The Dakar Rally is one of the most grueling exploits in racing, so when American driver Austin Jones and the rest of the field was given a rest day after Stage 6, it was a chance to strategize and plan for the second half of the race.
After 27 hours, 5 minutes, and 9 seconds of racing, Jones sits just 40 seconds behind Aron Domzala in the lightweight vehicle class.
“I’m stoked,” Jones told NBC Sports’ Parker Kligerman from the bivouac following Stage 6. “Definitely happy with the position right now.
“It’s kind of been our plan not to do anything too crazy and get to the rest day. Now we’re here, and now it’s time to think of something else we can do. Forty seconds is a little, tiny gap, but anything can happen.”
Lacking the top-end speed of the faster class of cars and the nimbleness of motorcycles, the lightweight side by sides ride a razor’s edge in the shifting conditions that make up the Dakar Rally course in Saudi Arabia.
“We’re just going to keep on doing our thing right now and assess what’s going on later in the rally and see when we can push and do what’s right at the time,” Jones continued.
In more technical sections containing sharper dunes and rocks that require tight navigation, Jones and the rest of the side by side class are able close on the overall leaders. That does not come without risk. And for Jones, the dunes are typically not a good place to push – but on a stage like the sixth one that was all dunes, he was forced to throw caution to the winds.
“At the very end, in the last 100 kilometers I told my navigator ‘Dude, you got to buckle up your belts because I’m going to go for it here.’ ”
Jones described the difficulty in an Instagram post, saying “All sand, all day today. These dunes are so sketchy with vertical drops randomly throughout the stage. Pushed a little harder today and ended up moving up in the overall standings.”
In Stage 6 of the Dakar Rally, Jones finished third in class. More importantly, he shaved 1 minute, 21 seconds from Domzala’s time.
“Definitely got to keep focused,” Jones said. “One problem on my end and that gap gets bigger. … But at the same time we’ve got to try and push because I know the dude in first is going to be pushing, trying to keep his lead. It’s a fine line to try and be conservative and still attack and go for it.”
The Arabian desert is hard on equipment. Jones knows as well as most that he also needs to guard against mechanical failure. His freshman season of 2020 got off to a strong start, but a rash of difficulties in the middle stages derailed his effort and sent him home eighth. Even so, he was the second-highest finishing rookie.
So far in 2021, Jones’ race has gone much more smoothly. Aside from a difficult Stage 2 in which he finished eighth in class and lost about 7 minutes to Domzala, he has been in the top five each day and no worse than third in the overall rankings.
If last year’s results were not fresh enough, Jones need look back only a day. He and the current leader Domzala chased Francisco Contardo over the first five stages until that driver had a disastrous outing Friday that cost him more than 53 minutes.
“The next six days are going to be pretty mixed with the desert and rocks as well as dunes,” Jones told Kligerman. “I’ll pick my spots and do whatever feels right at the time.”