Audi’s Mattias Ekström and Emil Bergkvist opened their 2023 Dakar Rally account with the fastest time in the Sea Camp prologue, beating Bahrain Raid Xtreme’s Sébastien Loeb by one second.
Following the ceremonial start on the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, the eight-mile test set the road order for tomorrow’s first proper stage of the 45th edition, with the top 20 runners split by just over 20 seconds.
Running south from the bivouac on the banks of the Red Sea, the prologue was a tight and twisty opener for the crews, with a number of hairpins and right-angle turns on the agenda.
“It’s always nice to start the rally with a good prologue and track position is always good,” said Ekström. “We had no mistakes, the car felt good and we had a good flow from start to end.”
Defending rally winners Nasser Al-Attiyah and Mathieu Baumel were the first car crew to enter the prologue stage in their Toyota GR Hilux DKR T1+ and duly set the fourth quickest time, 12 seconds adrift of Ekström’s electric T1-Ultimate class Audi RS Q e-tron E2.
Loeb was second on the road courtesy of his runner-up finish in the 2022 edition in January and ended up the nearest challenger to Ekström’s time, proving that the BRX Hunter and the Audi were evenly matched on sandy tracks.
The nine-time World Rally champion said at the end of the stage that he had been pushing hard, due to the stage resembling something he would normally see on a World Rally Championship stage.
“I had no problems, it was a flat stage, so I tried to push hard like a WRC stage,” Loeb said. “I tried to be efficient, and it seemed like it worked at the moment, so it is a good start even though this stage is nothing like the rest of the rally.”
Third quickest was the second Audi of 14-time winner Stéphane Peterhansel, alongside navigator Edouard Boulanger. The pair were 11 seconds off the pace, and one clear of Al-Attiyah and Baumel at the end of the stage.
Next up in close company was the customer BRX Hunter of Guerlain Chicherit and Alex Winocq at the wheel of the GCK Motorsport run machine in fifth, one place ahead of three-time winner Carlos Sainz, while local driver Yazeed Al Rajhi was seventh in the Overdrive Racing Toyota.
Best of the Minis was Kuba Przygónski and Dirk von Zitzewitz in the new John Cooper Works Rally in eighth, 16 seconds away from Ekström, with BRX’s Orlando Terranova and Toyota’s Henk Lategan rounding out the top ten, 20 and 21 seconds adrift respectively.
Perhaps reaping the best road conditions for stage, one will be the third Toyota Gazoo Racing machine of Giniel de Villiers and Dennis Murphy who set the 13th fastest time.
Century Racing Factory Team’s Brian Baragwanath was the fastest two-wheel drive T1 car in 15th, 32 seconds in arrears of Ekström.
Prologue Stage Result (Sea Camp)
1 Mattias Ekström/Emil Bergkvist (Team Audi Sport) 8m00
2 Sébastien Loeb/Fabian Lurquin (Bahrain Raid Xtreme) +1s
3 Stéphane Peterhansel/Edouard Boulanger (Team Audi Sport) +11s
4 Nasser Al-Attiyah/Mathieu Baumel (Toyota Gazoo Racing) +12s
5 Guerlain Chicherit/Alex Winocq (GCK Motorsport) +13s
6 Carlos Sainz/Lucas Cruz (Team Audi Sport) +14s
7 Yazeed Al Rajhi/Dirk von Zitzewitz (Overdrive Racing) +16s
8 Jakub Przygónski/Armand Monleon (X-Raid Mini JCW) +16s
9 Orlando Terranova/Alex Haro Bravo (Bahrain Raid Xtreme) +20s
10 Henk Lategan/Brett Cummings (Toyota Gazoo Racing) +21s
Gutiérrez Herrero leads the way in T3
Extreme E co-champion Cristina Gutiérrez Herrero posted the quickest time in the T3 Lightweight Prototype class on her debut for the Red Bull Can-Am Factory Team.
Alongside navigator Pablo Moreno Huete, Gutiérrez Herrero finished two seconds clear of former Red Bull Off-Road Junior team-mate Seth Quintero, who in turn was two seconds faster than Guillaume de Mevius’s GRallyTeam OT3.
Mitch Guthrie, in the second Team USA Can-Am was fourth fastest, just six seconds down on Gutiérrez Herrero, while defending rally winner Francisco “Chalco” Lopez Contardo was some 15s down at the end, in fifth.
Last year’s T4 SSV winner Austin Jones was ninth fastest, 22s adrift of the best time but may well benefit from a more favorable road position on the first stage proper on Sunday.
Meanwhile, in the T4 Side-by-Side category – for modified production SSVs – Rokas Bacuiška set the pace in his Red Bull Can-Am Factory Team Maverick, beating South Racing’s Gerard Farres Guell by seven seconds.
Third quickest was the sensational Eryk Goczal, who was just eight seconds away from Bacuiška’s time. The 17-year-old is the son of Marek Goczal who finished behind his brother Michał in fifth.
Rodrigo Luppi de Oliveira was ninth quickest, just ahead of Yasir Seaidan.