PREVIEW: 45th Dakar Rally

Marcelo Maragni/Red Bull Content Pool

PREVIEW: 45th Dakar Rally

Off Road

PREVIEW: 45th Dakar Rally

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As the clock ticks down to the prologue that will inaugurate the 45th edition of the Dakar Rally, the competitors’ Sea Camp on the shores of the Red Sea is flush with excitement at the arduous challenge ahead: 15 days of racing in Saudi Arabia, with a back-breaking first week packing eight real stages and close to 70% of the special mileage of the rally, followed by the monster dunes of the Empty Quarter in the second week.

The parade of contenders for the car title includes BRX’s Sebastien Loeb, “Orly” Terranova and Guerlain Chicherit along with works programs from Audi and Toyota.

“For me the main rival will be Sebastien Loeb, not Audi,” said Toyota’s Nasser Al-Attiyah, who is out to make it back-to-back Dakar wins with his Toyota GR DKR Hilux T1+. “Throughout this year Loeb has been very close to us, and in Morocco and Andalusia the BRX (Loeb’s car) won.”

Al-Attiyah’s apparent dismissal of the challenge posed by Audi’s trio of RS Q e-tron prototypes driven by Mattias Ekstrom, Stephane Peterhansel and Carlos Sainz Sr. (pictured, top) might seem surprising, but BRX has gained ground at a rapid pace. For its rally raid debut in 2021, Prodrive fielded the original version of the BRX Hunter, which finished in fifth place with “Nani” Roma behind the wheel. Last year, two T1+ Hunters cracked the top 5, with Loeb as the runner-up to Al Attiyah and Terranova just outside the podium in fourth place.

Nine-time world rally champion Loeb is the squad’s trump card in the battle for the title he has been trying to add to his list of victories since 2016:

“I’m going to focus on my race and try and do my best. My goal is to find the right pace to make good progress without smashing up the car or getting lost,” the Frenchman admitted.

Yet Chicherit, a newcomer to the team who returned to action with a sensational triumph in the Rallye du Maroc, could also steal the show. The 2009 Cross Country Rally World Cup winner, fifth in the following Dakar, sets no limits on his ambitions.

“I don’t think people will take a ‘wait-and-see’ approach at the beginning, rather the opposite,” said Chicherit. “I reckon everyone will go flat out from day one. My ambitions are clear, so I’m going to go fast — but not too fast, of course, as the Dakar is a long race.”

Among the bikes, it is perhaps because of the depth of their rosters that the three sister teams that make up the KTM constellation have no designated leaders, but Toby Price, Matthias Walkner and Kevin Benavides will settle for nothing less than the top step of the podium. However, the king of the 2022 season was Sam Sunderland, who went on to be crowned world champion after clinching his second Dakar title and is clearly in top shape ahead of this new challenge.

“I’ll build on my past successes. I feel strong, we’ve worked hard, now I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes,” said Sunderland.

Meanwhile, Daniel Sanders, his Red Bull GasGas Factory Racing teammate who shone in his first Dakar start (fourth) and in the previous edition before sustaining injuries, faces two weeks riddled with uncertainty.

“It’s been a long year off the bike. I went under the knife six times — five for my elbow and one for my shoulder,” he related. “It’s like night and day compared to last year, when I had a had a good shot at a podium place or even the title. I’d rate my physical condition at 50% of what it was back then. The first eight days are going to be extremely tough on our bodies, with far more kilometers and stages than usual.”

America’s Skyler Howes should be in the mix as well for Husqvarna.

“Unfortunately, last year I crashed out of the race early on. I bounced back with two victories in the United States and the Rallye du Maroc, my first triumph overseas, and then I won in Sonora,” noted Howes. “I feel confident, but this is going to be a very long rally: the 2023 Dakar is three times as long as the Rallye du Maroc! I can’t wait to see how it goes.”

The Honda clan is gearing up for a long, hard slog in its pursuit of a third title to go along with the ones claimed by America’s Ricky Brabec in 2020 and Kevin Benavides in 2021. The four-man Honda team can now count on the assistance of a fifth rider in its bid to prevent a repeat of last year, when it fell a couple of minutes short of victory. Along with Brabec, Jose Ignacio Cornejo, Pablo Quintanilla and Adrien Van Beveren, Joan Barreda has entered this edition as a lone ranger, competing for his own team, but still on a 450 HRC of the same caliber.

Red Bull continues its alliance with Can-Am and has also expanded its scope for the 2023 Dakar with the signing of the Chilean T3 champion, “Chaleco” Lopez, who will be sharing the Red Bull Can-Am Factory Team stable with Rokas Baciuska (T4) and Cristina Gutierrez.

The Red Bull umbrella also spans an American outfit, Red Bull Off-Road Junior Team USA/BFG, spearheaded by the 2022 T4 champion, Austin Jones, and Seth Quintero, who is determined to shine in the general standings in his third start.

“I want to win, like everyone else, and be as consistent as possible. My strategy is to stay within striking distance of the best in the first week. Say, in the top 3, and definitely no more than 10 minutes behind the leader… Unless I happen to be the leader,” said Quintero. “The stages in the Empty Quarter are shorter but tougher, with an abundance of dunes, and I believe we can go toe to toe with the best there.”

For several years now, T3 and T4 lightweight vehicles have been a tutorial of sorts for competitors who aspire to compete in the car category, especially for former stars of the bike and quad races. For example, five-time world enduro champion Antoine Meo, fourth in the 2018 Dakar, is back in the T3 category, as is Helder Rodrigues, who counts two third places (2011 and 2012) among his successes in his previous career on two wheels. The Portuguese has since fulfilled support duties at Honda, but his return to competition in the Dakar will take place in one of South Racing’s Can-Ams, six years after his most recent start.

“Francisco Lopez led the way. I’m really keen on beginning a new career,” said Rodrigues. “I think I know the race well, my Can-Am is fast, but I still need to figure out the last details because I am sorely lacking in experience apart from the Rallye du Maroc.”

Xavier de Soultrait, who wrapped up his career as a biker last January, also picked the T4 category out of an abundance of caution. “I’m not fully confident in my knowledge of this field. We’re approaching the race with humility and our feet firmly on the ground. If we finish 10th, so be it. No one’s putting any pressure on us for the first few days — all we’ve got to do is get the car to the finish.”

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