After experiencing his most dominant season yet in enduro last year, the career of gritty Australian Daniel Sanders unexpectedly turned a new page in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic by joining KTM Factory Racing as part of the junior rally program.
Sanders won the opening few rounds of the Australian Off-Road Championship (AORC) in E3 before its cancellation, which ultimately led to the chance opportunity to try his hand at rally alongside countryman Toby Price, Matthias Walkner and Sam Sunderland - all winners of the vastly difficult Dakar Rally with KTM.
"With the year that's happened, obviously I was looking at the future and what I could do," Sanders explained. "This opportunity popped up through KTM, so I was able to jump across to the rally scene, to do one year of learning and see if I wanted to do it. I've got the option to continue on with it now also.
"I think it was good for this opportunity to get in early and learn because it's going to take a couple of years - it's just going to be a slow process. I've got time, that's the thing, and that's the position I'm in, is to develop myself to be at the top in the rally in the future."
Recognised as one of the most versatile riders on the planet, a multiple AORC champion, victorious outright in the 2019 International Six Days Enduro (ISDE) and also a Hattah Desert Race winner. He also spent the 2017 season in Europe with KTM Factory Racing contesting the EnduroGP World Championship.
As a result of his experience, adapting to the KTM 450 RALLY has been a smooth transition so far, also largely benefiting from the immense guidance that KTM Factory Racing offers as part of its official junior program. With 18-consecutive Dakar wins achieved by KTM up until 2020, the Jordi Viladoms-managed squad is a perfect place for Sanders to learn his craft at 26 years of age.
"The bike's been relatively easy to adapt to, just little things are different," he said. "Like, the footpegs are a little bit further back in position and you've got higher handlebars positioning compared to enduro. Because you're standing up a lot, they try to get you in a really comfortable seating position."
While going fast has never been in question for Sanders, the added technicalities of rallying where navigation is paramount will pose an entirely different set of challenges for him to adapt to. It will be a case of being patient when Dakar 2021 gets underway on 2 January and spans 12 stages of the competition.
"Everyone can ride fast at the moment, the depth of the competition's so strong, but it's just that one mistake where you can lose so much time if you read the road book wrong or if you have to look down five times to read one note. It's a lot more of a mental game.
"I could be up the pointy end, but it's going to be hard to do it in the first year - the competition's so strong now and there are 10 guys that can win it. I'm just going to be taking it day-by-day because there's no point in me pushing at all, especially in the first week. I need as much experience as possible and I need to take everything in that I can to learn everything."
Already, however, Sanders has shown glimpses of brilliance on debut in the Andalucia Rally. It was a victory on the final stage ahead of Price that turned heads, which placed him 11th overall just weeks after arriving in Spain to apply himself to the entirely new discipline. Still, he's playing down that performance, even if it was a rewarding moment.
"For my first rally, there weren't desert dunes or off-track aspects where you're following cap headings and stuff, so it wasn't really difficult," he admitted. "Especially the last day, the one I won, we had already been over that route before.
"It was a matter of just remembering it and making sure you hit all the waypoints. It was really dusty as well, so some luck came into it! I had three weeks under my belt and went in and won a stage, which was cool though. It's good for exposure, so I was happy with finishing my first rally like that."
Currently based in Dubai as part of an exclusive KTM Factory Racing boot camp alongside his three well-credentialed teammates, Sanders has been focused upon what's to come in a few weeks at the Dakar event in Saudi Arabia. Prior to arriving in the Middle East, he spent time in Spain and Austria to begin preparations.
"As soon as we got there, we did testing with the team and then did the Andalucia race, then went to Austria and did training up there with Red Bull, so that was impressive," continued Sanders. "After that, we did one and a half weeks in Spain before the COVID lockdown hit, so we came to Dubai and we've just been based here training with the team.
"Jordi's made heaps of road books, so we've just been practising them and doing the last final checks, ready for Dakar. It's pretty much just been a big boot camp and everyone's worked well, improved a lot with our road books. Our road books are trick, similar to Dakar, so we've got the best preparation out of all the teams - these guys definitely do it properly.
It's difficult to predict how Sanders will fare throughout 12 stages, which will traverse a total of 7646 kilometres and is renowned as the toughest rally in the world. One thing that is certain, you can count on Sanders to soak up the experience and give 100 percent for the entire duration.