Loeb’s strategy gambit for Dakar’s biggest test

Prodrive team-mates Sébastien Loeb and Nasser Al-Attiyah are going about winning differently

DAKAR 2024 – STAGE 5

You don’t win nine world championships by just mashing a throttle pedal to the floor. Engaging grey matter is as critical as engaging first gear on the start line.

Sébastien Loeb has been putting thinking caps on for a long time now. And he’s back at it again on the Dakar Rally.

He’s finished second on this event three times now. And the driver that presents the biggest obstacle to taking that first win, Nasser Al-Attiyah, is in his camp, with the same equipment.

Risks are going to be needed. But they need to be smart risks.

As the Dakar crews head into the longest stage of the rally on Thursday, Loeb thinks he’s taken a risk that makes sense.

He took the wrong route on stage five, and thus incurred a 15-minute penalty, on purpose.

“We decided not to take one waypoint because we wanted to lose some time to be further back on the track,” Loeb told DirtFish.

Road order on the Dakar works a bit differently to the World Rally Championship; stage times from the day before, not the overall classification, set the running order. And if you go fastest, you start first the next day.

For stage six, that’s Al-Attiyah. And this is the stage where it could matter most. A two-day format is being pioneered, with crews running until 4pm, parking up at the next checkpoint and camping out overnight before finishing the stage the next day. At 355 miles, it’s the longest test of the event.

DAKAR 2024 - STAGE 5

“I expect the first car to be a bit slow in the dunes; very slow,” Loeb added. “It’s Nasser, so it will be a bit faster than expected but the first car making a line is not fast.

“I wanted to be far behind to have the time during 500 kilometers to catch up some time. Maybe we lost a few minutes too many.

“But I’m happy with my strategy.”

Those 15 minutes given away dropped Loeb from sixth to ninth, 43 minutes off the top spot. But he’s convinced he’ll claw it all back and then some over the next two days.

“We calculated that compared to the first car on the track, starting in the line, we can be much faster. We expect all the first cars to pack together to catch the first one and to be stuck behind them. We wanted to have a free stage as much as possible and try to catch the head of the race.”

Road position shenanigans are nothing new. But it’s the way he’s gone about it that’s less straightforward; rather than take it easy or park up, Loeb and navigator Fabian Lurquin tried to evade the attention of rivals trying to figure out how much time they were going to drop.

DAKAR 2024 - STAGE 5

“We were thinking the same way since the beginning,” said Loeb of his right-hand man. “We decided instead of stopping in the stage, missing a waypoint is the same.

“The other guy will not see it if we finish the stage. That was our plan we built together. We are maybe the only two ones to believe in it, so hopefully it’s not a stupid idea!”

Yazeed Al-Rajhi currently leads the rally by nine minutes in a privateer Toyota. But Al-Attiyah, who was outside the top 20 on day one, is now in second place. And he has no regrets about leading the way on the rally’s most daunting stage.

“It looks like many drivers tried to make a strategy [for Thursday], to not open [the road]. But for me, really, I don’t care,” said Al-Attiyah, matter-of-factly.

“I will try to open [today] and have good speed. It will not be easy because there is no track, nothing. But we have good confidence.”

Loeb’s playing the long game brought him unparalleled success in his first career. But looking at Al-Attiyah’s progress, it looks like plenty of throttle-mashing will be needed too.