Loeb fires warning shot as Dakar race hots up

Sébastien Loeb closing on leader Carlos Sainz after Mattias Ekström drops time with suspension problem

Carlos Sainz and Lucas Cruz (ESP)

The second half of motorsport’s greatest marathon has only just begun and the event is at fever pitch. Audi’s Carlos Sainz still leads, but Sébastien Loeb has him in his sights after a stunning Sunday stage win.

Prodrive’s nine-time World Rally Champion charged across the 300-mile section from Riyadh to Al Duwadimi more than 10 minutes faster than the Spaniard. With five days to go, the top two are now separated by 19 minutes.

At the start of the day, Loeb’s first priority was overhauling the second-placed Audi of Mattias Ekström. The nine-minute gap disappeared after less than 20 miles, when the Swede suffered a suspension failure.

“The fight for the Dakar victory is now over,” Ekström said. “We had to wait while the guys fixed the car. For sure it’s very disappointing and everybody will, of course, ask what happened. [I] Didn’t have anything to say, actually. After 30km (18 miles), Emil [Bergkvist, co-driver] and I feel something was loose and we heard this: “Klak, klak, klak, klak,” but very little. Then later we got a slow puncture and the upright was grinding on the rim.

“Anyway s*** happens and life goes on.”

Mattias Ekstrom

Ekström started Sunday second before suspension trouble hit 

Ekström’s problem dropped him out of the top 10.

While Loeb’s Bahrain Raid Extreme Hunter took time out of the Audis, it’s still the #204 RS Q E-TRON E2 at the top of the table.

Sainz, of course, remains one of the world’s wiliest, wisest and fastest competitors. The three-time Dakar winner still has the lead over his former Citroën team-mate Loeb and knows what’s required over the next five days.

“You can be sure, I will do my best,” Sainz told DirtFish. “He (Loeb) did a fantastic job opening the road today. He has nothing to lose, he wants to win and this is a rally where, if you take a chance and go quickly, you can gain a lot of time. I can only offer congratulations to him and tomorrow, we try to do better. Today wasn’t the perfect day for us, we struggled a bit with the navigation and had a puncture.”

Loeb’s demeanour was predictably positive. Having enjoyed a lie-in on Saturday’s rest day, the Frenchman is ready for another working week of racing through Saudi.

“It was near to the perfect stage,” Loeb told DirtFish. “I needed to keep up the pressure – it’s what I tried to do. The gap was half an hour at the start of the day, but if that grows then it becomes more difficult towards the end of the week.

“There were a few mistakes in the beginning, the navigation was really difficult. We went a bit wrong, but I think everybody did. We were able to correct it quickly and we only lost three minutes in the stage. After that I had a good rhythm, but I was trying to be careful in the really rough places.

“I had a big attack for the whole stage.”

Toyota’s Lucas Moraes sits third after Sunday’s seventh stage.

Additional reporting by Colin Clark.

Sebastien Loeb

Loeb closed on his former team-mate Sainz after a stunning Sunday run