Sam Sunderland earned his second motorbike Dakar victory last week with a stellar performance in Saudi Arabia to win by a matter of minutes.
Following up on his victory in 2017, Sunderland led for much of the way during the 2022 event but, with his margin only a handful of minutes over the course of the event, things could have gone awry at any given moment.
He did, though, seal a second Dakar crown and, once the dust had settled, GIVEMESPORT caught up with him on Tuesday this week to reflect on what he had achieved, and what had gone on in the last couple of weeks.
“Today’s been the first day I’ve had where I’ve been somewhat chilled this morning. It’s been cool to reminisce a little bit on all the chaos. When you’re in it, it’s like a mad circus. You’ve got no time and because the race was so close until the last minute and with all the navigation difficulties, I knew that I could lose it right until the last day so the stress was quite up there.
“It was cool to be there with all my team and everyone that had helped get it done at the finish line. That was probably one of the best moments to see my mechanic’s face. He’s been my mechanic for the last 10 years and he’s seen all the ups and downs along the way and to celebrate with him at the finish and all of the team was one of the best moments.”
We spoke to Sunderland before he left for Saudi and he revealed he’d be forgoing Christmas and New Year in his preparations for the Dakar. That said, now it’s over, we were keen to hear if he had any belated celebrations lined up.
“I hope so! It’s still a bit manic at the minute. I’m off to Austria to go and celebrate with all the owners and bosses of KTM there and then I’ve got a few other bits and pieces going on but I’ll definitely find the moment to really let it sink in and enjoy the moment.
“It’s not one of those things that comes around too often, last time it was five years ago that I won so it’s really important to sort of take a moment and look back on what was done.”
As Sam mentions, he last won it in 2017 but by a far bigger margin than in 2022. Right up until the final moments things could have gone either way and he admits it wasn’t until right near the end of the race he thought about a potential victory.
“The last Dakar I won by 32 minutes in ’17. This one I won by three and a half/four minutes and the navigation was so tricky. I knew that with such a small time to spare it only started creeping in my head IN the last 20/30 kilometres of that last stage that I might win.
“It was such intense navigation during even the last days, there were so many difficult notes I didn’t have too much time to let my mind wander off the game. But it did start creeping in there a bit. I was thinking ‘I’ve got 20 kilometres to go and I think I can be Dakar champion.’
“I started second on the last day and I couldn’t see the lines in the ground because it was quite stony terrain and there was only one line – that of Kevin [Benavides,] who was in front of me.
“So when you start further back, they’ve blown in a bit of a track. So you can push much harder or essentially go much faster because you don’t have to focus so much on the navigation because you’ve got like six or seven bike lines flowing through the rocks, where when there’s only one, I couldn’t really see it.
“I had to really be on the ball with my navigation to not miss any corners or get lost because I knew if I missed one corner, essentially, I could be out or lose the race.
“It was just a waiting game at the finish line, like 10 minutes of just full panic. I arrived at the finish and said, ‘Did I win? And my mechanics were like, ‘We don’t know.’
“The 10 minutes felt like a lifetime but after then I really started to feel like I think I’d done it.”
With such close proximity to his opponents in the standings, we ask Sam how he kept a lid on things mentally.
“Until the last three days, I didn’t really stress too much on the mental side because I knew there was still going to be so many difficult notes, difficult stages, potential to have troubles or get lost.
“It was only those last two or three days where I felt like I had something in my hands almost or like I could almost reach something that I started being like, ‘Oh, I’ve got something to lose now.’
“If you’re not careful that can flip the whole mental side on its head and the race is such a difficult sort of game on the mental side because you’re tired and you spend a lot of time on your own.
“I had a little moment to myself in the camper basically thinking, ‘What really can I do other than do my best? I can’t control anything or what anybody else does. I can literally just do my best and if my best isn’t enough to win, then so be it and I’ll shake the guy’s hand that beats me.’
“That really helped me to settle down and just sort of stay focused on what I was doing.”
Among the stellar field Sunderland beat, MotoGP ace Danilo Petrucci caught the eye by winning a stage in a bike formula he is far from used to:
“Danilo coming in was really cool and it was absolutely mind-blowing that he won a stage.
“But at the same time, and no disrespect to him at all, I knew he wasn’t going to be a contender for the overall win but to win a stage is unbelievable.
“I guess coming from 350 kmh it felt slow for him at 180! It was really impressive for a first Dakar, he was in the wars a lot. I think he ended up with a broken wrist, dislocated shoulder, concussion and he was an absolute savage to keep going so big props to him.
“Everyone come out swinging from the word go.”
So how does Sam look back on the feat, and what’s the plan next?
“It’s cool winning in two different countries and also now on a Gas Gas as well as a KTM because I get to keep the bike that I won on so now I have one orange one and a red one which I’m pumped about.
“Honestly, I’m a bit caught up in the moment still rather than thinking about who else has won twice or who else has won however many times. I’m just so happy that I could bring back the trophy to all the boys that put all the work in all year and to Gas Gas and the KTM group. The last two years Honda had won after 18 year dominance from KTM so it was nice to sort of bring that win back to them for sure.
“At the moment, I’m still a little bit overwhelmed with it all but it’s not too long until we’ve got the first round the World Rally Championship so I’ll have a little bit of a rest and then start planning for that but I’d really like to start doing a little bit in cars to be honest. Just to have a little dabble I’ve done a little bit in cars before and definitely seems a bit safe though with a seat belt and a cage around you.”
Sam Sunderland is a Red Bull Athlete. For more info visit Redbull.com