Dakar Rally runner-up Sébastien Loeb believes he has never driven better on the demanding rally raid after a blistering second week performance in Saudi Arabia.
After suffering misfortune in the first week, Loeb went on a spree of stage wins after the rest day in Riyadh and became the first driver to win six consecutive stages on a single Dakar, despite being first on the road.
Key to Loeb’s recovery to the podium was his speed in the dunes, most notably in the vast Empty Quarter which hosted the pair of Marathon Stages last Thursday and Friday.
“[There were] a lot of dunes, so it’s not the same disadvantage to be first on the road like in some other stages,” Loeb told DirtFish.
“The lines of the motorbikes were very good, and I could push very hard. I have very good feelings in the dunes with the car and everything, so I was pushing to try to get second place, that was the target, and I did it.
“[Friday’s stage 12] was really a perfect stage, [Thursday] was nearly a perfect stage except that we needed to change one wheel, but I had a strong rhythm in the dunes.”
Loeb inherited the stage seven victory following a penalty for Audi’s Carlos Sainz and proceeded to win the next five in a row.
Being fast in the dunes requires a certain driving style, and Loeb has been able to adapt his own driving to use the dunes to his advantage.
“The confidence is great, also the feeling and the understanding of the dunes, so now I am pushing really hard,” Loeb added.
“You are always learning the dunes, especially the first time you do them, you just want to pass the dunes.
“Now I want to gain some time in the dunes, and I am a lot more aggressive in my driving style and try to optimize all these details.”
It’s a trait Loeb used in the World Rally Championship for years, focusing on one area at a time and perfecting it so that nobody else could match him for pace.
Asked by DirtFish whether he thought he’d driven the best Dakar of his career so far this year, Loeb said: “Yes, I think so. I think my experience has grown a lot over the years and especially last year in Abu Dhabi [Desert Challenge].
“It was very similar conditions to here and I think I took a lot of experience there. It’s important to have this experience in these kinds of events, I also didn’t have that much experience with Fabian [Lurquin, navigator] either but now it’s our second Dakar together, we did the whole season together, our relationship improved and the confidence between us too.
“We are speaking the same language when we are speaking about navigation, we make our plan together, we have the same understanding of things so it’s nice to work with him.”
Most Dakar stage wins on a single event
|10||P Lartigue (1994)|
|9||J Ickx (1984)|
|7||A Vatanen (1989, ’90, ’92 & ’96)|
|7||J-L Schlesser (2001)|
|7||C Sainz (2011)|
|7||S Loeb (2023)|
Experienced navigator and former biker Fabian Lurquin teamed up with Loeb for last year’s Dakar, after contesting several editions with Mathieu Serradori.
The Belgian admitted that, following the pair’s early troubles – where they suffered five punctures in two days as well as a power-steering loss – both he and Loeb had considered throwing in the towel.
“Unfortunately, on the second and third stages, we lost nearly two hours, and we were on the edge of saying: ‘OK, leave it like that, we’ll come back next year’,” said Lurquin.
“And then in the end, we said ‘OK it’s going to work’ and slowly we got into our rally, and we did what we knew we could do, drive fast and make no mistakes.
“The car has improved, Séb and I together, we needed to learn how to work with each other. We’re not quite at the top level where we want to reach just yet, but we’ve made some steps obviously.
“I’m very proud of our six [stage] victories, but we need to take into consideration the fact that the two big guys, Carlos and Stéphane [Peterhansel] are not there, and Nasser was slowing down a bit too.”