It’s the calm before the storm as the Dakar Rally convoy converges on the Sea Camp in Yanbu ahead of the 45th edition of motorsport’s toughest test of endurance. Racing starts tomorrow with the Prologue Stage, before that there are all the pre-race preliminaries to complete such as scrutineering and shakedowns.
There are over 350 vehicles being prepared to take on the most brutal rally on the planet. Drivers, navigators and mechanics will all have to be at the top of their game to guide these machines through 5,000 kilometres of racing distance spread over 14 ultra-challenging stages.
On the eve of the Dakar getting started we have also seen rivals coming face-to-face in the Yanbu bivouac. As well as guiding their own vehicles through pre-race checks, there have been plenty of envious glances at the machines of other competitors as we wait to see who has the advantage out on the dunes.
Among the 3,000 inhabitants of Yanbu’s Sea Camp on the shores of the Red Sea we can find all the major contenders for victory in the car race. Looking to make it back-to-back Dakar victories are Nasser Al-Attiyah and co-driver Mathieu Baumel. This duo and their Toyota GR DKR Hilux T1+ enjoyed a stellar 2022, not only winning the Dakar but also claiming the inaugural FIA World Rally-Raid Championship. These titles will not be easy to retain and Al-Attiyah has identified which rival he thinks can cause him the most trouble on the route.
“For me the main rival will be Sébastien Loeb, not Audi. Throughout this year Loeb has been very close to us, and in Morocco and Andalusia the BRX [Loeb’s car] won.” – Nasser Al-Attiyah
As for the opinions of Sébastien Loeb himself, well he is entering the rally with the ambition of winning it – no change there! The nine-time WRC victor has three Dakar podium finishes in his six previous appearances at the rally. During this time the Frenchman has collected an impressive 16 stage wins. But stage wins are all well and good, now Loeb and co-driver Fabian Lurquin want to guide their Prodrive BRX Hunter to an overall T1+ car class victory.
“I've finished on the podium three times. And I've always won stages, but I've never won overall. That’s my main objective.” – Sébastien Loeb
Team Audi Sport have entered their fleet of three RS Q e-tron E2 cars into the T1U category, and they also have ambitions of topping the daily and overall timesheets at this Dakar. Audi have handed over the keys to 14-time Dakar winner Stéphane Peterhansel, motorsport legend Carlos Sainz and multi-series champion Mattias Ekström.
Sainz and his fellow Audi drivers are back for a second shot at the Dakar with the German manufacturer. Last time out all three drivers recorded stage wins and will be looking to build on this success in 2023.
“We’re better prepared than last year and we’ll see just how competitive the car is in the first few days. We’ll also see what our rivals have got under the bonnet.” – Carlos Sainz
Before picking out the best in class in the bike race it’s vital to highlight a rule change for the 2023 Dakar Rally. That’s because this rule change is set to have a major impact on the frontrunners on two wheels. A system of time bonuses is now in place to reward the bikers who ‘open the road’ on each stage. The bonus sections are in place during the first 200 kilometres of the timed special stage.
It will be possible for a rider to have a total of five minutes deducted from their daily time if they lead the way throughout the opening 200 kilometres. It’s a huge prize to aim for, but also comes with a massive amount of risk – with no tracks to follow the chances of getting lost is bound to increase.
Will the new chapter of the rulebook help Red Bull KTM Factory Racing get back to winning ways? The Austrian manufacturer won 18 consecutive editions of the Dakar before the rally relocated to Saudi Arabia. Team riders Toby Price, Matthias Walkner and Kevin Benavides already have four Dakar victories between them and all have a shot at winning in 2023.
“I’ve had five podiums at the Dakar, and I know I have the pace to win another.” – Toby Price
For any of the KTM trio to win this time in Saudi Arabia they will need to beat the pair of riders representing Red Bull GASGAS Factory Racing. Sam Sunderland is the Dakar’s defending champion while Daniel Sanders is part of a new generation of bikers tipped for Dakar success in the near future.
“It’s a long race, but the goal is to definitely be well in the fight at the finish.” – Daniel Sanders
As well as KTM and GASGAS, there are strong factory line-ups from Honda, Husqvarna and Hero also in the mix for top honours at this Dakar. The word inside the Yanbu Sea Camp is that there are more than 15 bikers on the start line of this Dakar with a realistic chance of winning the thing.
The job of picking a likely winner for the T3 side-by-side category is an even trickier task than assessing the cars or bikes. There’s a total of 47 T3 crews entered into the 2023 Dakar with a parity of skill level and machinery across the board.
Of course the Red Bull Off-Road Junior Team USA presented by BFGoodrich catches our eye with its three-man driver line-up of Seth Quintero, AJ Jones and Mitch Guthrie. There’s enough Dakar success, ambition and talent within this group to shut out the entire podium of the general classification with their Can-Ams and Guthrie’s T3-M by MCE5.
“I reckon we’ve got the car sorted now and winning the Dakar is very clearly our goal for 2023.” – Seth Quintero
The North American trio can expect to be pushed all the way by the Red Bull Can-Am Factory Team. Here we find reigning T3 champion Chaleco López as well as last year’s third place overall finisher Cristina Gutiérrez. This team also have a strong interest in the T4 race with Rokas Baciuška flying their colours in that contest.
“I'm thinking about victory because I'm competitive, and my driving style suits this type of rally.” – Cristina Gutiérrez
Also gunning for victory in the T3 race will be Guillaume De Mevius in an OT3, three-time quad race winner Ignacio Casale in an X-Raid prepared Yamaha YXZ 1000 and two-time bike race podium finisher Hélder Rodrigues in a Can-Am Maverick.
“So much can happen on the Dakar that it’s difficult to make any predictions but our objective is to finish every day in a good position.” – Hélder Rodrigues
Source Red Bull