They call it the Odyssey and for him it holds no secrets. The 2018 edition of the Dakar will have a special flavour for Martino Bianchi, whose adventure in the RAID began no less than 29 years ago in 1988. His past includes Cagiva, Yamaha and Husqvarna, finally moving to Honda as General Manager for rally operations in 2013.
In fact, HRC put their faith in the Italian’s experience in order to shine once again in the legendary race that has made Motorsport history after an absence that lasted a full 25 years. From this year, Bianchi is the new Marketing and Communication Manager for the Manufacturer with the Golden Wing and, less than two months from the start of the Dakar, he is ready for the challenge that awaits. Off roading has always been his daily bread, but he is also a World Grand Prix Motorcycle Racing fan. In fact, there are two riders that Bianchi would like to see on the Dakar starting line.
“I think that Marquez and Dovizioso have a predisposition for this type of race since they both have offroad experience. I don’t want to say that Rossi isn’t good – far from it – but Valentino perhaps simply has less experience than they do in terms of offroad riding. Among other things, joking with Marquez once, he told me that he would like to race in it.”
Leaving his dreams aside, the Italian manager’s mind is already focused on 2018. Two years ago, Honda took second place with Gonçalves, whereas in the last edition, hopes of victory went up in smoke just as things were looking the best with Barreda. Now the time has come to get started again.
“We’ll do it with Joan Barreda, a quality rider who can rely on a motivated team – Bianchi analysed – Alongside him are Benavides, an Argentinian rider with great experience, as are Gonçalves, Metge and Brabec. Honda has a very reliable group with everything it takes to be protagonists.”
However, KTM remains unbeatable in the Dakar. From 2001 through today, they have always won. Is there a secret weapon that Honda will be able to take advantage of in order to upset the trend?
“I think that our bike is very technologically advanced since development is fundamental in a race like this one – the marketing and communication manager pointed out – For example, we can rely on a few details like traction control or the possibility of using the cableless throttle, so mapping the ECU however we want. In addition to this, there is more too.”
“The Honda is very fast and lightweight – he added – It weighs only 135 kg and has a top speed that hits 190 km/h. I think that we have arrived where we wanted to be to the point that the bike sets the bar.”
In 2015 you missed the win by a hair, whereas this year you were forced to settle for fifth place. Is victory the goal for next season or would a podium be good enough?
“We have our sets set directly on the top step – Bianchi said – We are aware that the competition will be a fierce as ever since KTM, Yamaha and Husqvarna are competitive and have demonstrated that on several occasions.”
The 2018 edition of the Dakar, the 40th in its history, will go through three countries – Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. So will some changes need to be made compared to 2017, where the RAID only went through Argentina and Bolivia?
“Last year’s Dakar was thought to be a demanding one – he recalled – But the foul weather complicated plans. In fact, a lot of trials were cancelled in Bolivia. The risk of rain there is always high – the Italian manager analysed – Fortunately, this year there will only be two legs. Then there is Peru – Bianchi continued – a fantastic place for the riders, because we will find some incredible dunes. Then there is the classic final “blow” from Salta to Cordoba”.
So the race will be decided in the final trials?
“I think that we will see a nice selection in the first three legs – he revealed – Then, the final four will really put the riders to a hard test. Besides this, the weather will also play a fundamental role since we will find 40°C in Lima, whereas in La Paz it will only be 5°C to then go back to 30 in Belen.”
Now the RAID is held entirely in South America, whereas until 2001 it left from Paris to then go through Africa. A completely revolutionised programme in terms of habits and customs.
“In the last 30 years, the world has changed and consequently so have the bikes and the Dakar. At one time, the service vehicles were in the race – he recalled – Now, on the other hand, they do the entire route on the highway. I also remember that Franco Picco got to the last leg, put up his tent, ate from a bowl and then prepared the road book for the next day. Even the psychological strain on the rider is different – he added – They used to race with a 250 kg twin-cylinder, whereas now they use a 135 kg single-cylinder. In any case, the competitiveness remains extremely high and so does the danger.”
How do you respond to those who say that the real Dakar is the one that left from Paris to then go to Africa?
“In Africa we would enter a market where there were no towns – he pointed out – The locals would see the race going by and, I’ll admit, they suffered. In South America, on the other hand, there are five million fans on the roads – Bianchi explained – The landscape is very beautiful and the Peruvian desert is very different than the African desert.”