Meletis Stamatis, organizer of Europe’s biggest rally race, the Hellas Rally, has been in the world of rally racing for over two decades now. Having started racing motorcycles and quads in the 90s, Meletis remembers traveling to see the Dakar Rally for the first time. “That’s where I saw a roadbook for the first time, in a bivouac in Dakar. I remember picking up a discarded roadbook roll and thinking, what’s this thing – we didn’t have rallies in Greece back then, not with the navigation of the road book. I was hooked at that time,” recalls Meletis. In 2008 he started organizing a local rally in Greece. “I had this very strange idea – at the time –: to create a mini Dakar in the Balkans. I contacted a Bulgarian car rally race organizer and we started pooling ideas and resources. The initial idea was to create a rally route via Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Greece. Three years later, Hellas Rally was born. In 2011, around thirty international riders presented themselves. In 2014, Matthias Walkner won the rally and when he started to perform very well on the Dakar a bit later, Hellas exploded,” explains Meletis.
Although the Hellas Rally takes place in Europe and not in North Africa, Meletis claims that the fate of the rally is still closely linked to that of the Dakar.
“The Dakar changes a lot, it wasn’t the same this year and it will be different again next year. This year there were so many extremely fast parts that the roadbook apparently wasn’t very good, especially the second week when they had the most crashes, even with the cars. I’m sure it’s because the ASO just didn’t have enough time to fully prepare, the move to Saudi Arabia was quite sudden so that’s probably understandable.
David Castera is going to change a lot of things in the world of rallying. Not just on the Dakar, but on rallies in general. They have already announced the changes to the electronic roadbook, starting from the Rallye du Maroc. It will also be a huge change in the industry. We are now talking about new technology, and there will be new players on the market.
Riders will now receive early morning roadbooks; so many teams have relied heavily on Mappers, but now that is changing as well. I’m sure the big teams will find other ways around this, but still, the next Dakar will change our perception of rallies.
The Saudi Dakar is different. The race has evolved from a traditional rally format – tough navigation, tougher stages – to a pure festival of speed. In recent years, the average speed of the Dakar has continued to climb. The runners are faster than ever and it’s more dangerous than ever. In the past, a good privateer, if he was a solid rider and had decent support, could get on the podium. Now that’s just not possible with the factory teams having the latest technology and the fastest bikes.
I think Castera might be looking to bring the average seed down a bit, so the navigation will have to get trickier, harder. There will be fewer flat sections, not just for safety, but also to make it more interesting, because frankly, having more builders on the podium is definitely more interesting than KTM leading over and over again.
At the FIM, we are talking about changing protective equipment. We are now talking about airbag vests. For the moment, the regulations are quite poor: for example, knee pads or neck braces are not compulsory, but I think that will change now. At Hellas, I see runners wearing decent protective gear, but there are always those who look like they’ve dressed up for a Starbucks. And as an organizer, I can’t do anything about it. With the new regulations hopefully riders will be better protected,” says Meletis.
The ripple effect of the Dakar
According to him, all these changes will affect small rallies as well as the whole industry.
“All other rallies will follow what Dakar is doing. Expect electronic roadbooks, as it’s more environmentally friendly than printing out miles of paper roadbook; they’re also much easier to manage on the organizational side, as edits will now be made much easier with the click of a mouse as opposed to manual corrections I think this is a great decision – all you need is a good tablet and an app, a good support for that and that’s it you’re good to go You can still have a spare Ico with the cable to the wheel but the GPS app should be fine I think this will bring even more people into the sport because a tablet is much cheaper and much less intimidating than a full Dakar-style roadbook navigation tower.
The average speed in the Dakar will go down, but it will stay the same in Hellas because in Europe you just can’t have those incredibly fast tracks. What we have is more challenging terrain and navigation. If the Dakar drivers will be required to wear airbag vests, we will also follow. Rally racing is a very high risk sport and safety is a big issue. We are constantly trying to make it more secure, and of course there are also insurance costs. I think it is in everyone’s interest that competitors are protected as much as possible.
At the same time, my fellow European rally race organizers and I want these rallies to remain inexpensive, as they can be a great entry into bigger rallies. Doing a desert rally in Africa as your first rally is very expensive and extremely difficult, while starting from Hellas or Hispania is just much more manageable. For so many drivers like Lyndon Poskitt, Hellas is an entry, a springboard to the great desert rallies like the Africa Eco Race, or the Dakar later. And for many amateur drivers, it’s a way to improve their driving by leaps and bounds, to experience the rally, and quite simply to have fun. If we, Hispania, Hellas, Iberian Rally – if we cease to exist, the big rallies will no longer have new registrations.
The factory team mix
According to Meletis, the changes we will see at Dakar 2021 involve a lot of reshuffling between the big teams. “I think Yamaha made a very smart choice with Andrew Short, and Ross Branch will be a great team member to help him. I think Short can certainly do that – quietly and effectively. Ricky Brabec, meanwhile, looks more like a one-shot wonder. There’s no consistency there – either he quits or he wins. If Yamaha improves the bike, with Short on board, who knows, they might surprise us all the next year. Honda could be on the podium if they get their act together and bank on Benavides; KTM, on the other hand, still seem unbeatable, at least with their bike. Matthias Walkner is definitely a rider to watch, he was trained in the old, he has strategy.
Toby Price could move to SSVs. SSVs are developing like crazy right now, cyclists and quad riders are turning to SSVs. In Hellas, we see the SSV class on the verge of doubling its commitments. So for Price, I think he’s already done everything that can be done with motorcycles, and the move would make sense.
Again, for KTM, Walkner might be their best bet. Not just because of his driving, strategy and technique, but also because he is Austrian. An Austrian who wins on an Austrian motorcycle, impossible to do better. Ultimately, racing teams need to be marketing conscious. Sometimes team moves might not make the best sense to us, but they make great sense in terms of publicity – it’s just part of the reality of rallying.
At the same time, right now it’s quite early, there could still be changes and moves, runners could still come and go, so maybe it’s a bit early to predict things. Meletis said.
A new class Malle Moto?
Although there will be several significant changes in the Dakar 2021, which will impact the whole world of rally racing and the industry, adventure drivers are also influencing the scene. According to Meletis, there is a growing trend of cycling to a rally, racing and then returning, and rally organizers are paying attention.
“I would like to have a special class in Hellas for people who come to the rally with their own bike and come back. Having a motorcycle trunk class is kind of pointless, since almost everyone here is a motorcycle trunk. I plan to create a special Adventure class because in my opinion, it is the adventurers who have the potential to become good rally competitors. They are generally tough and resourceful; they know how to survive. They are not prima donnas. I see so many professional and semi-professional pilots flying, staying in fancy hotels, demanding massages and motorhomes… adventure pilots are much more prepared to resist if need be. If they need to endure the cold, sleep in a tent, then get up and ride again, they will. So I would like to have a class dedicated specifically to adventure pilots who don’t just fly and roll, but fly the full nine meters.”
As the world of rally racing grows and becomes more inclusive for adventure drivers, Meletis fears that more and more illegal racing will also crop up. “In general, Hellas is always growing, we have been around for 11 years and we usually have around 250 competitors every year. I think the sport is growing, that’s for sure, but at the same time there are dangerous events coming up, and that trend will have to go down. Rally races must be organized and authorized by professionals. Let’s face it, rallying just isn’t cheap, and at the end of the day, you need a budget. Because the fact is that as a competitor you don’t just pay for the roadbook. Your entry fee also goes to medical staff, marshals, teams of people who stop traffic for you, people who follow you and send help if needed. So in my opinion, whether you just want to see if you have what it takes or are looking to rank well, if you want to rally, rally. And if you train, go on a closed circuit with a roadbook,” advises Meletis.