The new team principal tasked with getting Loeb’s first Dakar win

Tiphanie Isnard can draw on nearly 20 years experience working at the top level of rallying

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Tiphanie Isnard has been involved in rallying for the best part of 20 years, but even she can’t help getting a little excited about the latest challenge in her career.

Leading her troops into battle is something that comes naturally for the Frenchwoman, who has worked with some of the best in the business, from Sébastien Loeb to Carlos Sainz.

This, however, is an altogether different kind of battle, and one which may take time to flourish.

That said, Dacia’s first-ever motorsport project is refreshingly ambitious. It’s got the help of renowned preparers Prodrive and the added bonus of three proven quantities in Loeb, Nasser Al-Attiyah and Cristina Gutiérrez Herrero.

Isnard is at the helm as team principal, a role she sees as less of a burden and more of an opportunity to continue the sort of work she previously did with the likes of Citroën and Peugeot.

“It’s very good to be back in rally raid for me, personally,” she tells DirtFish. “I love rally raid because it is a really challenging adventure for everybody who takes part in it.

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Tiphanie Isnard is central to Dacia's recently launched Dakar assault

“Of course, it has been some time since I last was involved in rally raid and the Dakar Rally, with Peugeot, and honestly a lot has changed in the championship since the last few years as well.

“So, in that regard, it will take a little bit of time to get used to it again, the new regulations with the T1+ cars, the different manufacturers and also the different terrains of the Dakar too. Cross-country has changed a lot and it is exciting to be competing in the world championship with Dacia.”

If the rally-raid playing field has a relatively fresh look to it, it’s to Dacia’s benefit as it embarks on a project Isnard describes as being “built from scratch”.

That’s possibly underselling the program, however, as its exclusive technical partner Prodrive provides a large degree of knowhow from its last four outings on the Dakar, while the signed drivers have been picked precisely due to their prowess in the discipline.

DAKAR 2024 - STAGE 5

Like the BRX Hunter, Dacia's car will be built by Prodrive

They’ve also played a major role in the design of the Dacia car, named the Sandrider, which Isnard believes will help the brand crack on efficiently when testing begins in earnest next month in the UK.

“We are working hard together with Prodrive and Alpine Racing to get the car ready for testing which will begin in April in the UK, first,” Isnard explains.

“And then we will enter some quite intense months during the summer, in Morocco where we will concentrate on the dunes before we make our debut in the Morocco Rally in October.

“Everything, for now, is running to schedule, the car is currently being built and this is a process which has been going since late last year. The deadlines are quite tight, as they always are, but we are running to time for now so that is the most important aspect.”

As with most new-born projects, Isnard is well aware that Dacia needs time to properly acclimatize with the world of rally raid.

An intense regime has been laid out by Isnard’s team with a full competition debut for all three crews set for October, for the final round of the World Rally-Raid Championship on the Rallye du Maroc.

“For the testing, of course we will be looking at the overall performance of the car and we want to have a competitive car for Morocco, but the first priority is to make sure that we have a good reliability, durability and feeling with the car,” Isnard says.

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Dacia Sandrider is set to make its competition debut in the fall

“Then, we look for performance. But even in Morocco, this will be a test race for us; we will find out what works well and what we will need to work on, and we might even do some more testing between Morocco and the Dakar, if we need to. So this is all a development before the Dakar.

“We are ambitious, and we want to win the Dakar Rally. We are not a team that goes there just to take part so we aim to be competitive and to win. But the work is not done at the Dakar, it begins now, and it will continue throughout the summer and into next year.

“We have to lay the foundations with the team and the engineers, get reliability and performance in the testing and that will prepare us for the Dakar in January.”

Already you get a sense of the competitive spirit from Isnard. After all, she’s not in this game to be a spectator. Motorsport has been her life since she was a young child, even if racing doesn’t run in the family.

Rally Montecarlo Monte Carlo (MC) 24-26 01 2003

Isnard grew up watching the Monte Carlo Rally stage-side

“I was surrounded by the Monte Carlo Rally,” she recounts. “My parents were not so interested in racing, but I experienced a lot of the sensations of the Monte when I was young because we used to attend the stages in the mountains.

“We would always get to leave the school on Friday of the Monte, to watch the cars and, from a very young age, I loved it. The cars, the atmosphere, it was very special.”

Isnard then left the small commune of the Haute-Alpes region for university in Lyon, after which she ended up working for an old colleague in the bright lights of Monaco, which is where she has subsequently plied her trade.

“I managed to speak with some people who worked on the Monte Carlo Rally every year. They offered me a job in project management, and I worked with CHL Sport who ran the operations for Citroën Racing during the WRC years with Loeb and Elena.

“And then, one year, Daniel Elena decided to start his own company, for sports management and he asked the team: ‘Who is this person? She is really good.’ And he asked me to join his company, so I said of course! It is motorsport, it is in Monaco: perfect!”

“I have been doing the job for the last 16 years now and we have worked with many brands and teams, in the WRC and rally raid as well with Peugeot Sport, also with Sébastien, Peterhansel, Carlos Sainz, so it has been amazing.”

Stephane Peterhansel

Isnard experienced Dakar victory with Stéphane Peterhansel in 2017

Isnard maintains that the team principal role is “just a name” and that many of her everyday activities of coordination and logistics are not too dissimilar to those from her Citroën and Peugeot days. Her job is to put the right people in the right places so that Dacia can attack its Dakar debut in the best possible fettle.

Not an easy task, and the risk for the brand is understandably high.

“The secret is really to understand what people need and also to not have any ego,” Isnard continues. “The best way we work is to listen and accept that maybe we don’t know all the answers, and that we work together to find the solutions to the problems.

“Dacia is new to motorsport; it has never raced before so we are all learning what the best way to succeed is and this is very exciting.”

In order to do this, Dacia needed to do something a bit different to its rivals. It’s not gone for an Audi strategy of hybridization but with a ‘from the ground up’ mentality, it has developed what it believes is the ultimate prototype with which to tame the most challenging event in the world, the Dakar Rally.

“Obviously, the Dakar is a very special race, and a lot can happen,” Isnard says. “The race will not be easy, and we need to be humble and accept that it will be hard to beat Toyota and the other brands which have done the race for many years.”

“Of course, you never feel completely ready for the Dakar, but the preparations that we will be doing this year will make us as ready as we can be.

“There is always a compromise between what the drivers want and what is possible from the engineering and design side, but we are happy that the base of the car is solid and the feedback from the drivers was taken into account.

“For us, being new to rally raid as a brand, but with a lot of experience with many people, we knew it was important that we had a blank sheet of paper. At the start, we had nothing, so we asked to the drivers: ‘What do you want to see on the car? What will help you?’ And they gave us the feedback, which was really important, because we have designed a car which is built around the drivers.

“This is a good thing because everything that is on the car is there for a reason.”


Development will harness input from drivers including Loeb (center) and Gutiérrez (right) 

The input from Loeb, Al-Attiyah and Gutiérrez cannot be understated. Seldom does a T1+ team have the opportunity to tailor a car for its crews. The likes of Toyota, Ford and Mini’s examples have been based on regular road-going vehicles which present their own unique challenges.

With Dacia, it’s been able to design the Sandrider like no other production car from the line. Unless it follows Prodrive’s and Audi’s examples of producing a special road-legal version of its Dakar machine, you aren’t likely to see anything like a Sandrider on your run to the supermarket.

The ingenuity that has gone into the Sandrider is also noteworthy. Magnetic panels to prevent nuts and bolts from being lost in the event of repair jobs is such a practical pitfall that, if based on a road legal car, would not have been at Dacia’s disposal otherwise.

Maximized windshield width and other interior quirks have all been designed with the crews’ comfort in mind.

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Sandrider has been designed with crews' comfort in mind

There’s also significant buy-in from the crews too, with a full crack at the W2RC planned for Al-Attiyah and Loeb from next year.

Gutiérrez will have a phased introduction to the W2RC, gaining experience in Morocco, Dakar and Abu Dhabi, before further events allowing her, in Isnard’s words, to achieve a “performance crescendo”.

“All three crews will test the car and race in Morocco, Dakar and Abu Dhabi next year, and the plan is for Nasser and Sébastien to compete in the whole W2RC season in 2025 and 2026 as well,” Isnard explains.

“For Cristina, our plan is to monitor and support her in the selected events and bring her up to speed and increase her learning within the team.

“Our aim is to give her as much seat time as possible, to learn from Nasser and Séb, after which we will determine what Cristina’s program will be so that she can reach a performance crescendo.”

Understandably, much of the attention will center on Loeb and Al-Attiyah; that’s where the expectations will be high come next January, but Isnard also has high hopes for Gutiérrez, who has proved her worth on the biggest rally raid by becoming the first female driver to win on the Dakar since Jutta Kleinschmidt in 2001.


Dakar's only previous female winning driver, Jutta Kleinschmidt (left) teamed up with Nasser Al-Attiyah in Extreme E

“We have two very fast and very successful drivers leading the line-up which is exciting and honestly it is a little bit of a surprise that we have both in the team,” says Isnard.

“Nasser is a really good driver and has a lot of experience in the Dakar, and Séb – he is Séb and we know what he brings.

“For Cristina, we were always watching her, and we were very impressed with some of her performances, already on the Dakar in the T3 class.

“We have an attitude to promote young, talented drivers and give them opportunities, so we are so happy to have her in the team too. She has obviously worked with Séb and both he and Nasser told us that she is very fast, so we already had the idea to sign Cristina.”

As DirtFish celebrated its third annual Women in Motorsport Summit this month, it is perhaps only appropriate that rally raid’s newest arrivals have two leading female figures at the helm.

They’re here to take on the boys, not as women only but as racers.