BY DANIEL NHAKANISO
ZIMBABWE motor rally driver Conrad Rautenbach has set his sights on what would be a memorable maiden Dakar Rally win when the 12-day marathon gets underway in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah today.
The 35-year-old former World Rally Championship (WRC) driver put on a spirited display on his Dakar Rally debut in 2017, finishing an impressive ninth place in the car classification alongside South African co-driver Robert Howie to finish as the best-placed rookie in the field.
After the strong showing in South America, Rautenbach, who missed the last two editions of the challenging race due to sponsorship challenges, says he is aiming at nothing short of victory in Saudi Arabia.
The ace Zimbabwean driver will be accompanied by Portuguese co-driver Pedro Bianchi Prata behind the wheel of the French team PH Sport’s Zephyr which is making its first entry in the Dakar Rally.
Rautenbach has been in top form and finished second behind the three-time Dakar Rally champion Nasser Al-Attiyah from Qatar in the SSV category at the Merzouga Rally in Morocco last year.
The two-time African Rally champion said although he was expecting a tough race in his second Dakar Rally appearance, he was nonetheless aiming for what would be a historic win.
“I know that the second Dakar is always the hardest,” Rautenbach said.
“You think you can go faster and get a better result. But it has to be a team effort, especially in an SSV that isn’t as strong as a normal car. I’ll be with Pedro Bianchi Prata after meeting him at the Merzouga rally. I like his style, I like his personality and he has all that experience on a bike. Knowing PH Sport, I believe the car will be competitive and like any driver I’m not going for second or third place…”
Rautenbach, who has over 50 WRC rallies under the belt as part of the PH Sport-run Citroën Junior Team, is hoping to tap from the experience he gained from both from his WRC experience and his previous appearance in the Dakar Rally.
“My first experience in 2017 brings back great memories. It was a tough learning curve. The problem is that it made me want to come back, it’s like a drug. You can’t stop. Sadly nothing came through. And then came the Zephyr project and the PH Sport team that I knew from my WRC years. From the Dakar I learned that it’s impossible to drive at the pace you want. The secret to the Dakar is to pace yourself. In one second, if you’re not focused, you can hit a rock and the race is over. You can perform well on one or two stages but the key is lasting two weeks,” he said.
Rautenbach will be one of the two Zimbabweans in the Dakar Rally together biker Graeme Sharp, who will be making his debut in the bike section. The 33-year-old Sharp, who will be riding an all-new KTM 450 Rally Replica bike, said he was ready for his first appearance in the Dakar Rally.
“I’m a lot less nervous than I expected to be,” said Sharp. “I’m familiar with the team environment and the process, but definitely some nerves due to the magnitude of the race — size of the field, and it’s twice as long as any race I’ve done, but they are not getting on top of me.”
Sharp is part of the BAS Dakar KTM Racing Team which is based in the Netherlands.