Speedcafe.com-backed Australian rider Andrew Houlihan will ride off second in the opening round of the FIM Baja World Cup in Saudi Arabia tomorrow after a successful prologue this morning.
A long recovery from injuries and multiple surgeries kept the two-time Dakar competitor off bikes for much of 2022, but he has bounced back in style and on a ‘borrowed' bike.
Rather than enter the 2023 Dakar Rally with minimal preparation, Albury-based Houlihan decided on a different challenge for 2023.
The FIM Bajas World Cup runs under a similar format and regulations to the Dakar Rally, only that each event is shorter – typically two to three days.
This year's eight-round series begins in Ha'il, Saudi Arabia this weekend and Houlihan is in a field of 31 riders from 12 nations including two-time event winner Mohammed Al-Balooshi, FIM Junior hopeful Alex McInnes from Britain, fellow Australian Martin Chalmers and Kiwi Philip Wilson.
“I'm one of only a handful of the new guys at the Baja World Cup,” says Houlihan, 53.
“It's also great to know that I am the oldest competitor here in bikes, which I was reminded of quite a few times.”
Aurora Rally Equipment in Athens has been building Houlihan a new KTM450 Baja bike specifically for the World Cup, but delays have forced him to swap to a Husqvarna 450 RFR for this event.
“Mishal from the Saudi Dirt Bike Centre has my Husqvarna set up perfectly,” Houlihan said after today's Prologue.
The short Prologue determined the starting order for tomorrow's opening stage, with the top 10 riders then able to choose their starting position. Houlihan finished the Prologue sixth overall and first in the Vets class and will now be the second bike to start Stage 1.
“Never been in this position before,” said Houlihan.
“My strategy (in the Prologue) was simply have fun, stay safe and validate every way point. I took off very cautiously and rode well although I did make a couple of very minor mistakes.
“When I come across the finish I was happy to have the Prologue over and I didn't take any notice of my time or result.”
Stage 1 includes a 229km special stage and Saturday's special is 184km long, creating a total of 431km competitive kilometres.
“Being the second bike out tomorrow will be a huge challenge for me. Starting up the front of the field is something I have never done at this level.”
Martin will start the opening stage from 11th.
2023 – FIM BAJA WORLD CUP
Round 1: Saudi Arabia – February 2-4
Round 2: Qatar – March 16-18
Round 3: Badajoz, Spain – April 14-16
Round 4: Aragon, Spain – July 21-23
Round 5: Hungary – August 10-12
Round 6: Portugal – Sept/Oct dates TBC
Round 7: Jordan – November 2-4
Round 8: Dubai – December TBC