The final itinerary and new sporting regulations for the 2023 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia have been unveiled by the event’s organizer, the Amaury Sport Organisation.
As part of the official route presentation in Paris, Dakar director David Castera and the ASO’s chief executive officer Yann Le Moënner presented the route for the classic rally raid which is being held in the region for the fourth year, alongside HRH Prince Khalid Bin Sultan Al Abdullah Al Faisal, head of Saudi Arabia’s automobile and motorcycle federation.
With nearly 5000km (3100 miles) of special timed stages, the 2023 edition of the Dakar Rally – which begins with the Prologue on New Year’s Eve next month – will be the longest since 2014 when the event was still based in South America and features 14 stages – over 15 days – for the first time since 2018.
Four loop stages feature on the itinerary, which features significantly more dunes and a return of the infamous Empty Quarter in the second week.
The infamous Empty Quarter, where the Marathon Stage takes place, will likely play a big role in the outcome of the 2023 event, with a 70% brand-new route featuring far more special stages through the rolling dunes in the second week before finishing at Dammam on January 15.
“At 14 full stages and a prologue, the loud call for a longer, tougher Dakar has been heard,” said Castera. “It follows on from our desire to go back to basics and make sure our rally is a unique challenge of extreme endurance.
“By kicking it up a notch on every front, from handling skills and keeping the mechanics in one piece to navigation and physical endurance, the 2023 Dakar will also set the tone for the second season of the FIA World Rally Raid Championship.”
Among the sporting regulation changes is the scrapping of neutralization zones for the T1 and T2 car categories, meaning each special stage will be run flat-out, without stop from the start to the finish of the timed section.
In a change to previous years, an enlarged bivouac will host the competitors for four days at what the organizer is calling Sea Camp, on the banks of the Red Sea. Scrutineering and administration checks will take place there before the Prologue starts on December 31.
The rally proper then begins on January 1 with a 368km (228.6 miles) loop stage around Sea Camp before moving onto AlUla for a 431km (267.8 miles) test for stage two.
Stage three takes crews from AlUla for a 447km (277.7 miles) stage to Ha’il where navigation is tipped to be a real challenge to crews.
Stages four and five are loops around Ha’il with the first featuring what Castera calls “a mountain of dunes” while the latter is more sand based and shorter at 216km (134.2 miles).
Stage six heads southwards to Al Duwadimi for a 466km (289.5 miles) special stage which will be split up into two distinct parts; the first is a fast section on plateaus while the second half crosses more dunes.
Al Duwadimi hosts the third loop stage which Castera labels as “the most complete stage” of the rally. At 473km (292.9 miles), it is regarded as one of the toughest on the itinerary, notable for its stoney tracks which increases puncture risks. Then it’s onto Riyadh for stage eight, a long special on broken terrain before the rest day in the Saudi capital.
Following the rest day, a 439km (272 miles) test awaits competitors from Riyadh to Haradh, before heading onwards to Shaybah for a short 114km (70.8 miles) foray into the Empty Quarter.
The Marathon Stage then presents the biggest challenge for the crews, where competitors are not allowed any mechanical assistance. This will be a full day in the dunes before returning to Shaybah.
Stage 13 runs from Shaybah to Al-Hofuf, while the final test completes the coast-to-coast Dakar with a simple 136km (84.5 miles) stage to Dammam.
Leading the 72-strong car entry is last year’s winner Nasser Al-Attiyah who will again be aboard the Toyota Gazoo Racing GR Hilux DKR T1+, alongside team-mates Henk Lategan and 2009 winner Giniel de Villiers.
After making its debut on the 2022 event, Audi returns with a slimmed down, aerodynamically enhanced RS Q e-tron for 14-time winner Stéphane Peterhansel, double World Rally champion Carlos Sainz and 2016 World Rallycross champion Mattias Ekström.
The Prodrive-built Hunter T1+ will have an increased presence at the Dakar, with factory outfit Bahrain Raid Xtreme looking to go one better with Sébastien Loeb and Fabian Lurquin, who claimed BRX’s first cross-country victory as a team in the final round of the World Rally Raid Championship in Andalucía.
Loeb will be joined by Orlando Terranova and Alex Haro Bravo, while Green Corp Konnection will run a privateer Hunter T1+ for Rallye du Maroc winner Guerlain Chicherit and Alex Winocq.
Other potential challengers for victory include Overdrive Racing’s Yazeed Al Rajhi, competing on home soil alongside Michael Orr.
Elsewhere, Extreme E podium finisher Laia Sanz continues her rally raid car career in the T1 category after signing a deal to race an Astara 01 Concept/Century CR6 with SMC Motorsport.