Good Samaritan Ross Branch takes Dakar bike stage

Hero Motosports Team Rally’s Botswanan biker Ross Branch competes in Stage 1 of the 2024 Dakar Rally, between al-Ula and al-Henakiyah, western Saudi Arabia on January 6, 2024. AFP

Ross Branch of Botswana was handsomely rewarded for stopping to help a stricken rider by emerging as the winner of the opening stage of the Dakar Rally on Saturday.

Branch was leading when he jumped off his bike to help rival Tosha Schareina after the Spaniard’s race-ending crash.

The 37-year-old, in his sixth Dakar, eventually remounted to cross the line only 16th.

But the Hero factory rider got the 25 minutes he had spent helping Schareina deducted from his time, catapulting him into the early race lead by almost a dozen minutes from Ricky Brabec.

“You know, racing isn’t everything, so when you see one of the competitors lying on the floor, it’s the best thing to stop and wait with them and make sure that they’re OK,” said Branch.

He described Schareina as “a really good guy”, adding “you never like to see your friends like that”.

“So it’s no problem for me. We had to stop and help, and that’s what we’re there for. If it was me that was lying on the ground, I’m sure he would stop and help me.”

While Branch prepares for Sunday’s second stage, Schareina must wait another year before resuming his connection with motorsport’s toughest test.

The works Honda rider, who had won Friday’s prologue, had to be airlifted to an ambulance at the start line.

He recounted afterwards: “I was riding so slow… I tried to pass Toby (Price) and I think I hit something with the rear wheel. I was going slow, but I broke my wrist.”

The car stage was won by Belgian Guillaume de Mevius (Overdrive) with Carlos Sainz second in his Audi hybrid.

“The key was to be patient. We also had the advantage of having good tracks,” said de Mevius.

The day proved tough going for defending champion Nasser Al-Attiyah with the Qatari trailing in 22nd, 25 minutes adrift, after two punctures.

“We went 350km without a spare wheel,” said Al-Attiyah. “The Dakar is very long, it was important to limit the damage.”

Prodrive teammate and former world rally champion Sebastien Loeb is 20th overall after also suffering a puncture.

“In terms of driving it was horrible, stones all the time… We lost between 12 and 15 minutes,” said Loeb.

Fellow Frenchman Stephane Peterhansel, a 14-time Dakar champion on two and four wheels, also struggled on the rocky surface in his Audi.

Two punctures relegated him to 24th place, moe than 32 minutes off the lead.

“There is zero pleasure on the stones,” he said.

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