Bahrain Raid Xtreme’s Sébastien Loeb believes he and new navigator Fabian Lurquin can hit the ground running as they prepare for their first assault on the Dakar Rally, which starts this weekend.
The nine-time World Rally Champion teamed up with Lurquin following his high-profile split from long-time co-driver Daniel Elena earlier this year, and narrowly missed out on victory in the Baja Aragón in the Prodrive-run Hunter.
And although BRX elected to skip the traditional pre-Dakar warm-up event in Ha’il in early December, Loeb reckons the time spent forging a partnership with Lurquin during the testing regime is starting to bear fruit.
Speaking to DirtFish, Loeb said: “I hope [the partnership with Fabian] will be enough, for sure.
“We haven’t worked together very long, compared to some of the other crews like [Nasser] Al-Attiyah and [Mathieu] Baumel who know each other very well, but I think we have a good collaboration already and a good understanding of each other.
“We have the same vision of the Dakar regarding the navigation so we can work in a clever way to try to optimize our way of collaborating.
“We both have a little experience of this race, and we are both approaching it in the same way. We know what we have to do, and I think we are ready. But like we know, it’s complicated.”
With navigation a major talking point throughout the 2021 rally, much of the emphasis for the 44th edition is likely to again center around that aspect of the event.
But despite criticisms from the likes of Carlos Sainz – who will be part of Audi’s electric program for the Dakar this year – and Loeb himself, the Frenchman admits it is up to the crews to adapt to the new rules.
“Last year there were a lot of problems with the navigation, but I don’t think the problem was from the tablet,” Loeb explained.
“It’s still a roadbook and the co-drivers got used to working with the tablet quite easily. What is more complicated is that we have to trust the roadbook 100%, which is almost impossible because we only get the code to open the roadbook 10 minutes before the start of the stage.
“The big key for me last year compared to previous Dakars that I did was that I had absolutely no preparation. There was no map man to work with in the evening to get an idea of the stage. You could prepare the night before, understand the roads perfectly but now we have to trust the roadbook 100%.
“And the co-driver discovers the roadbook at high speed, and they have to anticipate and that’s what I think is the trickiest because with the cars we have, we are driving very fast in some sections, and we have to understand it.”
Having skipped the 2020 edition in order to prepare for the Monte Carlo Rally with Hyundai, Loeb missed the first year of the digital roadbook, meaning that both he and former co-driver Elena were at a disadvantage in Saudi Arabia in 2021’s Dakar.
The new roadbook combined with the pairing’s first experience of the event in the Middle East led to a troublesome rally which ended in retirement at the start of the second week.
“The relationship I had with my co-driver last year was not as clear as I am trying to build now [with Lurquin],” admitted Loeb.
“Last year, with the tablet, I never saw anything, and I just had to do what Daniel was telling me, which is for sure more complicated for the driver. And with Fabian, we are working to have good communication to try to do something that, even if I don’t see the roadbook, I can at least understand what I have to do and work a bit more together on the navigation side. We both need to be ready to react in case something goes wrong.”
New T1+ Hunter “a big improvement” ahead of 2022 edition
As well as forging a relationship with a new navigator for this Dakar, Loeb has also been getting to grips with a heavily updated car.
Loeb believes the new Hunter is a vast improvement from the previous version and that prioritizing testing over competition was the right call from BRX.
“Everything is a bit more [with the car], it’s a bit heavier which is of course not something we want but that’s the only negative point,” Loeb said.
“The stability is also an improvement which means you can trust it much more when you push. Before, it was quite narrow compared to the height of the car so there was a risk of car rolling but now it’s more stable, which gives us a lot more confidence to really push.”
“Although we didn’t do the Baja Ha’il, we still managed to get a lot of kilometers which was positive. If we made a mistake, or had a problem, we could stop and try to work together to fix it, which we would not have been able to do if we were racing. If I had to choose between five days of racing and four days of testing, then I think it was better for us to do it this way.”