Sébastien Loeb was denied a sensational maiden cross country victory on the Baja España Aragón following a dramatic final stage, on which Nasser Al-Attiyah inherited the win.
Nine-time World Rally Champion Loeb and new co-driver Fabian Lurquin traded stage wins with triple Dakar Rally winners Al-Attiyah and Mathieu Baumel ahead of the final 129-mile test and held a two-minute lead approaching the finish, before hitting trouble and losing nearly 11 minutes.
It was a bitter blow for Loeb, who came agonizingly close to victory after a troubled maiden event with the Prodrive-run Bahrain Raid Xtreme outfit on the Dakar in January.
Mattias Ekström and Emil Bergkvist (pictured below) finished second in their X-raid run Mini All 4 Racing, while Yazeed Al Rajhi and Michael Orr came home third in their Overdrive Racing Toyota.
The event, which marks the halfway point of the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Bajas’ season, was centered around the town of Teruel around 80 miles north west of Valencia, Spain across two days and three competitive stages.
Having endured something of an up-and-down first event on the Dakar in January, the Prodrive-run Bahrain Raid Xtreme squad entered three cars for Aragon.
Argentinian Orlando Terranova – a regular Dakar competitor in a Mini – joined Loeb and Nani Roma alongside Roma’s former co-driver Dani Oliveras. Roma, in turn, was contesting his maiden Baja with his new co-driver Alex Haro, who has switched to Prodrive from Toyota Gazoo Racing, where he partnered 2009 Dakar winner Giniel de Villiers.
For Loeb, this was his first outing with a new co-driver in over two decades after replacing long-term partner Daniel Elena with Lurquin.
The new relationship started in perfect fashion for Loeb and Lurquin on the opening 111-mile stage on Friday, as they gave Prodrive its first Cross Country stage win by a second from Al-Attiyah’s Toyota Hilux. It was Loeb’s first fastest time since the 2019 Dakar, despite suffering a puncture and stopping mid-stage to replace a wheel.
“It was nice, the stages are nice to drive,” Loeb said post-stage.
“[The stage was] twisty but they kind of look like WRC tracks. For me, it’s the first time doing a Baja so the feeling was good.
“We had one little navigation mistake and one puncture so we lost a bit of time in the stage.”
Team-mates Roma and Terranova had mixed fortunes on SS1,with the former also suffering a puncture en route to the fourth-quickest time, while Terranova was forced to retire for the day after his power steering failed.
“The beginning of the stage was really good and, while I didn’t know it at the time, we set the fastest split time,” explained Terranova.
“With such a good feeling in the car, it was disappointing to lose the power steering, but we managed to get the car back to service and the team will repair it this afternoon so we can attack tomorrow.”
Prodrive did repair the Hunter and Terranova did attack on Saturday’s opening test, setting the second best time as Al-Attiyah went quickest from second on the road.
The Qatari, in his privately run Hilux, was impressive throughout the 69-mile stage, opening up a lead of over a minute from Terranova at the first intermediate split before that was pegged back to 58 seconds.
Al-Attiyah subsequently ballooned his margin over Loeb in the overall classification to 1m04s after the Prodrive was struck by another puncture and only managed the third-best time.
Al-Attiyah was first to start the final stage but quickly lost a chunk of time to Loeb by the first split. Loeb took a whopping 1m50s out of the Toyota and his margin over the Qatari increased to more than two minutes by the second.
But disaster struck for Loeb and Lurquin through the final split, as the pair dropped 10m48s to fall to seventh overall.
That elevated Ekström and Bergkvist to second and Al Rajhi to the final step on the podium. Al Rajhi started with the fourth quickest time on SS1 after admitting to “not taking any risks at all” and consolidated fifth overall after stage two. The Saudi ended stage three third fastest, 40 seconds behind Al-Attiyah, and was duly rewarded with an unexpected podium finish.
Baja España Aragon final result
1 Nasser Al-Attiyah/Mathieu Baumel (Toyota Hilux) 6h32m44s
2 Mattias Ekström/Emil Bergkvist (X-Raid Mini Amm 4 Rally) +4m40s
3 Yazeed Al Rajhi/Michael Orr (Toyota Hilux) +6m15s
4 Tiago Reis/Valter Cardoso (Toyota Hilux) + 6m50s
5 Nani Roma/Alex Haro (Bahrain Raid Xtreme Hunter) +7m8s
6 Erik van Loon/Sébastien Delaunay (Toyota Hilux) +11m41s
7 Sébastien Loeb/Fabian Lurquin (Bahrain Raid Xtreme Hunter) +11m52s