As the 2023 Dakar Rally reached its conclusion after 15 long days of endurance action on the banks of the Persian Gulf in Dammam, much of the attention was centered on two drivers in particular.
Toyota’s Nasser Al-Attiyah stood tall on the podium following his fifth victory, while World Rally-Raid Championship points leader Sébastien Loeb was a worthy runner-up after winning seven stages.
But perhaps the most impressive performance of this year’s edition of the Dakar was the driver on the third step, the lesser-known Lucas Moraes.
Few would have predicted pre-event that the Brazilian former motocross rider, contesting his first Dakar, would finish in the top five, let alone stand on the podium at the end of the rally.
Neither did the man himself.
“My first goal was just to finish and then if we had a top 15 result, it would have been huge; it would have been really huge for me,” Moraes told DirtFish.
“And then we got going and we had a really good strategy in place, especially on the second stage when everyone was without spare wheels, and we kept going.
“I found a nice speed between fifth and 10th on the stages, I even got a third a few days ago. I had good speed without taking too much risk, we really just tried to reach our marks.”
Moraes may be new to the Dakar but his roots lie in off-road competition, having plied his trade in motocross for eight years before a hip injury prompted the switch to four wheels.
“I was born and raised in Brazil and my dad used to do some enduros on dirt bikes back in the day,” said Moraes. “And when I was around three or four, I already fell in love with dirt bikes, but my dad said: ‘OK, first you need to learn how to ride a bicycle without the training wheels’, and the next day I tried it and managed to do it.
“And then, for the next Christmas, I received my first dirt bike when I was around four and that’s basically how I started.”
Once the hobby became increasingly serious, Moraes entered motocross competition and eventually made his hobby his profession at the age of 15 with the Suzuki factory team in Brazil.
Eight years of the sport brought Moraes a lot of success, travel and new experiences, but injury would force him to seek other opportunities which eventually led to the Dakar Rally and a totally different challenge.
“It was my first proper job because I had a boss, a salary but it was nice,” explained Moraes. “Between the ages of 15 and 22, I was completely focused on motocross, I went to the US to race the AMA motocross and then, fast forward again, when I was 24, I had a problem in my hip that I had to put right; I had a hip replacement.
“My dad had already made the switch to cars, he raced in Brazil for fun, and then I decided to give it a shot and I started to enjoy it a lot. All of sudden I was focused on four wheels.”
Moraes’ four-wheel adventures focused on what he knew best, off-road. Competing in the Brazilian national championship, he won the title twice while also adding a pair of victories on South America’s most prestigious cross-country event, the Sertoes.
Those successes caught the eye of Overdrive Racing’s Jean-Marc Fontin and Red Bull, and it was from there that the idea of competing on the Dakar first came about.
A far cry from the Brazilian championship, the Dakar presented Moraes with his fair share of barriers but, despite limited experience on the sort of topography in Saudi Arabia, the rookie could at least rely on his two-wheeled days.
“In Brazil, since we don’t have open deserts, we sort of race in farm landscapes, so it’s not like here [in Saudi Arabia] but it teaches you how to drive,” said Moraes. “To be totally honest, when I made the switch from two wheels to four wheels, I knew that the big one would be the Dakar, but I thought that it was too much, it was too far from us.
“We are in a different continent, we have to cross the ocean, but when I won Sertoes again in 2022, in July, things started to get going with Jean-Marc and Red Bull, and they said that I would probably do the Dakar to get some experience.
“For sure, all of these years on the dirt bikes really helped because we race on all sorts of surfaces, soil and sand a lot. We did some training back in Brazil and we have some small dunes; I went to Peru at the beginning of the year in 2022 without thinking about doing the Dakar, just to get some experience, and Peru has some huge dunes as well, so it was nice training there.
“And we watched some onboards from previous years, tried to watch all the fastest guys, even the old dirt bikes just to try and understand what kind of dunes we are going to face.
“I managed to do one race before the Dakar, which was the Baja Dubai and it was only dunes there, which was my first desert race, and it was good to have experience already with Timo there.”
Experience on the Dakar is key to success, and navigator Timo Gottschalk is no slouch when it comes to cross-country. A winner with Al-Attiyah in 2011 when the pair were still with Volkswagen, what the German veteran doesn’t know about the Dakar isn’t worth knowing.
Moraes understood this too, and that’s why he opted to take on Gottschalk’s services in favor of his regular navigator in Brazil, Kaique Bentivoglio.
“I had my co-driver in Brazil with whom we won two Sertões together, but he knew that he needed more training for cap navigation and dunes and desert, so when the opportunity came to join Timo, I said to Jean-Marc: ‘OK, let’s go with Timo because he is a Dakar legend, Dakar champion.
“The learning curve was already steep, but with Timo it will only get better.”
As you can imagine, Moraes and Gottschalk had a steady start to their first Dakar together, running 12th after the first stage before moving into the top 10 after a tactically astute second stage.
“The main thing is that this is a patience game,” described Moraes. “For instance, on the second stage, we got a puncture 15km into the stage, so we had 450km left to drive with only one spare, and we had buggies – because they can inflate and deflate their tires – passing us from every side.
“And we just kept going, so the mind game is crucial in the Dakar.”
Over the next two stages, things got inexorably better for Moraes, who moved up to sixth by the end of day four, which became third after the Audi’s of Stéphane Peterhansel and Carlos Sainz crashed on stage six.
Now in a position he could hardly have dreamed of, Moraes suddenly had something to fight for on his maiden voyage into the unknown.
When the Toyota Gazoo Racing Hilux of Henk Lategan suffered a broken damper on stage nine, third place became second, but Moraes soon had a certain Sébastien Loeb breathing down his neck.
“Timo and I were discussing every night, saying: ‘hey, this fight is not for us’, for sure when we have more experience, we can but this is Sébastien Loeb, the greatest ever and we knew he was coming, and it took him three days to catch us.”
And that’s the impressive aspect of Moraes’ Dakar debut. The best tactic in motorsport is knowing what battle to fight and when to fight it.
Scrapping with Loeb was never on the cards and Moraes superbly consolidated his pace without losing too much time.
It paid off with a sensational podium finish. Put in context with rally winner Al-Attiyah, the Qatari finished 11th on his maiden outing.
Before pondering what could be the future on the Dakar for Moraes, there’s a small matter of what happens next. The W2RC calendar features two rounds in the Americas. Is Moraes interested?
“For sure, the idea is to do some of the rounds, there are some in the Americas,” Moraes said.
“I just need to find the budget with the sponsors because the focus was the Dakar but for sure if I had the chance to do it, I would.”