Stage wins with team leader Helder Rodrigues during the 2012 end-of-season Morocco Rally in late October indicated that HRC were in fact on the right track to possible Dakar glory. But since then road to success has proved difficult.
Before the Dakar Rally even began Honda were reduced to three riders. While conducting a final shakedown session before everything was shipped to South America, news broke that both Brazilian Felipe Zanol and UAE based Brit Sam Sunderland had crashed. Sunderland escaped with a broken wrist but Zanol was less fortunate. A high-speed crash left the Zanol seriously injured. Thankfully both riders are recovering well but their injuries reduced HRC’s assault to three riders.
However, with their number one rider Helder Rodrigues in confident spirits, optimism was high in Lima prior to the start of Dakar Rally 2013…
“I feel well and I’m very motivated to do a great race for Honda and the Team,” told Helder. “We have been working very hard and the machine has made huge progress in just six months. Compared to Morocco, my CRF 450 Rally has better engine power, suspensions and chassis. I’m focused on my race and after two podium finishes in the last two Dakar editions my target is to improve my result.”
Opting for a tactical start to the rally, Rodrigues ended the short 13km less than one-minute behind the hard charging Chaleco Lopez (KTM).
With the rally beginning in earnest on day two with a long 250km stage, Rodrigues hoped to use his rivals wheel tracks to aid his progress. Unfortunately the blinding dust hampered his vision – it also played havoc with fuelling issues. Less than 4km from the finish he ran out of fuel. Losing over ten minutes salvaging fuel from his teammate Javier Pizzolito, he slipped back to 15th place in the overall classification.
On stage three his fuel problems continued. After catching up to race leader Cyril Despres, dust from the troublesome fech-fech blocked the fuel injection system used on the CRF 450 Rally. Stranded again, it took 20 minutes to fix the problem, slipping him further back to 28th overall.
On stage four, five and six, Rodrigues finally got a clear run of things. Proving fast and efficient in navigation he worked his way back up to ninth overall in the race as riders readied themselves for the marathon stage that lay ahead.
Crossing the Andes Mountains at a record altitude of 4,975m to reach Argentina, the Dakar Rally soldiered on. Although looking on track to end the marathon stages with a strong result, Helder decided to doubt himself. After turning left when everybody else turned right, he opted to retrace his steps only to discover everyone else lost and that he was originally right all along.
“Dakar is like this, today the navigation was very difficult and I lost valuable time with a mistake,” he disappointingly remarked at the end of stage eight.
“At 400km I went on the right while everybody else went on the left. I rode for 10 km alone – there were no marks and I started to doubt myself, so I changed direction and I caught up everybody, that were lost.”
With the rest day offering a chance to regroup, a motivated Rodrigues came out swinging on stage nine. Second fastest at CP1, a small error slipped him back to eighth at CP2 but with a final charge he recovered well to end the day in fifth and moved back inside the top ten with seventh overall.
Moving forward one position he ended stage 10 sixth overall in the classification. Now it seemed that Rodrigues luck had finally turned for the better.
But stage 11 was again another classic example of good luck turning bad. Leading at CP1, then a close second at CP2, the Portuguese rider was left stranded at CP3 for 48 minutes when a stray branch broke a wire and stopped him in his tracks. Finishing 29th, he lost another three positions and with it all hope of a podium result. He now sits ninth overall.
“As riders we have to maintain our concentration for many hours as we are alone in the desert. We need to trust ourselves, make the right decisions at the right time and be fast but with an eye always on the road book.
“Not only are we riders but we need mechanical skills to repair the machine if something happens in the stage. This is what makes the Dakar so special.”
Yet to take a top three result, let alone fight for the win, it’s an understatement to say that both HRC and Helder Rodrigues' 2013 Dakar Rally hasn’t exactly panned out like they originally planned.
But with a few of days remaining maybe there's still a chance for Helder to salvage something...