DAMMAM (SAUDI ARABIA) – Sunday, January 15: Toyota Gazoo Racing and Overdrive Racing celebrated a superb 45thDakar Rally with Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah claiming a fifth victory on the world’s toughest cross-country rally and his co-driver Mathieu Baumel sealing a fourth success.
The Qatari led the gruelling 14-stage event from the third selective section, controlled his pace to perfection and stayed clear of undue risks to reach the finish in Dammam with a 1hr 20min 49sec advantage over Frenchman Sébastien Loeb, his main rival in the FIA World Rally-Raid Championship (W2RC). With runner-up Loeb collecting a series of stage wins during the final week, it sets up the prospect of a repeat duel for W2RC title honours during the course of the 2023 season.
The fifth Dakar success meant that Al-Attiyah became the second most successful car entrant in the history of the event behind eight-time winner Stéphane Peterhansel. Ari Vatanen had been tied with Al-Attiyah on four victories.
Al-Attiyah won three of the eight stages before the rest day in Riyadh and then went on the defensive to preserve his V6-engined Toyota Hilux T1+. The feat marked Toyota’s third victory in five years after Al-Attiyah’s successes with Baumel in 2019 and 2022.
The winner said: “It was a difficult Dakar for everyone. It's crazy to manage to defend my title. I'm very happy to win five times, and Mathieu four… Sorry, Mathieu! I respect Ari enormously, he's still my idol. I always want to win more and more, now I want to defend my world champion's title. We didn't have to attack like crazy. We managed to get through the second week and win the Dakar at the end, that's what really matters."
Brazil’s Lucas Moraes was taking part in the event for the first time and called upon the experience of former winner Timo Gottschalk as his co-driver. The impressive rookie belied his lack of experience in the dunes to finish in a stunning third overall in the first of the Overdrive Racing Toyotas. Moraes also became the highest ever ranked Brazilian finisher. He said: "Really unbelievable. We finished Dakar and it will take some time to sink in. It was important for the rally community in Brazil because it had never happened before. I'm going to celebrate with all the Brazilian photographers. I don't have any other Dakar to compare, but I heard this one was very tough."
Al-Attiyah’s Toyota Gazoo Racing team-mates, Giniel de Villiers and Dennis Murphy and Henk Lategan and Brett Cummings, also delivered consistent performances to reach the finish in fourth and fifth overall. Lategan had been running as high as second before delays with a broken damper in the second half of the event dropped him down the leader board. De Villiers, for his part, set a Dakar record for 20 finishes on the event across three continents.
Argentinean Juan-Cruz Yacopini teamed up with Spanish co-pilot Daniel Oliveras and guided their Overdrive Racing Toyota to the finish in a fine seventh overall. He said: “We are happy to be here. I am happy to be in the top 10 after such a tough Dakar.” Former Dakar rider Isidre Esteve Pujol drove an Overdrive Racing-built Toyota Hilux under the Repsol Toyota Rally Team banner with fellow countryman José-Maria Villalobos. The Spaniard finished 34th.
Yazeed Al-Rajhi and German navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz were running strongly in the top three during the first week until they suffered wheel hub issues and slipped back to 19th. After the rest day, they stopped to assist Lategan, when the South African suffered his damper failure, and the Saudi sportingly gave parts of his Toyota’s suspension to his team-mate and suffered hefty time penalties as a result of having to wait for the assistance truck. The Riyadh driver fought back to finish 86th overall and had the consolation of outright victory on stage seven.
Overdrive Racing’s managing director Jean-Marc Fortin said: “This is an amazing moment. It is difficult to describe the feelings. We worked hard for this. It was a long and difficult race. I think David Castera and his team put down the challenge for us. Four months ago, I told Lucas (Moraes), maybe he should make another long rally. Now look, he finishes in third place, and a top 10 finish is very special for Juan Cruz. And we have five cars inside the top 10. This is very special.”
Riyadh – Empty Quarter
After a day of car rebuilds and rest for the crews, action restarted last Tuesday with a stage of 359km between Riyadh and Haradh that included a treacherous river crossing that was made worse by recent heavy rain. Lategan dropped over 45 minutes with a broken rear damper after 17km and the South African’s woes enabled Loeb to move into third place behind Al-Attiyah and Moraes.
It would have been so much worse for the South African had Al-Rajhi not stopped to gift a damper to his team-mate, the sporting gesture meaning that it was Al-Rajhi who had to stop and wait for the assistance truck himself. Al-Attiyah finished the special in a cautious eighth but saw his lead grow to 1hr 21min 57sec with Lategan’s issues. Lategan and De Villiers reached Haradh in fourth and fifth overall and Yacopini remained in 10th. Al-Attiyah said: “We are working day-by-day and today we did a really good job without any mistakes, without any problems. There was a lot of water.”
Moraes said: “The Dakar never stops surprising us. Right at the beginning we saw Carlos (Sainz) had rolled and we also saw Henk with some problems. We decided that we would just keep things cool. We were very patient today and let some cars go. We’re focused on the overall, that’s the big picture for us.”
The 10th stage of 114km between Haradh and the remote crude oil production hub of Shaybah took competitors into the vast Empty Quarter for the first time. The remote settlement that housed the bivouac was located 40km from the northern edge of the Rub Al-Khali and 10km from the border with neighbouring Abu Dhabi.
Fourth place on the 114km special was sufficient for Al-Attiyah to retain a lead of 1hr 21min 34sec, as Moraes, despite suffering from motion sickness, pushed hard to set the third fastest time in his quest to keep the stage-winning Loeb behind him in third place.
Al-Attiyah said: "The special was short but tough. We got to the Empty Quarter! It was a good day to test things for tomorrow, we know what we need. I'm pleased… I've got a good feeling with the car, we didn't make any mistakes… I didn't push too hard...”
Al-Rajhi recovered well from the previous day’s massive delays to come home in fifth. Yacopini retained 10th overall. Stage 11 marked the first half of the two-day Marathon without service assistance and looped through the towering dunes of the Empty Quarter for 275km close to the border frontiers with the UAE and the Sultanate of Oman. Competitors camped out under the stars after working on their cars.
Al-Attiyah maintained a lead of 1hr 21min 04sec with the fifth quickest time on a stage where Loeb whittled Moraes’s grip on second overall down to 9min 37sec. Lategan, De Villiers and Yacopini retained fourth, fifth and 10th overall. Al-Rajhi came home in seventh but was down in 94th overall.
Al-Attiyah said: “We did an amazing stage with no mistakes. We wanted to finish without problems, so we don’t work on the car all night. We need to accept this situation because we don’t want to attack for nothing. We still have too many hours to do. Today we just needed to finish.”
Moraes added: “One more, one less, as we say in Brazil. It was great to finish the first part of the Marathon stage. It was quite a tricky one with some climbs. Timo did amazingly well and another top three stage for us. Crossing dunes, this car held a lot, with the lower torque and the big wheels, that really helps.”
Empty Quarter – Damman
The 12th stage of 185km returned competitors from the bivouac in the Empty Quarter to another night halt in Shaybah. Al-Attiyah completed the test in a little under two hours and the third quickest time enabled the Qatari to retain a lead of 1hr 27min 10sec, although Moraes had relinquished second overall to the hard-charging Loeb.
Al-Attiyah said: “Ít’s good to finish two days of the Marathon with the car in one piece. For us, if we finish in the top five every day, it will be good for the championship.”
A roll and a resultant broken windscreen for Lategan saw his Toyota Gazoo Racing colleague De Villiers snatch fourth overall, while Yacopini held on to 10th overall and Al-Rajhi came home in eighth on the day. The second quickest time on the penultimate 153km special, south of Shaybah, ensured that Al-Attiyah would take a lead of 1hr 21min 42sec into the final day. Moraes retained a solid third overall and Yacopini climbed ahead of three rivals to snatch seventh. Al-Rajhi finished the stage in sixth.
Al-Attiyah said: “It was an interesting stage with lots of dunes. We finished second and I am happy. For the championship, it was important because it earns us more points for the fight with Seb, who’s cranking out stage wins. Today, limited the difference to one point.”
The final stage of 138km ran close to the Arabian Gulf after a liaison of 167km from Al-Hofuf. A second link section of 100km then guided teams to the finish in Dammam. Al-Attiyah held his nerve, erred on the side of caution and the 11th quickest time was enough to confirm a fifth Dakar victory. Moraes came home in third overall and Yacopini wrapped up a superb fortnight for Overdrive Racing with seventh place.