A double World Cup
2016 FIM World Cup season was to be one of the most difficult ones in the recent years. The gauntlet was thrown down to Rafał Sonik by Ignacio Casale – the 2014 Dakar Rally. winner and a long-time rival. The Chilean competitor wanted to take the crown away from the Polish rider, but ultimately, it was “SuperSonik” who stood on the highest step of the podium again. And with a double trophy to boot.
The duel of the two masters began in the United Arab Emirates. Since the very first stage of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge Casale attacked quickly… and just as quickly he got a penalty for prohibited assistance. He was not able to catch up for the lost time, because Rafał Sonik, who knows the Empty Quarter desert like the back of his hand, did not let the win get away from him.
The second stage of their duel, at the rocky and stone emptiness of Qatar, Casale had the upper hand, but the rivalry between the two grand quad riders ended as soon as during the next round on Sardegna. At the Italian island the two competitors were reconciled by Sebastien Souday, but it was Sonik who fared better, because his main rival failed to complete the rally.
The fourth round, the Atacama Rally, was the deciding round. Casale had the chance to take back the World Cup from Rafał Sonik, to show his strength and to return to the game, driving on his home turf. Unfortunately, this did not come to be, as Casale failed to appear at the start line. Rafał Sonik won the rally, and he secured his World Cup a month later, after coming up second at OiLibya Rally.
The award ceremony in Morocco was a surprise to Rafał Sonik, because he received two master titles. Next to his fifth World Cup in the quads category, he also won the Veterans World Cup, which considers the total classification of quad riders and bikers.
A few days before the first round of the World Cup began, Rafał Sonik rubbed his hands. Competing with such a rival like Ignacio Casale promised an emotional experience. After a short prologue, the Chilean attacked, and Rafał… remained a few minutes behind. His Honda started to gulp too much fuel, so he had to sacrifice some precious time to repair the damage and to adjust the settings.
The tables turned on the next day. It turned out that the South American rider also experienced a failure and his oil ran out. His service team delivered oil to the special stage and… broke the rules. As a result, a penalty of a few hours was imposed on him. As he drove along the access road, his engine exploded and he had to waive goodbye to the second stage.
Rafał Sonik also experienced problems. ‘It turned out that my engine is in a bad way. My mechanics – Jarek Zając and Ryszard Sokołowski worked all night long and replaced the turret, the cylinder, and the piston. They also did some work on the shock absorbers. This only proves that nobody wins the race at the beginning and that anything can happen,’ commented Sonik.
The careful and reasonable leader of the rally did not push hard over the following three days. He maintained his advantage over the other competitors and had a win of sorts, as he became the season’s leader after that race. ‘There are many competitions, failures, injures behind me. I tried to win the rally three times – and I managed to do it twice. I can say that my satisfaction is the same as in 2014, when I stood on the highest step of the podium for the first time,’ he concluded.
Only two weeks after the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge ended, the rivalry moved to Qatar. Here, the competitors had to face the usual complicated navigation and hard, rocky – and very treacherous desert. The speed and the hard fight second after second took its toll. Almost every day the hospital in Doha accepted transports with bikers and drivers injured in accidents. Jakub Piątek was unfortunately one of them; he broke his thigh, and that prevented him from participating in the next two rounds.
Julian Villarubia, a biker from the Rafał Sonik’s team, also had an accident at a seemingly gentle and beautiful dunes in the South of the country. The Spanish competitor fell down the top of the dune, and he was taken to hospital, with minor injuries and some bruises. Interestingly, that spot was not marked as dangerous in the roadbook. ‘Because of his accident, I stopped believing my roadbook and I looked around each and every hill that I saw in front of me. Only after the gas stop I regained my rhythm and confidence. And I’m even more happy that I managed to win today. However, this victory is quite bitter – Julian broke seven ribs and he will stay in the local hospital for three days, probably,’ commented Sonik, who provided first aid to his colleague.
The unique character of Sealine Cross-Country Rally makes it very difficult to catch up for any losses. Sonik pierced a wheel during one of the stages and had huge problems with broken navigation. The advantage of the Chilean rival was too big and it was Ignacio Casale who celebrated his win at the finish line. However, the Polish rider is still the World Cup leader, and all indicates that the fate of the duel will once again be decided at Sardegna.
For the past three years Rafał Sonik won the Sardegna Race Rally, and he really wished to repeat his success. In particular as the first stage of the rally took place on the day of his 50th birthday. A surprise was therefore waiting for him in the small town of Budoni. ‘My fans and friends hid themselves so that I would see them only at the last moment! When I drove out of the corner, they stepped on the road and they sang “Happy Birthday” to me! Celebration, however, will have to wait for another day, as tomorrow the marathon stage begins,’ said the World Cup leader.
Since the very beginning of Sardegna Rally Race, Sebastien Souday was the one to jump to front. However, fighting the ultra-fast Frenchman was not the priority, as Rafał Sonik first and foremost controlled the time difference between him and Ignacio Casale. The Chilean was on the second position until he had to stop during the second marathon day because of a failure. It destroyed his chances not only of winning that round, but of winning the entire season.
‘Krzysiek Hołowczyc used to say that the runner-up is the first loser. For me, it’s the other way round. For a few of my competitors, the main goal and the highest achievement was to win this rally. For me, winning the Sardegna Race Rally for the fourth time was not a priority. Winning the fifth World Cup is. This is why I’m happy with my second place, which brings me closer to my goal,’ emphasized a clearly very happy 50-year-old.
The Atacama Rally was a part of the FIM schedule for the second time, and once again it was supposed to be a show of Ignacio Casale. In 2015 the Chilean participant won on his home turf, and Sonik, who arrived second at the finish line, celebrated his fourth World Cup title. This year, the competition at Atacama were the last chance of the local rider to try and turn the tables of the fight for the main trophy. Unfortunately, this did not come to be. The great favourite of the local fans threw in the towel and did not join the fight.
All Sonik had to do was to reach the finish line, but he was not one to let go. As early as on the first day he had a blood-curling adventure that could have excluded him from the fight completely. At the access road, a wooden board fell down from a truck before him and hit the front of his quad.
‘When I arrived at the bivouac, my hands were shaking. I’m not surprised that something like this had happened, because I’ve seen unsecured goods on South American trucks many times before, but I was incredibly lucky. I had no time to react, so had the board fell down on a rim, instead of falling flat, the results would’ve been tragic,’ he said.
The following days offered no more so dangerous adventures. Sonik drove towards the finish line, which meant the fifth World Cup title in his career. What is more, at the end of the race with the best time in his category, he won the last missing “scalp” – the only rally in the series that he has not yet managed to win.
‘Here, at Atacama, I took my first steps in racing in 2009. I came here for the first time for the Dakar Rally, and when I went down the dunes to Copiapo, I felt like an explorer, like a man who has just reached the pole. After years of competing, my ambition, my knowledge and my perseverance allow me to win with the local competitors who know the terrain much better than I do. This win is a sort of closure for the eight years of competitions in South America,’ he concluded.
At the Morocco Rally, Rafał Sonik no longer had to fight for every second with his rivals. He had secured his trophy already, so he focused on testing the quad that he wanted to take for the Dakar Rally. In the meantime, each rival that went off into the sands of West Sahara had one and only goal: to beat the master. But the master had an uninvited guest on his quad on the very first day.
‘I have no idea when it happened, but a wheel must’ve bumped up quite a large stone that made its way to my footrest,’ said Sonik. ‘If we had even one long straight road ahead of us, I would’ve thrown it out, but the route of the prologue was very curvy. It was a technical and a very fast special stage. I could’ve stopped, sure, but I would’ve probably lost about 20 seconds,’ he explained.
Prologue, of course, had little impact on the course of the entire race. The steering dumper, the quad’s equivalent of power steering, caused much more trouble than a stone on the footrest. The problems came to be at a proper time, as OiLibya Rally was to serve as a training ground. ‘We learned a lot about our equipment. We tested the new engine, the new clutches, and the new settings. I’m happy that we came here to Morocco, because it will help us avoid failures during the Dakar Rally. That was our plan and we completed it in full. We know where we still have work to do and how to prepare for the upcoming, very important competition,’ he said.
The Polish competitor did not hide his joy with the next trophy. ‘The satisfaction is huge. The sixth seasons of competing in the FIM series and the fifth World Cup. Each one tastes even better, and if my hopes turn out to be true, I’m half-way through, he said, smiling.
During the award ceremony in Erfurd, Rafał Sonik had quite a surprise. It turned out that he won not one trophy this season, but two. Since the 2016 season, FIM introduced an additional category, cross-country Veteran’s World Cup. It is a joint classification of bikers and quad riders. Ultimately, among the racing ‘seniors’, Rafał Sonik came up the best.
‘I was completely surprised when I saw my name on the screen for the third time. I wasn’t even aware that FIM created a separate category. I did win several veteran awards a couple of times, but the awards were granted by the organizers of individual rallies. Now this task went to the federation at the end of the season, and this is why I got the second gold medal,’ commented Sonik about the surprise of the evening.