“I’ve always tried to be a simple and honest guy,” Rokas Baciuška replies with a wide grin when I ask him about becoming the first Red Bull Motorsports athlete from Lithuania. “In the end, it doesn’t really matter what branding I have on my helmet or overalls…”
Of course wearing the iconic “Prancing Bull” means something for Baciuška. He’s a racing driver, and the logo represents one of the biggest and most successful brands in the history of international motorsport.
Nonetheless, the 23-year-old’s sense of normality is what makes him an appealing character in the world of off-road motorsport, and despite having joined the Red Bull family earlier this year, he still retains the unassuming, “I’m just happy to be here” persona he displayed when I first met him in 2018.
“After World RX in 2019, I really wasn’t sure where I wanted to go” - Rokas Baciuška
To be clear, Baciuška’s story is not a remarkable one of rags-to-riches. Since he started his career in karts aged nine, he has been supported by the family business. But let’s be honest - despite what Lewis Hamilton may want you to believe, no top-tier racing driver has come from “da hood” have they?
What is remarkable, however, is Baciuška’s ability to adapt to the equipment he is given. He’s almost Mattias Ekström-like with his ability to switch between disciplines; albeit without the Swedes 30 years or so worth of experience.
Having racked up multiple titles in the Baltic Karting Championship, Baciuška graduated to the FIA EuroRX championship in 2018 and won the title in his debut season.
The following year, he would move up to the top-tier FIA World RX category with the French GCK Academy team; a decision that threatened to put the then 19-year-old’s career at risk, given team and driver went their way after just two events and forced Baciuška onto the sidelines for 2020.
Yet despite what looked like a precarious situation, he used what was “definitely not a year off” to get his head down and earn some money to go racing. It would be in 2020 where Baciuška discovered his love for rally raid.
“After World RX in 2019, I really wasn’t sure where I wanted to go,” he recalls after a pause. “I spent 2020 getting some money together, doing some kart races to keep sharp, and learned to drive a rally raid buggy which is something I always wanted to try.”
Baciuška’s decision to turn his back on World RX seemed risky. After all, his departure from rallycross came at a time when it was enjoying its peak popularity and in terms of a home win, he was the first Lithuanian to ever compete in the sport.
Yet fast-forward just two years, and World RX has been reduced from one of the biggest FIA-sanctioned forms of motorsport into an almost-fringe event largely unhelped by its move to electrification and its absence of a strong promoter.
“Yeah, 2020 was hard…” Baciuška continues. “But given everything that has happened since and my current circumstances, I don’t regret my decision to pursue a career in rally raid one single bit.”
“Lithuania? Yeah, we’re completely a Dakar country! Why we’re a Dakar country, though, I have absolutely no idea!” - Rokas Baciuška
So, what has happened in Baciuška’s career since moving to the FIA World rally raid Championship? Well, the short answer is “a lot.” Given there is a column space to fill, here’s the long answer.
From the first time he set foot in a World rally raid T4-class buggy in 2021, Baciuška looked immediately at home. Uncharacteristically, he didn’t manage a top-three finish in his debut season. Nonetheless, he performed consistently with a best result of fourth on the final round of the year, the Andalucía Rally.
From a personal perspective, that same event would prove to be the highlight of Baciuška’s career so far. In 2022, he was crowned World rally raid’s T4 category champion, and in doing so, became the first Lithuanian driver in history to win an FIA-sanctioned championship.
Whilst Baciuška’s status as an FIA title winner is definitely a factor in what propelled him to unassuming national hero status almost overnight last year, it could be argued that it was his third-place finish in the T4 class on the Dakar Rally that played the biggest part in becoming Lithuania’s most-recognised motorsport export.
Lithuanian motorsport enthusiasts love Dakar in the same way that Finnish fans adore rallying, and German fans love the DTM. With 11 entrants from Lithuania on the Dakar 2023 starting list, it makes sense to ask Baciuška why this iconic event is so popular in this Eastern European country of just 2.8 million people.
“Lithuania? Yeah, we’re completely a Dakar country! Why we’re a Dakar country, though, I have absolutely no idea!” he replies with a laugh when I ask him about the event’s popularity at home.
“If I had to take a guess, I would say that it’s because there is such a high concentration of Lithuanian drivers and riders who enter, because in other forms of motorsport there are hardly any of us.”
“Whilst the teams such as Audi, Toyota, and Prodrive will have an advantage due to their factory status, the very rough and unpredictable nature of the Dakar means that the event is quite a level playing field.
“With that in mind, I would say that you have more of a chance to fight with the best than some other forms of motorsport if you’re a privateer with a reasonably small budget.
“That’s very appealing to us as a country, because it’s somehow in our national character to always want to prove ourselves.”
“Whatever opinion someone has about Benediktas [Vanagas], you cannot deny that he’s done an amazing job in making Dakar popular in Lithuania” - Rokas Baciuška
Reading between the lines, it’s clear that the “privateer” Baciuška is referring to is his compatriot Benediktas Vanagas; a Lithuanian Dakar veteran who has taken part in each running of the Dakar from 2013 to 2023 with a career best finish of 11th.
For many, Vanagas is a polarising character. The 46-year-old’s fans will argue that his participation in the Dakar shows that Lithuania is able to compete in top-tier motorsport. His detractors? It’s simply one middle-aged man’s vanity project.
After all, in just two attempts at what is considered to be the toughest off-road event on the planet, Baciuška finished third in 2022 and second in 2023 - his first outing in Red Bull colours.
Surely, then, he must feel that he has achieved more in two Dakars than Vanagas has done in 11. It’s worth asking.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t dare to say that,” Baciuška replies. “Whatever opinion someone has about Benediktas, you cannot deny that he’s done an amazing job in making Dakar popular in Lithuania.
“He’s definitely brought Lithuania to a wider audience, because when you’re at the Dakar, you see plenty of Lithuanian flags laid out on the dunes and being waved in the service parks.
“There are also plenty of fans - Lithuanian or not - asking us for autographs and selfies, so I’m definitely grateful to Benediktas and the older Dakar racers from Lithuania who have come before me.
“I don’t really want to get into comparisons and that sort of thing, to be honest. I’m focused on retaining my rally raid title this season, and I’ll do everything I can to increase motorsport’s popularity in Lithuania. It’s now entirely up to me to do my best and not disappoint my fans.”
“It’s no secret that I’d love to compete in the top-tier T1+ category in the Dakar and compete alongside legends of our sport such as Nassar Al-Attiyah, Sébastien Loeb, Carlos Sainz, and Mattias Ekström! - Rokas Baciuška
Alongside his 2023 rally raid programme, Baciuška is set to race in a number of European GT4 races behind the wheel of an Aston Martin Vantage. He has also applied to be part of the British carmaker’s AMR Young Driver Academy.
Should he succeed, he will once again become the first Eastern European driver to race for Aston Martin.
Despite the numerous career prospects in his hands, Baciuška’s modest nature returns to the fore when discussing his future. Given the sincerity and lack of ego with which he speaks, it’s easy to lose track of the fact he was born just three weeks before the turn of the 21st century.
“I’m not going to get carried away with anything or make some wild predictions about what’s next for me,” he smiles. “It will depend on two things: The first thing is how much effort I put into my fitness and improving my skills as a driver. The second thing is finances, sponsorship, and what sort of teams want me.
“That said, it’s not a secret that I’d love to compete in the top-tier T1+ category in the Dakar and compete alongside legends of our sport such as Nassar Al-Attiyah, Sébastien Loeb, Carlos Sainz, and Mattias Ekström!
“Whether I get there or not, that’s a completely different story…”
If - after reading this - you’ve developed the urge to own a racing car, then click here to browse through the race machinery we have listed on Dyler.com.