For the fourth time since moving to the Middle East, the Dakar Rally will be disputed on Saudi Arabian soil.
The event begins in earnest on Sunday with the first stage proper, but the road-order setting prologue has already taken place at Sea Camp near the headquarters bivouac on banks of the Red Sea.
Just how the rally will pan out is, frankly, anyone’s guess but if one is to make an educated guess, perhaps recent form could give us an idea of what to expect from the leading runners.
In order to keep this as concise as possible without going through every one of the 400-plus competitors, we’ve kept this form guide to selected crews within the car category.
#200 Nasser Al-Attiyah/Mathieu Baumel (Toyota Gazoo Racing)
Last 3 cross-country results: 2nd, 3rd, 11th
Best Dakar result: 1st (2011, 2015, 2019, 2022)
The reference crew on the Dakar Rally and cross-country rallying in 2022. Al-Attiyah and Baumel are a truly formidable combination and will surely be at the sharp end once again if their Toyota GR Hilux DKR T1+ runs well.
The Franco-Qatari partnership demonstrated how to win the Dakar earlier this year, but they were not without their own problems; they just endured fewer than their rivals. Navigation will again be a key factor in determining the winner this year, and with Baumel one of the – if not, the – best in the business, the defending winners have the theoretical upper hand from the off.
And if their third Dakar win together – Al-Attiyah’s fourth overall – is not proof enough, winning the inaugural World Rally-Raid Championship title in Andalucía should tell you what sort of form they are in.
#201 Sébastien Loeb/Fabian Lurquin (Bahrain Raid Xtreme)
Last 3 cross-country results: 1st, DNF, 6th
Best Dakar result: 2nd (2017, 2022)
Could his eighth participation in the Dakar Rally finally be the one where World Rally Championship legend Loeb takes that elusive first victory in the rally raid classic? Only time will tell, but the signs from his 2022 season all point to a successful Dakar if things don’t go belly-up like they have done on too many occasions.
Loeb and the Dakar sometimes like each other, sometimes despise each other. It’s safe to say that with the backing of Prodrive – which has made terrific progress in just its third edition – and the experience of navigator Lurquin, this may well be Loeb’s best chance yet. Victory on the final W2RC round in Andalucía was just reward after mechanical woes cost him dearly in Morocco.
Loeb’s speed is obvious, the BRX Hunter is now also a more complete machine and, more importantly, the form has been consistent. And consistency is half the battle to winning the Dakar.
#202 Yazeed Al Rajhi/Dirk von Zitzewitz (Overdrive Racing)
Last 3 cross-country results: 3rd, 4th, 12th
Best Dakar result: 3rd (2022)
The ex-WRC driver is a local legend and will be looking to improve on his maiden Dakar podium with a first victory on home soil in Saudi this January. Al Rajhi is perhaps one of the fastest cross-country drivers out there, and his navigator Von Zitzewitz is a past winner too – with Giniel de Villiers in 2009.
While Al Rajhi has been blindingly fast, he’s also been inescapably unlucky on the Dakar, particularly in 2021 where punctures and mechanical strife killed off any potential challenge almost immediately, although that didn’t stop him from taking a pair of stage wins en route to fourth place at the finish.
He was denied a stage win in 2022 due to a penalty but third place plus a strong W2RC campaign means he’s a solid outside bet should the factory teams suffer issues.
#203 Jakub Przygónski/Armand Monleon (X-Raid Mini JCW Team)
Last 3 cross-country results: 5th, 3rd, 4th
Best Dakar result: 4th (2021)
Przygónski did not start the final round of the W2RC campaign in Andalucía, opting to focus his and Mini’s attention on finishing the new-for-2023 Mini John Cooper Works Rally machine which has been upgraded to T1+ specifications for the latest edition of the Dakar Rally.
The Polish driver has often been rapid and consistent but has lacked the right machinery at the right time to properly challenge for overall honors. Fourth in the W2RC standings at the end of the season was a decent preparation in the older Mini JCW Buggy.
There’s been some testing in the new car but no competition so “Kuba” may need to spend the opening week getting to grips with his new home.
#204 Stéphane Peterhansel/Edouard Boulanger (Team Audi Sport)
Last 3 cross-country results: 3rd, 1st, 59th
Best Dakar result: 1st (2004, 2005, 2007, 2012, 2013, 2016, 2017, 2021)
There’s a reason they call Peterhansel “Mr Dakar”. Eight victories in the car category and another six in the bikes, equating to 14 overall successes on three continents over a 30-year period.
Like the rest of the Audi crews, however, it is difficult to judge exactly how he’ll perform on this year’s Dakar given the limited competitive running the new RS Q e-tron E2 has had. It debuted in Morocco and duly won the Open Auto class, with Peterhansel and Boulanger finishing third, which would have placed them fourth in the overall standings – a mere three seconds behind Al-Attiyah and Baumel’s Toyota.
In the original iteration of the RS Q e-tron, Peterhansel took a breakthrough victory in Abu Dhabi after the Dakar as well. The Audi’s pace has never been in doubt and the team says it’s a lot more reliable throughout testing. With Peterhansel and Boulanger at the helm, they’ll surely be firmly in the mix.
#205 Giniel de Villiers/Dennis Murphy (Toyota Gazoo Racing)
Last 3 cross-country results: 2nd, 2nd, 2nd
Best Dakar result: 1st (2009)
Consistency was the key to De Villiers winning the South African Rally-Raid Championship at the final round in the Parys 400. He only won one event, but in the end it didn’t matter. More importantly, it showed that De Villiers has still got what it takes to fight for titles and victories after what has been a hell of a year for the Dakar veteran, in more than one way.
His 2022 Dakar is probably one he’d rather forget quickly. Penalties for his incidents with bikers aside, De Villiers was the victim of an ugly social media assault which affected the 2009 winner badly. A stage win towards the end of the rally restored some joy inside the Toyota camp.
Has De Villiers got another Dakar win in him? The competition is perhaps tougher than in any previous edition, so the odds are against him but, as ever, it’s not out of the question.
#206 Guerlain Chicherit/Alex Winocq (GCK Motorsport)
Last 3 cross-country results: N/A, 1st, N/A
Best Dakar result: 5th (2010)
As form goes, Chicherit technically has the best record of the entire car field. OK, that’s slightly disingenuous as the former ski champion and World RX competitor entered a solitary round of the W2RC season and won it. But nevertheless his performance on the Rallye du Maroc in the customer Prodrive Hunter was impressive and gave us an idea of what Chicherit can do given the right machinery.
Whether he can repeat the feat on the Dakar itself is another question. Although Morocco was still a world championship event, Al-Attiyah and Baumel were not desperate to take victory, while Loeb and Lurquin had been set to win before their final day dramas.
Still, the Hunter is a quick car and Chicherit – alongside Alex Winocq – have several Dakars under their belt to cause an upset.
#207 Carlos Sainz/Lucas Cruz (Team Audi Sport)
Last 3 cross-country results: 1st, 12th, N/A
Best Dakar result: 1st (2010, 2018, 2020)
The three-time winning crew have not had the best relationship with the Dakar Rally in recent years. Since triumphing on the first edition to be held in Saudi Arabia, Sainz and Cruz have found the going tough as they try to second-guess the road book.
Losing nearly two hours in January was hardly the way they wanted to start their career with Audi on the second day but, by the end of the rally, the signs were promising. He won a stage and finished 12th overall.
Looking at the only competitive data available, on the Rallye du Maroc, Sainz’s winning Open Auto class time would have been good enough to win the event outright, beating both Chicherit’s BRX Hunter and Al-Attiyah’s T1+ Hilux. That turned heads as Morocco has a similar topography to that of Saud Arabia, albeit it is a much, much shorter event.
That’s the only representative comparison we have of the top class of cars; Sainz’s ‘winning’ time was just under two minutes quicker than Chicherit’s, and 31 minutes clear of Al-Attiyah who endured a difficult rally.
#208 Orlando Terranova/Alex Haro Bravo (Bahrain Raid Xtreme)
Last 3 cross-country results: N/A, 2nd, N/A
Best Dakar result: 5th (2013)
The former biker turned car driver is no stranger to the Dakar, having competed in Africa, South America and Saudi Arabia. Brought into the BRX fold in 2021, Terranova finished a superb fourth place in the 2022 edition with navigator Dani Carreras Oliveras, taking a stage win in the opening week.
Since then, it’s been a bit of a dry period for Terranova who has contested just one W2RC rally in the intervening 11 months, finishing second to Chicherit in Morocco.
Gauging where Terranova will fit into the field is hard, but he’s a driver who always manages to find a way into the mix one way or another. He has a new navigator for this year, Alex Haro Bravo who sat alongside Nani Roma in January, so the experience in the second BRX Hunter has clearly not been hampered.
#209 Mathieu Serradori/Loïc Minaudier (Century Racing Factory Team)
Last 3 cross-country results: 8th, 13th, 5th
Best Dakar result: 7th (2022)
A battler in the true sense of the word, Serradori punches well above his weight in the Century CR6 buggy and relishes the challenge of taking it to the top-class runners in stages. The heavier, more cumbersome buggies will almost certainly not take the overall win, but there are chances for stage wins in the right conditions. Serradori did just that in 2020 en route to an eighth-place finish.
He finished seventh last year, proving that reliability and consistency is as important as raw speed. Perhaps the biggest interest will be seeing who comes out on top in the battle among the Century buggies.
#211 Mattias Ekström/Emil Bergkvist (Team Audi Sport)
Last 3 cross-country results: 2nd, 9th, N/A
Best Dakar result: 9th (2022)
Audi boss Sven Quandt says that Ekström’s exploits on the Dakar earlier this year were ‘exceptional’ and it’s hard to disagree with that statement. For a relative Dakar novice, a stage win and a top 10 finish – the best of the Audis to boot – was quite the achievement. He’s not done a lot of competition since then, but enough testing to get to grips with the lighter, more efficient RS Q e-tron E2.
Ekström is a quick adapter to new environments so perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise the 2016 World Rallycross champion has settled in so well.
What can we expect of Ekström and past Junior WRC champion Emil Bergkvist this year? More learning certainly and maybe a stage win or two. Crucially, another finish should be the target this year.
#216 Brian Baragwanath/Leonard Cremer (Century Racing Factory Team)
Last 3 cross-country results: DNF, 4th, 14th
Best Dakar result: 14th (2022)
A stalwart in the T1.2 sub-class, the South African Rally-Raid Championship regular will benefit from an upgraded Century CR6 – prepared by SRT Racing – for this year’s Dakar, having sacrificed the final round of the national championship season in order to prepare for a fifth assault on the Dakar Rally.
Having previously podiumed in the quad bike category on the event back in 2016 – when the Dakar was still held in South America – Baragwanath certainly knows his cross-country and as part of the Century Racing Factory Team, will be aiming to improve on his 14th place achieved in Saudi Arabia last year.
A tenacious competitor and one who never gives up, so expect he and navigator Leonard Cremer to make the finish in the CR6 with an updated Audi engine.
#217 Henk Lategan/Brett Cummings (Toyota Gazoo Racing)
Last 3 cross-country results: DNF, 1st, 1st
Best Dakar result: 31st (2022)
Coming off a rough ride in 2021, where he ended up on his roof early into the fifth stage and breaking his collarbone, Lategan won his first Dakar stage earlier this year to finally get the monkey off his back.
He’s a fast driver and, with Brett Cummings alongside him, forms a strong lineup in the third Toyota Hilux. He won’t be expected to dispute the overall victory necessarily, but the double South African champion will be aiming to improve on his two stage victories from 2022 and break into the top 10 with a largely trouble-free run on this his third attempt on the Dakar.