ASO has yet to refund Dakar fee to MAZ due to sanctions, claims Viazovich

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Credit: Eric Vargiolu/DPPI

As the United States imposed sanctions on the Silk Way Rally‘s organisers on Wednesday, sanctions have also been keeping the Dakar Rally‘s organisers from reimbursing defending Silk Way winner MAZ-SPORTauto. In an interview with Match TV on Thursday, MAZ boss and 2023 SWR winner Siarhei Viazovich claimed the Amaury Sport Organisation was forced to withhold the entry fee that the team paid to enter the 2022 Dakar Rally, only to be turned back because of penalties on their parent Minsk Automobile Plant.

The European Union imposed sanctions on Minsk Automobile Plant in 2021 in response to the company cracking down on employees who protested the 2020 Belarusian presidential election, which is widely regarded by international observers as rigged as Alexander Lukashenko won a sixth term in a landslide. MAZ, which is fully owned by the state, received additional Western penalties in 2023 amidst the Russia invasion of Ukraine.

Viazovich unsurprisingly toes the government line, separately claiming team members who quit to join the protests “were not satisfied with the anthem, flag, coat of arms; there was some kind of mania for all of this. The majority of the team did not support this, but it was very difficult not to succumb to what was going on.” He also went as far as to state, while acknowledging it “may be harsh,” that the military and police “were correct” in violently quashing the protests. Over thirty thousand protesters were arrested and multiple died during the protests, from mistreatment while in prison, or other circumstances connected to the events.

“They affected many people in some negative way,” he prefaced about the government response, “but if we talk about society as a whole, about the peace and well-being of the country, everything was done correctly. Every employee of certain structures who were there at that time did their job perfectly.”

In an attempt to get around the sanctions, MAZ-SPORTauto registered for the 2022 Dakar Rally under the Belarusian Automobile Federation‘s name; the federation also paid the entry fee rather than the team. However, when the team went to Marseille to have their trucks ferried to Saudi Arabia, French customs ordered them to turn back. MAZ considered getting to the race via Syria, but ultimately withdrew. When the team requested for the fee to be refunded, the ASO refused on grounds that it would be be wired back to MAZ, a sanctioned entity.

“Unfortunately, the ASO’s response was, ‘We suspect that in the event of it being return, the money will be credited to the account of the enterprise that is under sanction. We are ready to return it only when MAZ is released from restrictions,'” Viazovich recalled. He described the fee as “quite impressive”, costing roughly €15 thousand though discounts could be applied depending on driver experience.

Although MAZ considered suing for the refund, Viazovich stated they opted against it as it would be “money thrown away. There is hardly a person who believes in a fair decision by the European courts regarding Belarus.”

2021 was Viazovich’s ninth Dakar Rally, winning the Prologue and Stage #3 but dropping out after an early mechanical issue. His best finish was a second in 2018, during which he scored a stage win, then added another en route to a third in 2020. A second MAZ truck driven by Aliaksei Vishneuski finished sixth in class.

When Russia invaded Ukraine a month following the 2022 Dakar, the FIA imposed restrictions on Russian and Belarusian teams that required them to condemn the war and agree to race without their nations’ flags in order to take part. Since then, MAZ and archrival KAMAZ-master have competed exclusively in the Russian Rally-Raid Championship and the series’ premier Silk Way Rally, which Viazovich proclaimed in the spring as the best race for truck teams. Viazovich and MAZ won the 2023 SWR, only the second time a non-KAMAZ claimed the truck victory in the race’s history. For the 2024 race, set to take place on 5–15 July, MAZ will field trucks for Viazovich, Vishneuski, and Vitaly Murylev.

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Justin is not an off-road racer, but he writes about it for The Checkered Flag.
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