybe it helped with better grip and less dust in a few spots. Luckily we only had rain once on the last day.
BW: How did you get along with the bike? Are there any other improvements you would like to make?
Sam: The team did a full test by spending very long hours in the desert to make sure we were ready. And for that, I am truly grateful to reward them with victory!
BW: Was it difficult coming back from the injury you suffered in the 2020 edition?
Sam: I’ve had quite a few injuries along the way and 2020 was a tough one with five broken vertebrae. But, I always seem to find a lot of motivation to come back and do it. I’ve learned now that given the type of runner I am, I give it my all and look for the limit to try to win. Even if I can’t, I work hard and try to learn from my mistakes.
BW: How does it feel to win such a big competition and be recognized worldwide?
Sam: It’s really good to win the Dakar for the second time and it’s good to have so much media coverage, especially from the UK. But to be honest, the best feeling out of it is rewarding the people who gave me a chance or believed in me along the way.
BW: How is it different working with GasGas compared to KTM?
Sam: GasGas is part of the KTM group. So I’m still working with the same managers, technicians and mechanics, so that side hasn’t changed much.
BW: What is the only thing that ensures a finish on a DNF in the Dakar?
Sam: There is nothing that guarantees a finish in the Dakar. It takes 10,000 km to win and you can lose it all in 10 meters. So you should always keep your goals clear.
BW: Tell us about your collaboration with Red Bull and your experience becoming the first motorsport athlete to climb to the top of the tallest building in the world?
Sam: I was lucky to have Red Bull by my side at the start of my career and they definitely helped me through some tough times. And it must have been one of the coolest and scariest things I’ve ever done, thanks to them!
BW: As part of this collaboration, you have laid out cycle routes through some of Dubai’s most iconic sites and terrain. What did you think of to get into an unusual activity like this?
Sam: It all started a while ago when I was talking to my athlete manager Toby, telling him what a dream it would be to ride on a golf course because there are crazy people in Dubai. From there everything fell into place and not only did I walk the golf course but I also walked through some mental places and stood on top of a wobbly building at an altitude of 830m .