2015 Merzouga Rally

30 October 2015

Words: Maria Guidotti | Photos: Rally Zone: Bauer/Barni, Paolo Rugiero and Sanderson Pereira

"Navigation at the Merzouga is harder than in the Dakar Rally," stated the 33-year-old Slovak Stefan Svitko (5th at the Dakar 2015) from the third spot of the podium. "Here, you do in one day as many kilometres in the dunes as in the whole Dakar Rally," adds multiple champion Laia Sanz, from the KTM factory team.

Grand Prix of the dunes.
Abel Montagne

Abel Montagne

Sam Sunderland

GP of the dunes

GP of the dunes

The French crew Henrichy-Bersey (AT4R).

Loved by the pros as well amateur riders, what is the secret of this African rally that is promoted by the 35-year-old Italian Edo Mossi? Let’s discover it together!

Have you ever dreamed of racing with Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo or Marc Marquez? In road racing it is impossible for amateurs to share the track with their favorite riders. Off-road, on the contrary, is a very different story.

On 11 October 2015, 110 riders lined up at the start of the Merzouga Rally, held in the south-east of Morocco, Africa. Among the riders were the 2015 Cross Country Rally World Champion and three-time Motocross World Champion Matthias Walkner, five-time Enduro World Champion Antoine Meo, the multiple Trial and Enduro Champion Laia Sanz, former MotoGP rider and 2011 Superbike World Champion Carlos Checa and top Dakar riders, such as Sam Sunderland, Stefan Svitko, Alessandro Botturi or Gerard Farres, just to mention a few names.

These riders, along with Red Bull KTM and Yamaha Factory riders, who had entered the Merzouga Rally as part of their training programme for the upcoming 2016 Dakar Rally, shared a bivouac and the race with amateurs, who came from over 25 countries worldwide.

In this race, Expert and Pro riders challenge themselves on the same route (with the Expert covering 75% of the route). So it could just happen that you find yourself sitting next to one of the KTM or Yamaha Factory riders or the former MotoGP rider Carlos Checa.

“The atmosphere of the bivouac is amazing,” commented Carlos Checa on the evening of the Marathon stage, “I love motor sport and I have always been fascinated by Rally Raids. I am not stressed by the results, I just want to enjoy the desert and challenge myself with this new discipline and navigation with a road book.

“What I like about a rally is the feeling of freedom and adventure and the variety of the route. In Rally Raids, you race through stunning landscapes and there is not a corner similar to another. Everything is new for me and I’m still learning. I realised that you really start enjoying only when you learn to navigate, when you succeed to anticipate the next note on the road book. This is so different from what we are used to in road racing, where we look for the limit in every single metre of the track, in every corner and you know the circuit by heart.”

For Carlos Checa, the Merzouga Rally was the best way to celebrate his 43th birthday on 15 October. “For many years I have raced in road racing at the maximum level, but in rally everything is different,” continued the Spaniard. “Here you need to prepare the road book very well and be ready to do some mechanical works when needed during a special stage. In MotoGP, on the contrary, you have the whole team taking care of you. On a racetrack, you know every single metre, here every corner is different from the next one and you discover the route kilometre by kilometre. The road book gives you the indications, but this means that when you are looking at the road book, you are not looking at the track. Navigation is the key, but it can also be a distraction, so it’s important to find the correct balance and understand how and when you can push. Plus it’s a hard preparation. It starts with the road book, the logistics and mechanical work.

“I discovered this remote area of Morocco and met new friends. For me, this is a new way of doing tourism. I’m fascinated by this new world. I really liked it and I would like to do some more rallies in the near future.”

Nathan Rafferty, winner of the Expert category, shared Checa’s opinion. “Racing in this part of Africa is simply fantastic. I’ve met new friends and discovered the stunning Merzouga Desert. For me, it was also a way to share my passion for bikes with friends in a friendly racing atmosphere.”

The Merzouga Rally was chosen as the final Dakar Rally preparation for many top riders, including the talented young Polish Orlen Team rider Jacub Piatek, 33-year-old Slovak Stefan Svitko (5th at the Dakar 2015) on board a KTM 450 Rally, Olivier Pain (10th at the Dakar 2015 and on the podium the previous year), Spanish Txomin Arana (16th at the 2015 Dakar) and Czech rider Ondrej Klimciv (20th at the 2015 Dakar), to name just a few.

While on the factory team side, the Merzouga Rally proved to be the perfect battle ground for a confrontation between KTM and Yamaha.

Sanz during the Prologue.



The sixth edition of the Merzouga Rally officially started with the Prologue; a 1 km long straight line track on the small dunes behind the Xaluca hotel in Erfoud, the head quarter of the Rally. Antonie Meo (KTM) proved to be the fastest rider in the Prologue.

Video of the Prologue

Stage 1 - Liaison 27 km / SS 157 km / Liaison 40 km / Total km 229

Antonie Meo (KTM was the first to open the track of the 229 km long Stage 1, which featured the crossing of two ergs (mountains of sand) of the Merzouga Desert: the Ergs Chebbi and Snaguy. But it was Red Bull KTM factory rider Sam Sunderland who claimed the first stage of the Merzouga Rally in front of Stefan Svitko (KTM) in second place, Gerard Farres (KTM) third, Alessandro Botturi (Yamaha) fourth and Antoine Meo in fifth.

Matthias Walkner was the first rider to take the start of the 157 km long Special Stage. He rode with Antoine Meo and Laia Sanz for most part of the stage, before they made some navigation mistakes, which allowed San Sunderland and Stefan Svitko to catch up. Antonie Meo finally finished fifth.

Bruno Martins was the fastest of the Expert category, followed by Emanuele Piva and Paolo Caprioni. In the SSV category, the Spanish crew of Yeste-Cuadra (Enjoy Quads) took the stage win with 5’ of advantage on the duo Abel-Manez (Los Amigos), with Ibarz-Torne (Enjoy Quads) completing the podium.

Video of Stage 1

Stage 2 - Liaison 22 km / SS 163 km / Liaison 40 km / Total 225 km

A steep 500 m uphill climb to reach the Boudnib tableland, at the start of the 225 km long Stage 2, was a demanding start for both the pros and amateur riders. Sam Sunderland opened the way on rocky terrains, but it was Matthias Walkner who claimed the top podium spot in Stage 2, with Sam Sunderland (KTM) in second, Antonie Meo (KTM) in third, Alessandro Botturi (Yamaha) in fourth and Stefan Svitko (KTM) completing the top five.

Commenting on the stage, Matthias Walkner said, “The uphill climb was really trick. From zero to 100, right on the top of the hill! I was tired afterwards and decided not to push too much and focus on navigation. This strategy paid well. I made 3 navigation mistakes, but in the end it was ok. In general it was a difficult stage for navigation and the rocky paths”.

In the SSV category, the win went to the French crew Henrichy-Bersey (AT4R), with Abel-Manez in second and the Italian experienced Dakar rider Tonetti in third.

Video stage 2

Mario Conforti at the start.

Van Beveren

At the bivouac - Fuoco Copia.

Grand prix of the dunes - Copia.

Van Beveren tackling the GP dunes - Copia.

Botturi, Farres and Svitko taking a selfie.

On the podium: Botturi, Farres and Svitko.

Marcos Echaniz

Stage 3 (387 km) - Liaison 25 km / SS 153 km / Liaison 209 km / Total 387 km

Day three saw Sam Sunderland and Matthias Walkner, two of the main contenders, leave the competition. The British KTM rider was opening the track when he crashed in a river bed, breaking his right femur and left collar bone. Following Sam Sunderland’s incident, teammate Matthias Walkner also decided to withdraw from the race. Said Walkner, “Yesterday [stage 2] I was sick and today [stage 3] I took the start that I was not feeling 100%. The situation got worst after the finish of the special stage. I was not focused and I prefer not to take additional risks, so I head to the paddock instead of the bivouac. It’s a pity, I really enjoyed the rally.”

The first part of the Marathon stage, a 200 km liaison, which brought the riders to a remote bivouac in the middle of the desert and where no assistance team was allowed. After a hard-fought battle, Stage 2 victory went to Meo (KTM), with van Beveren in second, Svitko third, Farres fourth and Botturi in fifth. At this point, Meo led the overall standing.

Nathan Rafferty was the fastest rider of the Expert class, followed by Bruno Martins and Christophe Braun. In the quad, another very good performance for the duo Marcos Echaniz and Fernandez Covadonga. In the SSV category, Medero-Ventaja were the fastest crew in front of Henrichy-Bersey and third-placed Ibarz-Torne (Enjoy Quads).

Video stage 3

Stage 4 - Liaison 15 km / SS4 216 km / Liaison 35 km / Total 266 km

With 3 to 0 win stages for KTM, it was Alessandro Botturi who changed the fate of the Yamaha team on the 266 km long Stage 4. The Italian dominated on the sandy fast tracks and off-piste of the Dayat Maider, a desert area that separates the regions of Merzouga and Zagora. The Yamaha rider rode superbly to finish ahead of Gerard Farres in second and Laia Sanz in third, with Armand Monleon (KTM) in fourth and Ondrej Klimciv in fifth.

Meo had to withdraw from the rally due to a mechanical problem, which resulted in Stefan Svitko going to the top of the leaderboard for the overall classification, with Botturi (Yamaha) now in second and just 2 minutes behind, followed by Spanish Gerard Farres (KTM). It was also not a good day for Carlos Checa, who crashed hard and had to be taken by helicopter to Errachidia for observation. Fortunately he was dismissed after a couple of hours.

David Hernandez was the fastest in the Expert category in front of Valter Parisi and Maurizio Littame’. Among the quads Diego Ortega Gil shone. In the SSV category second win stage for Medero-Ventaja in front of Henrichy-Bersey and Ibarz-Torne.

Commented Alessandro Botturi (Yamaha), “It was a perfect stage. I really enjoyed the sandy parts but also the fats tracks on the plateau. The feeling with the bike was really good and I’m really satisfied. Tomorrow we will need to push to recover on Svitko. The Le Mans start will be fun and it will look like a motocross race. I’m ready for it.”

Video of Stage 4

Stage 5 - Liaison 43 km / SS5 75 km / Liaison 44 km / Total 162 km

With the battle for supremacy in KTM’s favour, the Grand Prix of the Dunes on the fifth and final day was crucial to decide the winner of the Merzouga Rally 2015.

A spectacular ‘motocross style’ start brought the riders straight into the big dunes of the Erg Chebi for two laps of a 37,5 km demanding ring. French Yamaha rider Adrien van Beveren claimed his first stage win for the Pro category.

The overall winner of the 2015 Merzouga Rally went to Alessandro Botturi (Yamaha), with Gerard Farres in second, Stefan Svitko third, Olivier Pain fourth and Laia Sanz fifth.

American Nathan Rafferty, who was leading the overall of the Expert category, confirmed his position by winning the Expert, while Diego Ortega Gil won the Quad Pro and Vincent Brochet the Quad Expert. The winner of the SSV went to the French crew Henrichy-Bersey (AT4R), with Abel-Manez (Los Amigos) in second and the Spanish of Enjoy Quads Ibarz-Torne in third.

Said an elated Botturi, “We raced the Merzouga Rally to test the new WR 450F in preparation of the Dakar Rally. The race was tough with lots of navigation and sand parts, but there were also some extreme rocky tracks. I tried to be as consistent as I could and finally it paid off! The bike was reliable and strong, even if there still needs some final details to be completely ready for our big appointment with the Dakar 2016. I really want to thank Yamaha and the whole team who did great efforts to grab this victory, the very first African rally one for me!"

There was great satisfaction from the Yamaha top management too. "Coming back from Morocco with this result is very encouraging,” said Alexandre Kowalski, Yamaha Yamalube Team Director. “We proved that the riders are consistent and the bike is in a good shape and is developing in the right direction. We still need to work on some little things, but we got some good information from the track and now we have some more ideas how to set up the bike for the next Dakar rally."

Added Nathan Rafferty: “This is my second Merzouga Rally and it’s a great satisfaction to win this race. Racing in this part of Africa is simply fantastic. A rally raid is also an extraordinary occasion to visit another country and to combine the passion, bikes and racing.”

In the SSV category the French crew Henrichy-Bersey (AT4R) repeated their success of the 2014 edition. They were very good at reading the road book and despite the demanding 1,289 km route they were first to the finish line after completing two laps of the Grand Prix of the Dunes in the Erg Chebi, with dunes reaching 150 meters high. “We really enjoyed the Merzouga Rally,” said Frederic Henrichy. “It’s a technical race on a varied terrain. We took the start as the leader of the overall classification and we were able to manage the advantage on Los Amigos and Enjoy Quads. Our target was to repeat the success of last year and I can say “mission accomplished!”

For the French crew of Eric Abel and Christian Manez (Los Amigos), who came in second, and the Spanish Enjoy Quads team of Roberto Ibarz and José Maria Torne, familiar faces at MR, the challenge is postponed to next year, where they will return stronger than ever to conquer the first step of the podium.

Video of Stage 5

More information
For more information, results and images, visit www.merzougarally.com