Dakar 2023: Prologue - Price and Ekström by a nose

Dakar 2023: Prologue - Price and Ekström by a nose

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FOCUS
Seaside sprints have become a regular fixture in the Dakar of the 21st century since the first ones were held in Castellón, Spain, in 2001 and in France in 2004. The following year, the clock started ticking on the beach of Castelldefels, near Barcelona, and in 2013 the race started on Agua Dulce beach in Lima. This time round, the 45th edition got under way on the Red Sea coast near Yanbu, which hosted a 13 km prologue on a winding sandy track packed for the occasion. As a former enduro rider and a former track racer, respectively, Toby Price and Mattias Ekström had good reason to salivate at the course, which started and ended at the entrance to the Sea Camp.

OUTLINE
No-one expected a ten-minute effort representing about 0.3% of the special mileage from here to Dammam to provide a clear snapshot of the state of play, but it did buoy the morale of those who put their speed and skills to good effect. Toby Price, for example, bounced back after two painful exits from rallies, one due to a car fire in the Baja 1000 and another due to a crash in the Rallye du Maroc. The Australian, who was not tipped as KTM's safest bet, scored his sixteenth Dakar stage win by a single second over his compatriot Daniel Sanders, while Botswana's Ross Branch took the bottom step of the podium behind the two men from Oz. Joaquim Rodrigues (sixth) and Sebastian Bühler (eighth) also placed high and proved that Hero is a force to be reckoned with. In the car category, Mattias Ekström, the top-ranked Audi driver last January (ninth), returned to action with a bang. The Swede, who counted beating Sébastien Loeb in the Race of Champions a few years ago among the highlights of his career, pulled it off again, starting his third Dakar with a victory by one second over last year's runner-up. Stéphane Peterhansel (+ 11″) remains within striking distance in third place, just ahead of Nasser Al Attiyah (+ 12″) and Guerlain Chicherit (+ 13″). In the T3 race, the Red Bull secured the win in the prologue as Cristina Gutiérrez put two seconds into Seth Quintero, with their former teammate Guillaume de Mevius in third place at 4″. W2RC Rokas Baciuška picked up where he left in the T4 category, following up his triumph in the final stage of the 2022 Dakar —which catapulted him to the podium— with victory in today's opener. In the truck category, Martin Macík seized control of the race by claiming the fourth stage win of his career ahead of young Mitch van den Brink. With just five seconds between them, the game is on between the Czechs and the Dutch.

PERFORMANCE OF THE DAY
The performances of the Audis and their drivers on the short circuit of the prologue dispelled any lingering doubts on their potential. Combined with its four successes from last January, the German maker has secured as many as a third of the specials at stake since it took up the challenge of the Dakar. Mattias Ekström grabbed the win in front of the Sea Camp, but his colleagues Stéphane Peterhansel (third) and Carlos Sainz (sixth) also contributed to a collective recital by the RS Q e-tron E2s.

A CRUSHING BLOW
Someone must have put a jinx on Nacho Cornejo. The Chilean received a devastating blow in 2021, when he crashed out of the lead with two days to go. Today, the man on an HRC got his seventh Dakar off to an inauspicious start with a crash on the first turn of the prologue. No broken bones, no serious injuries, but the time loss will leave him as salty as the breeze on the shores of the Red Sea. He finished 79th on the day and his actual deficit of 1′15″ to Toby Price was turned into a difference of 6′15″ by the coefficient of 5 applied to the prologue to dissuade competitors from sandbagging. Nacho, the second-last ranked biker in the Rally GP category, ahead of the equally unfortunate Balooshi (97th overall), is likely to start in second place tomorrow. Entrants in the Rally GP category will open the first stage in reverse order of their times today. To make matters worse, the new rules entitle the top 10 riders in the prologue to pick their starting positions from among the 28 available slots in the Rally GP category. The fastest bikers in the prologue are likely to cluster at the back of the field to benefit from the tracks left by the early starters.

FIGURE OF THE DAY: 4
Australian bikers have dominated the inaugural stage of the Dakar ever since Joan Barreda won the opener of the 2019 edition. Toby Price has scored a hat-trick since 2020. The only one that escaped him, stage 1A of the 2022 Dakar, went to fellow Australian Daniel Sanders, who netted GasGas its maiden win. Price has never gone home empty-handed in nine Dakar starts. Will the 2023 edition of the toughest rally raid on Earth see him return to the top of the podium for the first time since 2019?

W2RC
No surprises in the first bout of the second W2RC season. In the car category, the first-timers Ekström, Peterhansel, Sainz and Chicherit made up the top 7 of the prologue together with the 2022 podium, composed of Al Attiyah, Loeb and Al-Rajhi! The cast of the new season is now clear. It is more or less the same in the T3 and T4 categories, where young drivers and former bikers making the transition to four wheels have started to rub shoulders with the established stars. A new generation is rising, albeit at a more measured pace than in the car category. Martin Macík drew first blood in the truck race. No points will be awarded for the prologue, but the recorded differences will be added to the times for stage 1, which will only grant points to FIA competitors: 5 points for the top driver.

THE MAKINGS OF A CLASSIC
The caravan, with 36% of returning competitors, flexed its muscles in the final private test for the 88 entrants in the third Dakar Classic. The excitement that has filled the air since scrutineering began a few days ago continued to grow and has now reached fever pitch. Narrow margins were the norm in today's 20 km dress rehearsal, although the results will not carry over to the rest of the event. The Spaniard Kilian Revuelta outgunned the Belgian Dirk Van Rompuy and the Italian Antonio Ricciari in the fight for supremacy of their national schools. The ever-consistent title holders Serge Mogno and Florent Drulhon finished in 23rd place. Last year, it only took them two days to let their talent do the talking. We will get a clearer picture when the race gets going in earnest tomorrow.

Source Dakar Rally/ASO
Photo: A.S.O./C.Lopez

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