Bahrain Raid Xtreme’s Sébastien Loeb heads into next year’s Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia feeling “quite confident” as he goes in search of an elusive first victory on the classic rally raid.
The nine-time World Rally champion finished second in 2017, then again in 2022 with the Prodrive-run BRX operation on its second appearance on the event. He recorded the team’s maiden cross-country victory on the final round of this year’s World Rally-Raid Championship in Andalucía.
Despite an up-and-down first outing on the Dakar with the team in 2021, Loeb believes that the progress made on the Hunter T1+ – which was effectively a brand-new car built for the FIA’s latest regulation set – can challenge for overall victory from the off in 2023.
“It has been quite a good season,” Loeb told DirtFish. “The speed has been there all year and, OK, we were a little bit unlucky in Morocco [with power-steering failure on the last stage costing victory], but for sure we can be satisfied, and we can take more experience with me and my co-driver [Fabian Lurquin], the little details and all the little problems we had.
“So, it’s quite difficult on the mechanical side but it’s a category which requires a lot of experience. And Prodrive has a lot of experience in motorsport but only three years so far in the Dakar, so other teams like Toyota and the guys who run Audi have much more experience and they are also able to fix these problems quicker than us.
“But the reliability of the car and the speed is looking good for this year, and we are quite confident we can fight for the victory.”
The 2023 edition will feature revamped engine regulations which will give the BRX Hunter and Toyota’s GR Hilux DKR the same output and weight, while Audi’s RS Q e-tron will receive a weight break of 100kg – but only in the [desert] stages; the electric car will remain the same weight as T1+ cars at sea level.
With much of Audi’s performance unknown due to variation in technologies between T1+ and T1-Ultimate cars, Loeb prefers to focus on the strengths of the Hunter versus main W2RC rivals Toyota for the moment.
“I think our car is quite good on every surface, it’s a good balance,” explained Loeb. “But for me personally, I like to drive on the technical tracks and our car is quite good on those sandy roads, so I prefer those. This is an area where we’re strong, we’re also reasonably good in the dunes so we definitely cannot complain.
“Our performance compared to the Toyota is quite similar, we have the same weight, the same power due to the FIA rules, we have the same suspension dimensions and the same gearbox, so we are evenly matched.
“With the Audi, it’s very difficult to predict, the electric battery is more advantageous in the dunes because they have better reactivity and more torque, so they will be very strong in the dunes.
“I’m confident we can be in a good battle with the Toyotas, but with the Audis we have no idea because their technology is very different to ours, so I hope the FIA made the right decision.”
One of the most significant sporting regulation changes to the Dakar for 2023 is the removal of the neutralization zones for cars in the middle of special stages, which Loeb reckons could have far-reaching impacts.
“For the last Dakars, we always had information on where we were on the stage, what was our rhythm, are we good or not, but this information we will not have anymore and for sure it can make some big differences at the end of the stages now,” he said.
“This year, if you were in the wrong rhythm by the middle of the stage, you could understand this and correct your speed for the second half, or you knew a bit more. Now, we will have absolutely no information of where we are unless we catch another car, or another car catches us.
“So, there could be some crashes at the end of the stages, especially if there are 450km stages.”
That’s because, unlike when the WRC decided to remove the availability of split times during stages in 2015, the length of Dakar stages means there are far more chances to make costly errors.
“WRC stages are only about 30km, and you need to be flat-out all the time, so there are less questions.
“In the Dakar, you can make some mistakes, you know that you have lost some time, but you don’t know if the other guys have made bigger or smaller mistakes than you and you can be stressed for 400km because of a mistake you made at the beginning.
“And then you can be surprised at the end that the others lost 10 minutes, so there will be lots of questions in your mind for a long time, but the best thing to do – and the most difficult – will be to forget about any mistakes you do and just focus on what you are doing on the stage.”
In addition to the Loeb-Lurquin partnership, BRX is also fielding the crew of Argentinean driver Orlando Terranova and navigator Alex Haro Bravo in their second Hunter in Saudi Arabia.