Joining the Red Bull KTM Rally Factory Racing Team prior to the 2015 Dakar Rally, the 27-year-old Brit has experienced lots of ups and downs in his quest to establish himself among the international elite of rally racers. From winning individual Dakar stages and topping the podium in multi-stage events to being forced to miss the 2016 Dakar due to injury, Sam has experienced a rollercoaster of emotions during the past few years.
“This year I decided that the Dakar would be my main goal,” said Sam, “so I focused all my energy into better preparing myself for the challenge. I’ve been through a lot since I started racing rallies but through all the good and the bad moments I’ve grown a lot as a racer. Along with the speed, which was always there, I now have the maturity and I know what I need to do.”
“No Dakar is easy, but I expect the 2017 race to be proper tough. Along with tricky navigation we’ll have a week’s racing in high altitudes above 3,500 m. To me the trickiest part of the 2017 Dakar will be our pass through the mountain stages of Bolivia. My goal is to make sure I avoid any mistakes and risks. Getting through the first week in a good position would be crucial for the remainder of the rally. It will be hard, but I believe I’ve got what it takes to battle for the top.”
“It’s my third year with KTM and I really want to do well for myself and for all the team. In 2015 I won the opening stage but crashed out three days later. And last year I wasn’t even able to take the start due to my injury few weeks prior to the event. I had a solid season racing the Cross-Country Rallies World Championship and was feeling great. I won the 2015 Morocco Rally and three days later I broke my femur at the Merzouga Rally. I made a superhuman effort to be fit for Dakar, but unfortunately the bone wasn’t just strong enough.”
“Missing last year’s Dakar was probably the hardest blow in my career but I had to accept it. The most difficult part with injuries is that you need to spend weeks and maybe months to get back to where you were. It was a harsh blow but I managed to stay strong. I got back on my bike in the middle of February  and since then I worked really hard to be 100% fit for the Dakar.”
As was the case with most top-level rally racers, Sunderland took advantage of the 2016 FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship series to better prepare himself for the Dakar. Kicking off the series with an impressive runner-up result at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge in April, he enjoyed a stellar season that saw him battle for the championship until the very last day of racing at the OiLibya Morocco Rally in October.
“The Cross-Country Rallies World Championship is the best way to test yourself against competition during the year. From staying away from the bike for four months to coming back and fighting for the championship is the best proof that I’ve done a really good job in 2016. I started the season with second in Abu Dhabi, won in Qatar and then got second in Morocco and runner-up in the championship. It’s been a great season and my results give me confidence for the Dakar.”
“What lots of people don’t understand is that rally racing is a year-long commitment. It’s the same as if we were racing Motocross or MotoGP. We are professionals and we need to keep pushing harder and harder if we want to win stages. The level of competition in rallying has gone up so much during the last few years and we need to do our best to remain on top of the game.”
Putting all the hard work and sacrifices behind, the moment of truth for Sam Sunderland arrived at the beginning of January. During the 39th Dakar that kicked off in Paraguay and concludes in Argentina after a challenging week-long pass through Bolivia, Sam will try to prove he’s a much more improved racer.
“Things are different now and I believe I´m in the best position now to go get what’s there for me. I know I have to remain focused on my racing and try to eliminate risks and mistakes. But the biggest difference for me is that I’ve learned to recognize when it’s not my time to push. When I got myself into a tricky situation in the past, I’d always fight to get out of it. Now I know I need to accept things as they come and remain calm. It’s during these moments of uncertainty that you would normally make mistakes.”
“After all that I’ve been through I learned that rally racing is not about the now, it’s always about the next days. When everything is good I will fight for every second and every mile. But when things don’t work out so well, then I need to be smart and accept things as they come. The Dakar is a race of attrition, where small errors are acceptable as long as they don’t become huge ones. My goal for this Dakar is to take one stage at a time. I know I have to be fast but I also know I need to eliminate mistakes and make sure that by the end of the day I reach the finish of each stage. If nothing crazy happens, I should be in a good position in Buenos Aires.”