CW Interview: Laia Sanz

Spanish Honda superstar finishes fifth in stage 8 and moves inside top 10 overall.

Laia Sanz at the 2015 Dakar Rally shakedown

With Laia Sanz, the Dakar Rally is colored in pink. Born in Catalunya, the region that gave birth to top Spanish riders like Marc Coma, Marc Marquez, and Dani Pedrosa, Sanz thought it was normal to jump on her first bike when she was four years old. At age six, she competed in a round of the Catalan trials championship organized for kids in her hometown.

“My parents have always supported me throughout my career, especially when I was racing trials,” Sanz said. “Now with the Dakar they are not so happy.” I asked if Sanz had considered roadracing. “I like to follow MotoGP, but not for competing,” she replied. “I prefer off-road because the conditions of the terrain are always different.”

Five years ago, after winning several women’s world trials championships, Sanz started a new challenge: the Dakar Rally. “When I understood that I had reached my limit with trials,” she said, “I decided to switch to enduro and rally. I needed extra motivation, and I feel that I can improve a lot in the rallies. My target is to compete with the men; I am not interested in winning more women’s world championships.

“The fact the every year we want to come back shows how special the Dakar Rally is. It would be a dream come true to return to racing in Africa, because of the dunes and because over there it was a real adventure. South America is beautiful, but there are only 185 miles of dunes out of 2,800 miles of timed section. In 2007, I was invited by Repsol to attend the last stages of the Dakar. At least I was able assist in the epic arrival at the Pink Lake as a spectator.”

Sanz has trained a lot to tackle her fifth Dakar, her first as part of the factory Honda team. "In order to be ready for Dakar 2015," she said, "I raced in the OiLibya and the Merzouga Rally in Morocco. I enjoyed surfing the dunes, and it was a very good training to gain confidence with the navigation."

In October at the Merzouga Rally, Sanz became the first woman to claim victory in a timed stage in an international rally. With a seventh-place stage finish and a superb 16th overall in last year’s Dakar, Sanz gained the respect of the entire field, even if she didn’t need it, as her talent and determination are acknowledged worldwide.

Laia Sanz racing at the 2014 Merzouga Rally

Last year, for example, Sanz had an engine failure during a special stage. Repairing the damage was impossible, so she had to push the bike more than a mile in the hot sun. Finally, she was towed by a teammate through the rest of the timed section, plus the liaison. “It took us 17 hours,” she said. “That day I started at 4:30 a.m., and we arrived at the next bivouac at 5:00 a.m. the day after, just in time to start the following stage.”

Where does this determination come from? “Trials is mentally very tough,” Sanz said. “It taught me how to manage the race. I define myself as, ‘I’m not so good, but I work 100 percent.’ I’m good at getting the most out of my ability.”

The 5-foot-9, 29-year-old Spaniard has a special fan at the Dakar: Johnny Campbell. The king of Baja admires Sanz because, he says, “She is a pure champion.”

“During the 2013 Dakar, we started talking a lot,” Sanz said. “He was surprised by my results, and his wife was making fun of him because sometimes I finished ahead of him.

Laia Sanz racing at the 2015 Dakar Rally Stage 1

“In 2013, Johnny offered me one of his bikes to compete in the X Games in Los Angeles. It was a great experience, and I won three gold medals and one silver. I loved it. I was supposed to stay one week at Johnny’s place, but I ended up staying for a month. I had the opportunity to train with Johnny and test with him in the California desert. I also went on a Baja ride he organized in Mexico for charity. In the future, I would like to race in the US, especially in EnduroCross or try motocross and learn how to jump.”

Sanz’s second passion is car racing. When I asked her who she would like to be for one day, she answered without hesitation: “Sebastien Loeb.” I was not surprised, then, when she told me that the most expensive gift she has given herself was a Mitsubishi Evo 6.

Sanz’s racing references were French rally driver Michèle Mouton and fellow professionals Jutta Kleinschmidt and Andrea Meyer. “It’s not easy for a woman to get a seat in a factory squad and score good results,” Sanz said. “I don’t like when they use women in racing just for advertising.”

Asked if it was difficult to break into motorsport as woman, Sanz had a one-word reply. “Yes,” she said.

Laia Sanz 2015 Dakar Rally bivouac.

Laia Sanz 2015 Dakar Rally shakedown.

Laia Sanz 2015 Dakar Rally Stage 1.

Stage 3 map.

Stage 3 details.

2014 Dakar Rally Laia Sanz action.

2014 Dakar Rally Laia Sanz.

Laia Sanz 2014 Merzouga Rally.

Laia Sanz 2013 X Games action.

Laia Sanz 2013 X Games podium.