By Taylah Eastwell
When the time came for Daniel Sanders to pick his subjects at the end of Year 10, he told his teachers at Upper Yarra Secondary College he wanted to be a professional motorbike rider.
With no dirt-bike racing classes on offer, they told him he best consider a back-up.
But Daniel was determined – and that determination is what is currently getting the local champion from Three Bridges through the world’s toughest and biggest rally race – the 2021 Dakar Rally.
Currently seven days into the mammoth 12-day race, Daniel is placed 9th overall.
The Dakar is an off-road endurance event through the sand dunes and rocky terrain of Saudi Arabia. Competitors complete one stage each day, navigating their way with just a roadbook on their handlebars while riding at speed for over 450kms each day.
The Star Mail caught up with Daniel’s mum, Pauline, to find out how he is tracking so far.
“He is number one Rookie and has just made nine outright in the last stage. His aim was to win number one Rookie and get in the top 10,” she said.
“There are no arrows or markers out on the course, you have to navigate by a roadbook and it just scrolls through turning points. So they not only have to go fast, but have to navigate and go in the right direction as well,” Mrs Sanders explained.
“He sounds so refreshed. He says it is his favourite race he has ever done and he has raced in Europe, America and home in Australia. He says he is getting more comfortable and faster and navigating is easier every day,” she said.
Daniel is currently racing for the Red Bull KTM Factory Team alongside world champion Toby Price, Matthias Walkner and Sam Sunderland. He is sharing an RV with Austrian team mate Matthias.
“This time last year I never would have thought Daniel would have been doing it, he was wanting to do it later on. But because his off-road career stopped with Covid, there was no racing in Australia, KTM approached him looking for a new junior,” Mrs Sanders said.
“He wasn’t doing his other racing so he thought he may as well give it a try and there was no pressure, if he liked it he liked it, but he loves it unfortunately,” she laughed.
Mrs Sanders said Daniel has been overseas since September and spent Christmas with fellow Aussie Toby Price in Dubai given that Australians could not travel home due to Covid restrictions.
He keeps in touch with his family via a messaging App and speaks whenever he can.
“The internet seems really good there in the middle of nowhere in Saudi Arabia. He sends through photos or messages every day,” she said.
Daniel had a small crash on Day Seven after 400km’s of racing, requiring a few stitches and copping a cut to the mouth.
“It looks like he’s been in a fight with Mike Tyson, he’s got a black eye and a swollen lip but looks a bit better after a few stitches.
“It’s just a cut lip and a couple stitches, you can get that in football. He’s been very lucky compared to some of the other riders,” Mrs Sanders said.
When asked how she copes knowing her son is riding at high-speed in one of the world’s most dangerous races, Mrs Sanders said she likes to remain positive.
“I’ve always been very confident with Daniel’s racing. A lot of friends say ‘how do you cope’, but I know he has got great control. I don’t think you could cope very well if you didn’t think positive,” she said.
The introduction of compulsory airbag vests this year also provides Pauline with some comfort.
“They can sense if your falling and air bags go off around your neck, back and front. I don’t know what the statistics are but to think the MotoGP riders have been using them for years, it’s got to help with impact,” she said.
Mrs Sanders said when the race finishes on 15 January, Daniel and Toby Price plan to fly back to Dubai.
“The next challenge is going to be getting him and Toby back into Australia because of Covid.
“I said to Daniel, I don’t care where in the world you are as long as the race is over,” she laughed.
Sanders positioned third in the Prologue, getting him out near the front for Stage One on 3 Jan.
He sat in the top three for the most part of Stage Two, before making a mistake that cost him ten minutes, finishing ninth overall with an average speed of 120km/ph.
By Stage Six, Sanders pushed hard to make up some time in the sand – finishing third overall and only missing out on first place by 52 seconds.
After the crash in Stage Seven, Sanders is heading into Stage Eight with a damaged front wheel. With Stages Seven and Eight being marathon stages, mechanics are not available, with Sanders now facing the challenge of keeping up his top ten position while nursing the bike in order to bring it home safely to the mechanics ahead of Stage Nine.