Winner of the 2017 Dakar Rally Sam Sunderland has taken his preparation for the 2022 edition of Dakar to a new level, quite literally, by racing to the top of the world’s tallest building – Burj Khalifa – on his motorbike.
In doing so, Sunderland passed a litany of iconic landmarks in Dubai and joins an exclusive and illustrious list of people, which includes Tom Cruise and Will Smith, to reach the dizzying heights of the 828m tall skyscraper.
Sunderland has spent over a decade of his life residing in Dubai, and the chance to stand atop the skyline proved to be a significant personal milestone for the UK-native. The one-time qualified lift engineer left the UK to visit family in Dubai, but it was soon after he landed that he fell in love with the sport of Rally Raid, and credits the move as the reason he started racing and eventually won Dakar and then the 2019 FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship.
You can watch the full feature of Sam Sunderland’s thrilling ride to the top of Dubai on Red Bull’s YouTube channel here:
Ahead of his trip to Dakar 2022, GIVEMESPORT caught up with Sam to chat all about the event, from how preparation has gone to how he keeps focused in one of motorsport’s most gruelling events.
He’s currently 1st in the overall bike standings ahead of the second week next week so before then take a look at what he had to say right here to us before he headed to Saudi Arabia:
How’s preparation been for Dakar 2022?
It’s been good and really busy. We did five weeks in America testing and, coming into Dakar 2022, we’ve got a new bike. So there was a lot of testing and development with the bike and a lot of changes took place.
The first rollout was in October in Morocco. And then even since then, we’ve probably changed 50% or more of the bike. So a lot of work, a lot of laps and we did five weeks in America testing, then we came back to Europe for a week, then two weeks in Dubai, then back a week in Europe again and then another two weeks in Dubai.
Dakar 2022 comes just after Christmas and New Year, we’ll assume there’ll be no big celebrations?
No, no big wild nights out!
I’ve pretty much isolated for most of it because I’ve been so scared if I catch covid I can’t race. All the work and effort and money and organising and sacrifices that have gone on throughout the year and then you might just catch this disease that keeps catching everybody out, and then I’m out of the race. It would just be a massive shame. So yeah, I try and kind of take care a little bit on that front now. So no public gyms, no socialising. In the end, I can still get it. So I’ll just try and do everything I can to avoid it.
The problem that we have is that Dakar is one time a year. So if you miss the start, you’ve got to wait another year. And it’s a long time when you’ve put a lot of work and effort in and not just myself, but all the people around me in the team. So yeah, it’s something that we need to really take care of.
How do you set yourself targets over the course of the event and break it into manageable chunks?
It’s such a big task ahead of you that it’s almost incomprehensible to actually visualise yourself riding 14 hours a day for 12 days in a row, like it’s just too much. So I think you have to just prepare as best you know how, the best way possible fitness-wise, physically, mentally, and then just be prepared for whatever is thrown at you.
We don’t know what the stages are going to be like, because you can have a 400km stage of gravel tracks which is relatively easy or a 400km stage of sand dunes, which is hell. So we don’t know that until we get given the road book in the morning at the start of the stage. So we have some sort of inkling, but not really, they leave it pretty open now.
You just need to prepare yourself the best you can and then every opportunity that gets thrown at you, you have to manage it the best you can and the race nowadays is so fast and intense that you can’t say ‘right I’ll take it easy for the first week’ because you’ll be hours off the lead.
My goal of course after winning once is to win again. You know, second or third or wherever else is always just better luck next time. I can’t afford to take it easy the first week. I need to always be on my game and trying to understand the pace of the other boys to where I’m at and if I need to push a bit more or if I’m riding comfortably where I’m not like with a knife in my mouth on the limit.
This year has been a bit strange with COVID, Honda didn’t race in the World Championship, I didn’t raise the World Championship. A few of the other boys didn’t through injury from Dakar like Toby Price and Kevin Benavides, so there hasn’t really been a reference to yourself to the other riders, we haven’t really raced each other much this year.
So that first week is going to be a lot of establishing going on. I have to just go in prepared as I can be and see how it’s going. And if I need to step it up, I’ll be ready. And hopefully, I’ll be in a position where I can ride sort of comfortably at a pace and keep some in reserve, that’s the goal.
How does Saudi compare to previous Dakar events in South America – where you won yours?
In Saudi the terrain is unreal. You can go through dunes, riverbeds, mountains, gravel, rocks, everything you can imagine in one day, like they’ve got every type of terrain you can imagine.
There’s one section where it’s got these like dirt mounds that are 200m tall, just poking out the ground, they look something out of Avatar, like super weird, mad places in terms of terrain, but I definitely miss a bit of the spirit that there was in South America. In South America, you’d have hundreds of 1000s of people stood on the side of the tracks on the roads cheering you on. And that that really was like something special. I definitely miss that.
Does knowing you’ve won it before help you?
Certainly, yeah. You know deep inside yourself that you can do it because you’ve done it before. Like you’ve confirmed bits yourself. So that certainly helps. I promise, though, that you’re in like the deepest, darkest places of yourself during any Dakar, everybody is. And during those moments you have that little voice in your head, when you’re shivering for three hours on a liaison at three o’clock in the morning, that little voice in your head saying to yourself ‘what the hell are you doing? just go back.’
There’s like that devil and angel in your head that you’ve got that battle with. Certainly when you’re having those discussions, it helps to be like, ‘no, I’m here for this and I know I’ve done it before so let’s go.’ During those little struggles you have it helps for sure.
How do you deal with the physical demands of the Dakar?
Everyone’s got their own ways to deal with it and through experience, you know what works better for you. Certainly, caffeine becomes a good friend like a coffee in the morning or a Red Bull in the refuel and you just try and do whatever you can to stay focused.
We’re not superhuman, though, and everybody feels tired. You’re not gonna not feel tired just because you’ve got experience. So it’s like, recognising it before and being prepared and saying, ‘right, it’s getting late in the day now. I’m pretty dehydrated, I’m pretty tired. Let’s take care of it before it gets too severe and starts affecting your performance.’
I think that’s where experience comes in. Just because you’re experienced, it doesn’t mean you’re not going to get tired or you’re not going to get dehydrated. I think it just means that you’ll recognise it earlier or say to yourself beforehand and then you’ll be prepared and have some sort of plan to deal with it.
Sam, you spent some time as lift engineer in your earlier life. How did that come about and how did you end up doing what you do now?
When I was in the UK I raced motocross when I was a kid, and one of my sponsors was Meridian Lifts. They’re in the south and they used to sponsor a lot of Speedway. And then when I left school I was not destined for university. They offered me a job and said you can have Wednesday afternoons off to go train and work for us in the week.
It was super nice of them. I did that for four years and then when I got qualified was about the same time that I got offered a job in Dubai to do some training schools and race motocross for a team there so I got my qualification and had a big discussion with them basically saying ‘right thank you for the job and everything but I’m gonna leave now!’ But they were super nice and they understood, they sponsored a lot of Speedway riders.
Would you ever consider the cross from the bikes to the cars or trucks?
It would certainly be a bit safer with a seatbelt! I think a lot of bike guys kind of have that in their mind like towards the end of their career about swapping over to cars.
A few of the boys now go into the side-by-side buggies and that’s almost like a stepping stone to the cars because the budget for cars is a lot, so unless you get offered a factory drive, which is not so easy, even if you’re a Dakar winner on the bike, it’s tough to get.
I mean, certainly, it’s something that I wouldn’t rule out and I’d love if an opportunity came up because I would definitely be keen. I’ve done a bit of car racing and bits and pieces and I think it would be quite cool like my buddy Toby Price, he’s doing a little bit in the buggies and cars so yeah, just see what happens when the time comes to hang up the boots.
Past Dakar, what’s the plan for 2022?
So obviously, right now, in my mind, I can’t picture myself looking too far past Dakar because it’s such a big thing so to get the year off to a good start by winning Dakar, that would be huge.
It was so amazing to win one, but to win a second would really kind of stamp it in there. I’d have to see how I felt after that.
It’s such a task that is almost incomprehensible like ‘how am I going to get that done?’ And if I get that done then I’d have to take a little moment and sort of reevaluate and then focus on the next thing.
I’m definitely one of those people that needs a goal or a target to focus on or to work towards.
I think first of all, let’s get Dakar down and then we’ll see about something else after that!