RIYADH (SAUDI ARABIA) – Friday, January 14: Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah led the 44th Dakar Rally from the opening Qualifying Stage to the final special and managed his pace to perfection to seal a fourth victory on the world’s most famous off-road rally.
Benefiting from the meticulous navigational skills of his French co-driver Mathieu Baumel, the Qatari won just three of the 13 stages but applied a master class race strategy to eventually record a winning margin of 27min 46sec over nine-time WRC champion Sébastien Loeb. The fourth success for Al-Attiyah meant that he equalled Ari Vatanen winning quartet set in Africa.
Al-Attiyah said: “It was an incredible Dakar for us. We hadn’t won since 2019. We’re pleased with the new T1+ regulations. Mathieu and I and the team did a great job to win. We had finished second every time since we came to Saudi Arabia two years ago and now we are really happy to achieve our goal. The whole race went without a hitch. We were on high alert, but now we know that we have an amazing car and we will do our best for the World Championship.
“We opened up a gap on the first day and have since managed our lead. We’re fortunate to get to race the Dakar in Saudi Arabia and I would like to thank the government for this opportunity to discover such breath-taking landscapes.”
Overdrive Racing team-mate Yazeed Al-Rajhi and his co-driver Michael Orr held second overall at the rest day, before slipping behind Loeb after the resumption of competition. The Saudi recorded a well-deserved podium finish on his home event to give Toyota a 1-3 finish.
Al-Rajhi said: “I’m really happy and would like to thank everyone who supports me, the mechanics and Jean-Marc Fortin, as well as the organisers. I’m on the podium, but what really matters is that the whole field got to enjoy the race in Saudi Arabia. I’m also pleased for all the spectators who watched us and, of course, I am happy with our podium spot.”
Al-Attiyah’s Toyota Gazoo Racing team-mate Giniel de Villiers overcame his own fair share of dramas and a time penalty to win a stage. He and co-driver Dennis Murphy reached Jeddah in fifth place.
Dutchman Bernhard Ten Brinke stood in for Erik van Loon at the 11th hour and teamed up with French co-driver Sebastien Delaunay. He recovered well from early time delays and began a gradual fight back through the field, setting a sixth fastest time in SS7 and a fourth quickest run on the final stage. Ten Brinke reached Jeddah in 17th.
Argentina’s Lucio Alvarez and his Spanish navigator Armand Monleón held a top five position for long periods of the Dakar and even set a second quickest time. But punctures and a differential failure cost the Argentine dearly and he slipped out of contention for the top 10. Excellent performances on the run in to Jeddah earned the Toyota Hilux driver 18th place.
Alvarez said: “We are satisfied to have finished the race but sad because we could have been third in the general classification. It’s hard to assume because we were doing everything right. We knew we could fight for the podium, but the mechanical factor asnd the luck factor we cannot control. Now, when I get home, I have a few days to think about how to prepare for the World Championship and the next Dakar!”
Juan Cruz Yacopini and Alejandro Yacopini reached the end of the Dakar in 20th in their Overdrive Racing Toyota, the French duo of Ronan Chabot and Gilles Pillot were classified in 22nd and Portugal’s Miguel Barbosa and Pedro Velosa completed the rally in 35th.
The Red Bull Off-Road Junior Team entered four Overdrive-built OT3s. Young American racer Seth Quintero teamed up with Germany’s Dennis Zenz and entered the Dakar record books for winning 12 of the event’s 13 stages. Only a delay with technical issues early in the rally prevented the 19-year-old from winning the FIA T3 category. He was classified in 16th.
After surpassing Hubert Auriol’s nine successes earned on a motorcycle in 1984, he went on to shatter Pierre Lartigue’s record of 10 stage victories from 1994.
“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” said Quintero. “We did 13 stages with 12 wins. Every day was an adventure in itself and I was trying to take it day-by-day. Dennis did an amazing job. Stage two definitely crosses my mind quite a bit. If we’d had 30 less kilometres on that stage it would have been pretty good. You never know. In some ways it took a lot of pressure off us and I had a lot of fun for all the Dakar! We are now the sole record holder for the most stage wins on a single Dakar, which is absolutely mind-blowing. I came here to try sand become the youngest ever to win a Dakar but, in the end, we’ve broken another record.”
Spanish female racer Cristina Gutièrrez and French co-driver François Cazalet eventually finished third in the FIA T3 category behind Chile’s Francisco Lopez and Sweden’s Sebastian Eriksson.
Guillaume de Mevius teamed up with America’s Kellon Walch but endured a troubled Dakar. Hefty time penalties knocked the Belgian down the rankings after week one transmission issues and he retired two days before the finish.
Norwegian Andreas Mikkelsen was a last-minute replacement for Mitch Guthrie, but he was forced to retire before the rest day with roll cage damage.
As it happened
The first stage out of Riyadh after the rest day ran for 401.74km to Al Dawadimi and featured around 100km of sand dunes. Loeb trimmed Al-Attiyah’s overall advantage to 44min 59sec with the stage win and that pushed Al-Rajhi down to third. Delays of just under an hour for De Villiers enabled Alvarez to regain fourth position, with the South African dropping to ninth.
A seventh stage win fell to Quintero in T3 and Gutierrez retained third overall and reduced the gap to leader Lopez to 2hr 12min 40sec.
The subsequent stage of 394.90km wound its way through the southern deserts to the remote bivouac at Wadi ad Dawasir. Al-Attiyah sustained a puncture and lapsed into front-wheel drive, and the nervous Qatari duly shadowed his rivals to the finish with a noise coming from the transmission. Loeb was able to trim the Qatari’s lead to 37min 58sec, as Al-Rajhi consolidated third.
Al-Attiyah said: “For 350km we had one puncture and only had front-wheel drive because we broke the rear. I was really scared all the way. It was not easy to push with front-wheel drive. There was a small part broken inside with a lot of noise. I’m lucky to be here and we only lost seven minutes to Seb.”
A differential issue after 42km cost Alvarez four hours, his place in the top five and pushed the Argentine down to 22ndoverall. He said: “We were going very fast in sixth and we heard a noise and the differential had broken. We had no choice but to wait for the service crew to change it.”
Stage nine was a 286.96km loop through the deserts around Wadi ad Dawasir. It was damage limitation for Al-Attiyah after his transmission scare the previous day and the Qatari cruised to the finish with the third quickest time behind Toyota Gazoo Racing team-mates De Villiers and Lategan. The runaway leader also beat Loeb by 67 seconds and increased his advantage to 39min 05sec. There were small gaps within the top 15 drivers on the special and Al-Rajhi maintained third place, although Al-Attiyah later incurred a five-minute time penalty for an eighth stage seat belt violation that saw his lead trimmed to 34min 05sec.
Quintero equalled Hubert Auriol’s nine stage wins on a special when Gutierrez finished second and strengthened her grasp on fourth place after the previous day’s delays.
A largely sandy special of 374.58km took crews from Wadi ad Dawasir to Bisha, a small town in the south-western Saudi province of ‘Asir.
Al-Attiyah drove cautiously and managed his pace to drop just 1min 25sec to Loeb, as Quintero eclipsed Hubert Auriol’s nine wins and equalled Pierre Lartigue’s 1994 Dakar record of 10 stage wins on a single Dakar. Alvarez and Al-Rajhi were eighth and 10th on the day and held third and 20th overall, with Yacopini and Ten Brinke now up to 18th and 19th.
The last of the longer stages was a loop of 345.64km around the Bisha bivouac. Sainz clinched his second stage win, but all eyes were on the battle between Loeb and Al-Attiyah. The Frenchman managed to claw back another 4min 21sec but headed into the final sprint to Jeddah trailing the Qatari by 33min 19sec after he was later handed a five-minute time penalty for an on-stage speeding violation. A rejuvenated Alvarez finished the special in second place, despite a minor transmission issue.
Al-Attiyah erred on the side of caution through the final 164km to secure victory, with Al-Rajhi rounding off the podium places behind Loeb and Quintero securing a remarkable 12th T3 stage win.