IN THE world’s toughest race to finish and survive – literally – is truly an accomplishment.

To win even one stage of the epic Dakar Rally is a momumental career achievement – and Southampton-born Sam Sunderland has done just that as one of five factory Honda bike racers, writes GLYNN WILLIAMS.

The rally is unique, drawing the world’s best and bravest motor sport exponents to some of the most remote regions of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile in South America.

To put Sam’s stage victory into finer context, he was among 196 bike entrants to start. There are also 101 quad bikes, 154 cars and 75 trucks in different categories.

This year’s event started on Sunday and doesn’t finish until the end of next week – for those that complete the thousands of miles of man- and machine-breaking terrain.

The Race2Recovery teams of war-disabled former British soldiers were forced out early while young Sam, 23, was blazing his glory trail on the Honda CRF450 RALLY among the dust, rocks and dunes in just his second Dakar.

He was following up teammate Joan Barreda’s victory on the first stage and, while Barreda continued to command the leader-board, it lifted Sam to third.

He said: “I’m really happy. The bike was fantastic, it’s been a great day with a mixture of different terrains, speed and technical zones.

“We got to the dunes which I get on really well with. It wasn’t a really long stretch, but it went well.

“I crossed the river, which was deeper than I had expected, which got a few laughs out of the folk. But I’m really pleased for my first Dakar victory and to continue Honda’s winning streak.”

But fortunes change and the next day a wrong turn put the cheery Briton two hours down and fighting back.

These days based in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, Sunderland has made his mark around the world with great rides in Australia, India, Sardinia and the Middle East.

The accomplished motocross rider took on off-road rallies in 2011, winning two stages of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge and three others in the Australasian Safari.

In last year’s Dakar debut he scored a stunning seventh place on stage one, only to be forced to retire on the second day due to an electrical problem while just three minutes behind the leaders.

This time he’s out to go the distance – and climb that podium.