Monday, March 4, 2024

INTERVIEW: Austin Jones discusses “really hard” T3 championship battle

Austin Jones has two Dakar Rally victories to his name, and is now keen on adding a World Rally-Raid Championship to his growing list of off-road achievements. On Sunday, while at the season-ending Rallye du Maroc, Jones answered some questions from The Checkered Flag via Cross-Country Rally News about the championship battle in the T3 category and his thoughts on what’s in store for the 2024 season.

The 2023 Championship

After finishing third in the 2022 T4 championship, Jones moved up to T3 for Light Prototypes with the new American-only Red Bull Off-Road Junior Team. He began the season on a strong note by winning the legendary Dakar Rally for the second year in a row over team-mate Seth Quintero.

Quintero returned the favour at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge as he edged out Jones. Mitch Guthrie, the third Junior Team driver, scored a win of his own in Mexico at the Sonora Rally while Jones finished third to retake the points lead, albeit by just one point over Quintero. After being third in the standings and trailing Jones by twenty exiting Sonora, Guthrie became the new leader by winning the Desafío Ruta 40. Despite losing the lead yet again, Jones scored another third-place run to trail by just three points.

Entering Morocco, the trio was separated by just nine points. After two stages, Quintero leads the T3 overall with a minute and twenty-two seconds on Guthrie while Jones is further back at 12:29. Jones finished fifth in Stage #1 before improving to second on Sunday.

“I’m going up against Seth and Mitch and we’re all really fast and those guys have had really good years as well, so it’s been really hard,” said Jones. “We’ve been lucky enough to podium every single race this year, so that’s something that I don’t think anyone has done besides for us. Really happy with that. Yeah, it’s been a hard year. Every stage matters, every day matters, every kilometre matters. It’s been hard.”

All three drivers hail from similar backgrounds, predominantly competing in desert championships in the United States and Mexico such as SCORE International and Best In The Desert before entering international rally raids. Jones won the 2018 Baja 1000 for Trophy Truck Spec entries en route to the SCORE overall title in that class and repeated the former in 2019. As a Monster Energy-backed driver, he ran the 2022 Baja 1000 with Rodrigo Ampudia.

In June, Jones and Quintero shared a UTV for SCORE’s Baja 500 and ran as high as third before suffering a mechanical failure that dropped them to fifth in the Pro UTV Forced Induction class. The Junior Team has also raced against each other in events like the Mint 400 and select Best In The Desert events, the latter of which saw Quintero win the Vegas to Reno for ally South Racing‘s maiden triumph in America.

While American desert racing is a relatively different style of off-road competition, generally being a single point-to-point race rather than the multi-day stage racing of rally raids, Jones finds various applications between the two.

“It’s just good practice no matter what to always have kilometres and kilometres, as much driving as possible is only going to be better for you,” he explained. “I think that I’m very good in the stones and in the rocks with tyre management because of racing in places like Baja and some places in the United States. We have refrigerator-sized rocks over there, so I’m very used to that. Not a lot of dunes over there, so definitely that’s kind of harder coming from America and Mexico. I would think that just overall driving ability, kilometres under the belt, it helps.”

Jones credits much of his rally success to co-driver Gustavo Gugelmin, who has called the shots at Dakar since 2018. Gugelmin won the 2018 Dakar Rally for SSVs as the navigator for Reinaldo Varela, followed by the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies (predecessor to the current W2RC) in 2019. Two years later, Jones and Gugelmin claimed the final World Cup in T4.

“In rally raid, your navigator is as important as the driver is, so I think we make a really good team,” Jones commented. “He’s been riding with me for I think four years, almost five years now, so we’ve got a really good system down. We got a good flow. Going on with him calling notes and me reacting to his stuff. He’s a great mechanic. That’s been huge because when something happens or we need to get out of the car and break out the tools, I can always count on Gustavo to be able to diagnose and fix the situation, so Gustavo’s huge.

“He’s been a huge help we make a really good team. We’ve got a pretty sweet Dakar record. We’ve done three Dakars together, two wins and one second place, so I think that it’s working out well together for sure.”

With his growing portfolio of achievements in a Can-Am Maverick, Jones is more than open to moving up in the future but is satisfied with his current position in the meantime.

A typical rally career progression would see drivers go from production-based SSVs in T4 followed by the race-spec SSVs of T3 before graduating to the top-flight T1 category. It is not a rigid system as evidenced by new Can-Am colleague João Ferreira, who spoke with TCF prior to Morocco, as he is competing in T4 with Can-Am after spending much of the 2023 season in T3.

“T1 racing, that would be awesome,” Jones professed before adding with a laugh, “For right now, I’m very happy where I’m at with Can-Am. They take very good care of me, the team is taking very good care of me, so for the time being I’m good, but I’m always open for new opportunities and new offers from anybody if you’re watching this.

“But yeah, I’m always ready for anything. We’ll see what the future holds. I can’t call it right now.”

Credit: Kin Marcin/Red Bull Content Pool

The 2024 Championship

Jones will try to win his third consecutive Dakar Rally in 2024, a feat last achieved in an FIA-sanctioned class by Eduard Nikolaev in a truck from 2017 to 2019. If successful, he would also be the first to three-peat in a side-by-side vehicle, which are a relatively new vehicle introduced to the Dakar in 2017 before being split into the present T3 and T4 classes in 2021.

While the race returns to Saudi Arabia for a fifth year in 2024, sixty percent of the route is brand-new. One of the new additions for 2024 is the Chrono Stage, which replaces the Empty Quarter Marathon and gives competitors forty-eight hours to complete a 600-kilometre stage in the Rub’ al Khali desert. Marathon rules will be in effect for the Chrono Stage, meaning drivers cannot receive assistance from their teams.

“The Dakar 2024 route seems tough like always,” Jones opined. “I’m sure it’s going to be harder than the first couple that we’ve done over there. Every year that I’ve gone, it always gets harder and harder. This year I saw they had the 48-hour Chrono Stage in the dunes, so that looks pretty crazy. I’m not 100%  sure how that’s going to work, but I’m excited to go try it out and we’ll see how it goes.

“Excited to get over there to Saudi Arabia. I love that desert over there and I love racing over there. It’s beautiful. We’ll go over there and we’ll go for three in a row. It’ll be tough, but I’m excited to go try.”

The post-Dakar 2024 World Championship retains Abu Dhabi, Argentina, and Morocco, though Sonora has been replaced by the new BP Ultimate Rally-Raid Transibérico that will take place in Portugal and Spain. Jones is no stranger to racing in either country, winning the World Cup’s Baja España Aragón in Spain to kick off his eventual championship campaign.

“I’m really excited for this. I think this will be really fun,” he proclaimed. “Portugal is about my favorite place, my favorite country to travel to, so really excited to have a race back there. Abu Dhabi is always fun, here in Morocco is always challenging. I forget how hard it is every year that I come here, but yeah, all the races look really good. Argentina was fun too, so I’m excited for the year and we’re just going to take it one race at a time, just like this here.”

Interview on YouTube