Jeddah, 29th December 2021
Ø The technical breakthroughs achieved by the constructors and tuners this year make the 44th edition of the Dakar one of the most open in quite a while. Among the most ambitious projects, Audi has signed two legends of the event, Stéphane Peterhansel and Carlos Sainz, for the first outing of its RS Q e-tron hybrid 4×4, a cornerstone of the “Dakar Future” programme, but the German maker still harbours doubts about its vehicle’s potential over 13 days of racing.
Ø Three-time winner Nasser Al-Attiyah, who has made it through the entire season undefeated, leads the Toyota armada, which is fielding revamped Hiluxes with the Qatari, Giniel De Villiers and Yazeed Al-Rajhi behind the wheels. Sébastien Loeb and “Nani” Roma also stand to profit from the new regulations in their bids for glory, provided that BRX has managed to hone its BRXs.
Ø Tried-and-true cars could also benefit from the scenario, including X-Raid with Jakub Przygo?ski, but also, to a lesser extent and contingent on a bit of luck, outfits that are not as used to earning accolades.
Billing Stéphane Peterhansel as the odds-on favourite seems a no-brainer. Since taking his first triumph on a motorbike in 1991, “Mr Dakar” has grabbed 14 titles in 29 starts, for a success rate a shade under 50%, including his victorious campaign in 2021!
However, for once, the situation is not so clear-cut this time round: “Peter” has lost none of his driving prowess, navigational acumen or mojo, but he has embarked on an adventure that, in the words of the man himself, is his “greatest challenge” yet. Audi aspires to make and develop the first alternative-drive vehicle capable of winning the Dakar, giving it a medium-term vision. The German constructor has recruited Stéphane Peterhansel and Carlos Sainz as its leaders to perform in the race.
It has its sights set on achieving great results with its RS Q e-tron from the get-go, but without rushing into mistakes. The history of the sport shows us that extremely ambitious projects have seldom succeeded in their baptisms of fire with conventional technologies. If anything, the recent examples of Volkswagen and Peugeot stress the importance of patience when ushering in a technological revolution.
The uncertainty surrounding Audi’s performance and reliability logically shifts the attention to Toyota, which has earned a sterling reputation for technical consistency from years of working on its Hilux. However, the race will be no stroll in the park for its three-pronged menace, composed of Nasser Al-Attiyah, Giniel De Villiers and Yazeed Al-Rajhi. The rule change enabling them, among other things, to run wider tyres (no more recurring punctures for Nasser) and increase their suspension travel has led to a major makeover, so they will be starting the race in vehicles that have only raced a few hundred kilometres since their first outing in Morocco. Their Team BRX rivals, who burst onto the scene last year, are in a similar situation. Same cause, same effects: adapting to the new T1+ category means that more time has been sunk into testing than into racing. Yet Sébastien Loeb and “Nani” Roma, and perhaps “Orly” Terranova, are all fired-up to improve on the former Spanish champion’s fifth-place finish last January.
Against this backdrop, the potential of the X-Raid Team buggies, which took the spoils in the previous two editions, make them a good bet in the fight for the title, not least because one of the two is in the hands of Jakub Przygo?ski, a regular fixture in the top 5 since he switched to the car race (fourth in 2019 and 2021). Also driving these buggies, the Russian winner of the Silk Way Rally, Denis Krotov, and the Argentinian Sebastián Halpern (ninth in 2018) have got an upgrade in their quest for a podium spot. The reigning uncertainty also fuels the ambitions of structures that are more rarely seen at the front of the race but are now looking at a real prospect of finishing in the top 5.
The list of serious contenders goes on and on: the Czech Martin Prokop, sixth in 2019 with his Ford proto, is now experienced enough to chase loftier goals with Team Orlen; Mathieu Serradori is also targeting a top 5 finish with his Century CR6 buggy; Team Abu Dhabi Racing is pursuing the same goal with Cyril Despres and Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi behind the wheels of two DKR 3008 PH-Sport; Christian Lavieille (and his co-driver, Johnny Aubert) is leading the MD Rallye Sport Optimus mob with verve; and Guerlain Chicherit would gladly accept a top 10 finish in his biofuel-powered vehicle in his return to the competition. Many will deserve it, even more will want it, but there is not enough room for everyone in the top 10.