When you think of off-road racing, chances are the first images that spring to mind are motocross bikes sailing through the air or rally cars rounding corners in a cloud of dust. For Polish born Rafal Sonik, he thinks of just one thing - Quad bikes...
That would be because Rafal is one of the world’s most successful quad racers, having secured the FIM Rally World Cup on three separate occasions. A successful name at the iconic Dakar rally, Sonik also became the first Pole rider to ever take a podium, when he finished in third place in 2009. Following that up with a further third place finish in 2013, 2014 saw him take a step higher when he completed the gruelling 8,500km race as the runner up- with his sights firmly on securing victory next January.
Sonik's weapon of choice is the formidable Yamaha Raptor 700, an incredible 700cc, 52bhp machine that features Öhlins TTX30 shocks at the front (built straight from a kit system) while a single Öhlins S46P R1C1 shock sits at the back (there was no room for a twin tube).
"I consider myself an incredibly lucky guy as my job is to do what I love." said Rafal, “Although it's certainly taken a lot of extremely hard work to get to the position we are at now. I have a team of highly experienced and trustworthy people around me, and it's thanks to all their hard work that I can commit to my passion. Sport was always in my life, first it was my great love - skiing, then tennis, windsurfing, aviation...I loved it all but then I got hooked by cross-country rallies and from there they took my heart entirely. The adrenalin, the pace, the speed and most of all the stunning places from all around the world I get to see that that only small group of people have ever been too"
His team is a vital part of his success, with his Yamaha ATV suspension being prepped and looked after by the guys at Mick Gardner Racing. Owner Russ Walton explains how they got into the world of off-road quads, "In 2006 we got into quads in a big way, the UK market was booming and we started having lots of manufacturer work with both Yamaha and Honda. Rafal came over and Richard Cole, who is a multi-British Champion, was giving him tuition but Rafal will be the first to admit that at that stage he was at a fairly low level. We ended up doing a project with him on a Raptor 700, and he stuck at the quads, training regularly in the dunes and visiting Dubai to practice regularly. We didn't see each other for a few years but when I went back a couple of years ago it was almost unbelievable how much better he was, he had totally transformed as a rider.”
“We call him the ‘King of Krakow’ he’s not struggling for money and his aim in life is to win the Dakar!"
It is no easy feat to win the Dakar, but after finishing up second place in January this year, Rafal has gone on to have one of his most successful years to date. Winning the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, the Sardegna Rally and the Pharaohs Rally - as well as his third FIM World Cup. "To win my third FIM World Cup this year was amazing and I am more than happy! This one tasted totally different to the previous two, because now I feel that I can say I am fully comprehensive rider. We've proven we can win the rally in the dunes, rocky areas, mountains of Sardegna or Brazil and to be honest, only misfortune has stopped me this year.
Although I feel strong and the best I've ever been, it's certainly not been an easy ride and I have huge respect to my rivals and to the tough terrain that we are riding. The desert doesn't forgive as they say!"
"I've worked with my mechanic for over seven years now and because of that he knows exactly what I need, even though on each rally we are always changing something in a quad! We constantly try to improve it, and the biggest factor comes from working on the suspension. Jarek Zajac is an absolute master of adjusting suspension according to the terrain but of course he needs to have appropriate technology to work with and we've found that by using Öhlins- I can be sure that my Yamaha will work perfectly on each part of the special stage."
The set up needed to compete at the very front of the Dakar is like no other Motorsport in the world. Russ explains further, "We spend a lot of our time setting up the Quad for desert racing. They take spare shocks with them, fully serviced because in these events and level obviously you can’t afford DNF’s – luckily we have a very good reliability record!
The Yamaha that Rafal uses is a totally different set-up to any other quad – the bike is very heavy, and they run dual fuel cells as well as sat-nav and all the kit. That's before they then have to ride 100’s of km a day so they also need to carry spare wheels, lights, a tool kit - by the end, the bike weighs almost double its original weight!
You’d expect to go double on the spring rate with all that weight, but that leads to the bike being very stiff and harsh, and would make arm pump a real problem. So we try and use a stiffer spring, set-up relatively soft but with a high-preload and match the valving - we go quite stiff on the clicker but soft valving in the shocks themselves, which is the opposite to what people might expect. We also have to look carefully at pitch control and roll control, you need to absorb bumps and react quickly but at the same time still be responsive in the sharper turns."
The Mick Gardner team certainly know what they are doing, also running Supermoto winner Craig Killner as well as collaborating with some of the most talented riders in the ATV segment, including Pat Brown and Bill Ballance.
As one of Poland's most successful Motorsport stars, Rafal concluded "Motorsport in Poland is growing massively in the last decade. We have Robert Kubica (first F1, now WRC), Taddy Blazusiak the best ever World Enduro/ Extreme Enduro rider and numerous drivers in cross-country. This year we actually had three Polish cars in the first 10 of the Dakar classification! We are also getting the interest of media in Poland and people are starting to talk about the class of Polish drivers and pilots. This year we had one of the rounds of WRC during the Rally of Poland and Baja Poland which was the 8th round of FIA cross-country World Cup - the future is certainly bright and you better watch for us! The Poles are coming!"