Al-Attiyah’s former navigator teams-up with W2RC rival

Mathieu Baumel will compete against his long-time Dakar partner on the next W2RC event in Portugal


If one thing seemed a bolted-on certainty this year, it was that Nasser Al-Attiyah and Mathieu Baumel would continue their domination of the World Rally-Raid Championship.

Indeed, with the dawn of Dacia’s arrival onto the scene just over the horizon was this not the perfect opportunity to see exactly what cross-country rallying’s power couple could really achieve?

Apparently not, as it turned out. Both decided, in the end, that change was necessary. It was the end of the road for the most successful Dakar Rally partnership in recent years. Baumel and Al-Attiyah were finished.

While Nasser is beginning the next chapter with Swiss Edouard Boulanger – Stéphane Peterhansel’s former navigator – Baumel has yet to announce his plans for the future. There’s no doubt the Frenchman based in Andorra wouldn’t struggle to find a new driver, but exactly where and with whom that will be remains unclear.

Mathieu Baumel

Baumel split with long-time driver Al-Attiyah following this year's Dakar

For now, just like any good former boy band troupe, he’s back for one weekend only with an old friend or two, for the third round of the W2RC season, the BP Ultimate Rally-Raid Portugal in May.

He’ll rekindle an old flame in Guerlain Chicherit, with whom he spent many years in the passenger seat as the pair made their entry into rally-raid in the mid 2000s. Their first Dakar edition came in 2005, with a first stage win – in Lisbon – coming a year later. He’ll also be back in a Toyota Hilux T1+, with Chicherit switching to Overdrive Racing after spending the last year in a Prodrive Hunter.

“Guerlain is more experienced and less fiery than 20 years ago,” exclaimed Baumel on the W2RC website.

“We know that the more experience and kilometers you have attained in rally raid, the better the result. He has proved that he can win special stages and races in the world championship, and he has built a superb team that allows him to drive a highly competitive car. He has everything he needs to succeed, and I wish him every success.”

Chicherit has plied his trade recently with compatriot Alex Winoq but, after getting injured following a heavy landing in last month’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge while fighting for victory, he’s in need of a capable pair of hands to reignite his W2RC title tilt.

Baumel may just be the man to do just that. And the twisted irony is that Chicherit currently lies third in the W2RC standings, three points adrift of none other than Al-Attiyah himself, who won Abu Dhabi in his first event with Boulanger.

“Let me be clear,” said Chicherit. “This will only be a one-off with Mathieu. In other circumstances, I wouldn’t have asked myself the question and would have jumped at the chance to get him back.

DAKAR 2024 - STAGE 11

Chicherit is confident that regular navigator Winoq will soon be ready to return

“Still, I’m thrilled with Alex, another extraordinary co-driver who people don’t know because he doesn’t yet have Mathieu’s track record. Alex is among the three best co-drivers in the field, and I’m lucky to have him. Unfortunately, he’s injured at the moment, and it’s a great opportunity to race with Mathieu again.

“But we won’t have a career together, that’s for sure, unless… you never know what can happen. But Alex will be back in the car very soon. For Mathieu, it’s complicated because he is currently the best co-driver; he can only co-drive with one of the four or five best drivers who all have stable teammates.

“He can rebuild something with a driver who comes from another discipline, or with Mattias Ekström, who has impressive potential, or with one of the young drivers who are coming through; these are the only possibilities I can see.”

While it would be jumping the gun somewhat to pick up Chicherit’s last point, the question does remain in the air. Baumel’s next move could be crucial in the future landscape of cross-country rallying, and more than a handful of drivers would pay large sums to have him sit alongside them in a T1+ car.

Nasser Al-Attiyah and Mathieu Baumel

The French navigator holds a formidable Dakar record, with four wins to his name

One of those drivers currently on the sidelines is Ekström, whose burgeoning rally-raid career could be impacted by Audi’s recent decision to officially halt its cross-country program.

The repercussions of that withdrawal could lead to a fine for the German brand but, more pertinently, are likely to leave someone of Ekström’s caliber potentially on the bench.

But, as Baumel explains, things are not always as predictable as they seem in rally-raid, with his case in point a perfect example.

“I didn’t expect how it came to a halt after the Dakar, just as the season was getting underway and without any real explanation,” explained Baumel.

“It wasn’t good timing. All the teams have their vehicles and crews entered, so it’s not a time when you can switch.

“I have two options: to stay at the same level among the top five, which means to join an existing team where all the places are taken or contribute my experience to a driver who is right behind and who could benefit from that little bit extra to climb the ranks and get on the podium. Today, I have no guarantees, but it’s happening; it will happen by the end of the year; it can’t happen any other way.”