Petrucci's daunting Dakar debut: ‘I’m scared, but also really excited’

Motorcycle News

Danilo Petrucci is leaving behind the world of MotoGP for a new Dakar adventure – can the grand prix race winner find success on the dunes too?

Petrucci lead

Petrucci admits to some nerves before his Dakar debut, but is relishing the challenge


Don’t expect much from Danilo Petrucci in Saudi Arabia over the next couple of weeks.

The MotoGP race winner isn’t only changing disciplines, from road racing to off-road, he’s making his debut in the most daunting event of that new discipline. It’s like a top motocrosser switching to road racing and choosing to make his debut in the Isle of Man TT.

“I’m quite scared, because rally is quite dangerous”

Petrucci only started training for the Dakar last October. During the three-week break between the Grand Prix of the Americas and the Emilia-Romagna GP he flew to Dubai, KTM’s rally raid base, where he spent several days learning to ride in the desert and got hopelessly lost after misreading the roadbook mounted on the dash of his KTM 450 Rally. He returned for two further visits in November and December.

KTM only agreed to give Petrucci a ride for this year’s Dakar – after so little training – once he agreed to take things easy.

“I’ve always had the target to one day race in the Dakar, but this time I will do it more like an amateur, for the adventure,” says the 31-year-old Italian who started out racing motocross when he was a kid. “For sure riding in the Dakar and competing for the Dakar are completely different things. But if I can have ten years doing this kind of racing maybe I can become competitive. Also, I’m quite scared, because rally is quite dangerous…”

Petrucci training

Petrucci found navigation a serious challenge on his first off-road test for KTM


Petrucci – running number 90 instead of the nine he used in MotoGP – is one of 143 motorcycle competitors in this year’s Dakar, the 44th edition of the event, which started in 1978 with a 6200-mile race from Paris, France, to Dakar, Senegal, in northwest Africa.

The 2022 Dakar starts on January 2 in Jeddah, on Saudi’s Red Sea coast, with a 518-mile first-day stage, which ends in the city of Ha’il in the mountainous north of the country. During 13 days of riding – with a rest day in the capital of Riyadh at the halfway point – the course covers 5200 miles, an average of 400 miles a day, which gives some idea of the demands of the event. The chequered flag will be waved in Jeddah on January 14.

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During those two weeks riders will spend a lot of time tackling – and getting lost in – thousands of square miles of sand dunes, as well as tackling mountains, canyons and high-speed tracks. The organisers also include plenty of navigation puzzles, so this isn’t purely a test of brute strength and speed.

Petrucci is looking forward to the challenge, which will be so different from MotoGP.

“MotoGP and the Dakar are the opposites of the motorcycling world,” he adds. “In MotoGP we spend a lot of time looking at the computer. In rallies you don’t have any computers, you just stay on the bike and you have to solve the problems yourself, with your talent, your capabilities and your body. It’s a big challenge and it’s very exciting. My target for this time is just to try and finish the race.

“When we first talked about doing the Dakar I didn’t have a clue what a roadbook was, how a rally race worked in detail and how to ride in sand. To better prepare myself I went for an intensive roadbook course with [KTM team manager Jordi] Viladoms and I have already done a lot of training with my fellow KTM adventurers.”

Petrucci Dakar

Not many have crossed over from grand prix racing to Dakar-style events with serious success, but Petrucci hopes to buck the trend once comfortable


Petrucci will contest his first Dakar for Tech3, the French team with which he rode his final MotoGP season, but he is part of the larger KTM effort. This includes the Red Bull factory line-up of reigning champion Kevin Benavides, 2016 and 2019 winner Toby Price and 2018 winner Matthias Walkner, plus Gas Gas factory rider and 2017 winner Sam Sunderland and Husqvarna factory rider Skyler Howes.

“Everyone is helping and supporting me, it’s a great feeling,” he adds. “I will ask these guys a lot of questions and try to follow them as much as possible. It will be a very tough race, very different to what I’m used to, and for this I am a bit in awe, as it should be.

“I still don’t know what to expect, everything is new. On one side I’m a bit scared and on the other I’m really excited because this is one of the biggest challenges of my career.”

KTM is fighting to regain the Dakar winners trophy it made its own over 18 consecutive events – from 2001 to 2019 – but lost to Honda in 2020 and 2021. Part of that fightback includes stealing 2021 winner Benavides from Honda.

Honda has four riders in its Monster Energy team: 2021 runner-up Joan Barreda, 2020 winner Ricky Brabec, José Ignacio Cornejo and Pablo Quintanilla, all riding CRF450 Rally bikes.

Yamaha is the only other factory seriously involved, with Adrien Van Beveren, Ross Branch and Andrew Short aboard WR350F machines.

KTM tea

KTM assault also includes (l-r) Kevin Benavides, Matthias Walkner and Toby Price


Petrucci isn’t the only MotoGP winner competing in this year’s Dakar. Carlos Checa, 2011 World Superbike champion and winner of two 500cc GPs during the 1990s, drives an Optimus Buggy for the French MD Rallye Sport team, partnered by co-driver Ferran Marco Alcayna.