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Images of Jose 'Nacho' Cornejo racing at the 2023 Dakar Rally

Navigating The Dakar: Nacho Vs Van Beveren

Jan 122023

When you are racing across rocks and sand at over 120 km/h; accurate navigation can be a matter of life and death. Reading 400 specially written pace notes which cover a 400km special stage, without rolling off the gas, takes hyper focus and nerves of steel. 
What’s more if you want to win a Dakar, or even finish well in a stage then racing intuition needs to be teamed with military grade preparation. 

So the burning question here is; are Dakar riders superhuman athletes, or highly trained navigation machines? Or both? Interestingly, while the route notes themselves - which are issued before each stage by the Dakar officials, are the same for each rider, the approach employed by each athlete varies hugely. 

To get a better understanding of the challenges involved, we talked to two riders who excel in this dark art of the Dakar - Monster Energy Honda HRC Team’s Adrien Van Beveren and Nacho Cornejo…

If You Can Read Faster You Can Ride Faster

“Navigation has always been the key”, states Van Beveren, “If I look back when the Dakar Rally in the bike category was a question between Marc Coma and Cyril Despres [year 2001-2015], the battle was so tight that one was only winning because of a navigation mistake made by the other. 

The point is that to make navigation accurate in our modern times of the Dakar, the roadbook has become so precise. In a sense there is less room for intuition, and you need a lot of training just to read and ride at top speed. We hardly close the throttle when we look down at the roadbook. Think that if we were given Marc Coma’s roadbooks, we wouldn’t be able to ride at our speed, which is averagely between 90 and 120 km/h according to the terrain. 

“In the past racers were like Marines in the desert; they were navigators inside, using intuition as well as interpretation. You had to think strategically and read beyond the roadbook that was quite approximate. Nowadays there is a change of direction almost every minute like in a labyrinth. If you slow down, you cannot get lost, but if you want to win, you need to learn to read while you ride flat out. 


“With very detailed roadbooks, the average speed has definitely increased, consequently the level of professionalism. The front runners are all professional racers: everyone is training every month for navigation because if you can read faster, you can ride faster.”


The Mind Goes Where The Eyes Look 
“Look where you're going!” my Mom used to say when we were kids, continues Van Beveren. “Think of it this way - it’s a question of mental gymnastics and physical application”. 


Van Beveren only just joined the Monster Energy Honda HRC Rally this year, but has a long history with the Dakar - having first raced the legendary endurance event in 2016. The 32 year old French rider finished runner-up in the 2021 Cross-Country Rally World Championship, leading the general classification of the 2022 Dakar three days before the finish.  It was the sixth time in his career that he had held this position (four days in 2018 and two days in 2022). But once again, victory and even the final podium eluded him. For 2023 he has already won a stage and featured at the sharp end of the time sheets.

“It is very risky to have your head down on the road book for too long because you don’t see dangers, and then you crash. We are trained to ride, and read, maintaining the same speed. It looks a little crazy from the outside.”


“We learn to take a glimpse at the notes and raise our head immediately to look ahead. We first look for the kilometer of the note, then the design, finally the compass (CAP). Normally the design should be the most important, but as we ride so fast, the CAP becomes essential as it allows us to have a reference”.


If Van Beveren steals one quick look at everything, then Nacho Cornejo takes three snap-shots. Pepe Cornejo’s son who is known in the rally raid scene to be an expert in navigation, was in charge of designing the route for several rallies which featured in the Dakar during its first years in South America. Nacho learned to navigate when he was 15. The Chilean from Iquique used to train with his father, when he was coaching veteran Chaleco López, and then former Dakar winner Kevin Benavides. What’s more, Nacho is known in the paddock as the most skilled racer in navigation.

But how exactly do you memorize the dangers and the important information among 400 route notes? “It is impossible”, continues Cornejo, “we used to mark the roadbook to highlight the dangers and the key points, but today the notes are usually so precise that we don’t need to do that anymore. When we receive the road book we are already at the start of the stage. It takes from 5 to 8 minutes to put the paper road book in the navigation holder installed on the bike and then we have some time to mark small things like a note with 2 CAPs, for example, which are the more complicated ones”. 
With this new system, the route becomes incognito until the start, so the racers need to use all their skills to make it through. 


Training For The Impossible


“We need to understand that road books are not perfect, so if we make a mistake, I first question myself: what could I do better? What did I miss from the design on the paper compared to the reality out there? Which references did I miss? We train hard to improve ourselves every time”, said Nacho.


“Compared to other motorsport disciplines, which run on racetracks, on the Dakar the challenge is to try to plan in advance. We still study the stage to understand on paper which areas to attack, but often the reality is very different. You need to take note of every opportunity and maintain the calm. All in all, you need to stay always open and ready for the unexpected. The feeling is to be like tightrope walkers”.

“I am maniac about details”, explains Adrien Van Beveren, “this comes from my education. Whether I had to clean my room or set the table, my parents taught me to use the brain before my arm. This education made me become a perfectionist which is a strength, but sometimes a weakness in an unpredictable situation during a 15-day long race like the Dakar Rally. I always try to improve whatever is in my control, and I’m very demanding with my crew. If there is even the smallest chance to make it better, I take it. In life it has cost me a lot, because you don’t need to be always perfect, but in my career, I became what I am thanks to this education”.


Ultimately there is no set formula to succeed during a crazy and grueling race like the Dakar Rally. Being a well-trained athlete is the foundation, and then the rest is experience, intuition, creativity, the courage to dare, and finally a sprinkling of luck.