You’re returning to the Dakar for the fifth time. What keeps bringing you back?
Dakar for me is an adventure. You could have done it once or five times, but every year is different and every year there are new challenges. So it’s never like a previous Dakar; no matter what you do, it’s always different. I enjoy the fact that you don’t know what the results are going to be. No matter how strong or well-prepared you are, you can never predict who’s going to finish the race or who’s going to win. Even today, you cannot predict who’s going to do what and what’s going to happen.
Last year, you surprised many people when you broke into the top 15. Were you surprised by how high up you were and do you think you can repeat it this year?
Yeah, I was really surprised. I didn’t know what to do! I hope to repeat it this year because the race starts in the reverse order. Usually the fast guys come from behind, so there is a good chance that I could have a good first stage. I’m looking forward to that.
I’m sure you leave every Dakar with some lessons. What lessons from last year do you carry into this year?
I think you need to do your best every day and at the end of the day you could surprise yourself. When I did my best, I really did surprise myself with the results that I could achieve and I don’t think I was ready for it last year. So, this year, I think I understand a little bit more where I could be in my position, so it doesn’t take me by surprise.
You’ve competed in a few rallies in the build-up to the Dakar – the Merzouga rally and the India Baja being some of them. What has the experience been like?
In cross-country rallying, experience is everything. To be able to spend time in the desert on my rally bike every year; and with every race, I get better at understanding terrain, at assessing risks and trying to be able to manage the race better. So it is an ongoing process that happens every year and I’m really happy that we did more races this year and did some testing also for the motorcycle.
Would you say you’re going in better prepared than ever?
Every year I feel like I’m better prepared than last year. So yes, I think I am better prepared this year as well.
What has your training regime been like in the run-up to the 2019 Dakar rally? Are you approaching this year any differently?
Last year was the first time I put together a solid programme and this is my second year with a structured programme, so I think I should be in better shape. I didn’t do anything drastically different this year. To be honest, it’s difficult to find time to be able to train towards the end of the Dakar. So time management has been difficult this year.
For 2019, the Dakar Rally will only be held in Peru with majority of the stages consisting of sand dunes. Does that pose any unique challenges?
The whole race is going to be in the summer. This means there could be challenges where the motorcycle is going to be under a lot of stress because it’s going to be 10 days in the sand and that’s hard for the bike. So we need to manage the race better for the motorcycle, for sure. Also for us, it’s not like you can relax in the dunes. When you ride in Bolivia or Argentina there are sometimes tracks and pistes where you can afford to relax and just hold it wide open and have time to breathe, but in the dunes there’s always something happening. So it’s going to be difficult to manage the race. You also need to asses the risks that you have to take because I think to go fast in the dunes, you need to take a little bit of risk.
Would you say sand is one of your strengths? In which case, does the change of route work in your favour?
I enjoy the challenge. I’m not really good on sand; I’m more of a guy who rides the pistes really well because in India there’s more hardpack. So I ride hardpack really well. With sand, I enjoy it because it’s challenging.
Moving on to the bike: how strong a package do you feel you have? How much has the bike evolved over the year?
This is the second year that the bike has been raced. Last year, the bike was new and we took it racing in Morocco and then, two months later, we raced in the Dakar. So we didn’t get enough time testing and setting up the bike. But this year, the bike looks the same but it handles and feels completely different. It’s evolved a big deal and we’re really happy with the way the bike is handling. It’s going to be more stable at high speed and I think it’s going to be better in terms of the suspension set-up we have for Peru this year.
What are the dynamics like within the Hero MotoSports Team?
We have Joaquim Rodrigues, Oriol Mena and me. I think Joaquim brings a lot of experience. He helps a lot with the development of the bike. So for me, I go with what Joaquim has to say about the motorcycle to help me arrive at a set-up, so that’s really cool. Mena is a new guy in terms of cross-country rallying, but he has a lot of talent; he has a lot of fire. It’s really nice to see different people working in different directions but towards a common goal. So I take from these guys and I try and make whatever I can with it.
What would it take for you to be satisfied at the end of the Dakar?
I think if I can give it my 100 percent and manage the race to my understanding of how I should do it, I’ll be happy. To not allow situations in the Dakar sway my mentality or mindset is a challenge, but it is something I want to do this year.