Carlos Sainz has become the first leader of the 2023 Dakar Rally, outpacing Sébastien Loeb on an opening stage that looked to belong to his Audi team-mate Mattias Ekström.
The opening test of this year’s Dakar clocked in at 368km (228.7 miles) and initially took the world’s best endurance drivers along the seafront before diving in-land for a mixture of desert and stony terrain.
And it was Ekström, winner of the prologue stage on Saturday, who was quickest at the opening waypoint, over 10 seconds clear of reigning Dakar winner Nasser Al-Attiyah.
The 2016 World Rallycross champion Ekström may have felt that the FIA had made the performance disparity between his electric T1-ultimate Audi RS Q e-tron E2 and the T1+ machines “pretty fair”, but he remained in total control of the opening phases of the Sea Camp special.
At the halfway point Ekström was almost two minutes clear of nine-time World Rally champion Sébastien Loeb with fellow Frenchman and Prodrive Hunter driver Guerlain Chicherit tucked in in third place.
Although Bahrain Raid Xtreme’s Loeb did begin to hit back at the Audi driver, Ekström looked as if he couldn’t be halted en route to his second career Dakar stage win with a lead margin just shy of a minute.
But through the final waypoint Ekström dropped back, slipping to third as team-mate Sainz – who was recovering from a puncture picked up 32km in – rose to the fore.
Sainz, a four-time Dakar winner, cannily used his experience to rise to the front. Close to four minutes adrift of Ekström through the early waypoints, Sainz saved his best until last through the dunes to take the opening stage win by 23s over Loeb.
Loeb therefore denied Audi an early 1-2, but with the top three very close with Ekström just 47s back from Sainz after over three hours of competitive driving.
Ekström suggested afterwards that he lost his lead as he had driven too cautiously on the stage’s latter part: “[For] Fifty to 100km I felt a really brilliant flow. And then once we had the regroup we saw that our pace maybe was a bit too fast, so we tried to calm down a bit, but maybe we calmed down too much. But we are happy.”
Ekström’s woe was later compounded however as he got a 15-minute penalty for missing a waypoint.
Chicherit, running a privately entered Hunter, was a strong fourth, stopping the clocks just 17s slower than former rallycross rival Ekström, though Chicherit later got a one-minute penalty.
Yazeed Al-Rajhi’s private example was the quickest of the Toyota Hilux T1+s in an encouraging third after the penalties for those ahead, 2m01s off the lead, on what proved to be an underwhelming opening day for the reigning World Rally-Raid champion manufacturer.
Drivers’ champion Al-Attiyah was the fastest of the works car but was just seventh overall, over seven minutes down on Sainz’s stage-winning pace.
Toyota team-mates Henk Lategan and Giniel de Villiers were 10th and 18th quickest respectively, 11 and 18 minutes off the lead.
But they weren’t the only big hitters to suffer a sluggish start as the third Audi of record Dakar Rally winner Stéphane Peterhansel was only eighth fastest, 8m51s down on the fellow RS Q e-tron E2 of Sainz.
Stage 1 (Sea Camp – Sea Camp) result
1 Carlos Sainz/Lucas Cruz (Team Audi Sport) 3h20m41
2 Sébastien Loeb/Fabian Lurquin (Bahrain Raid Xtreme) +23s
3 Yazeed Al Rajhi/Dirk von Zitzewitz (Overdrive Racing) +1m59s
4 Guerlain Chicherit/Alex Winocq (GCK Motorsport) +2m04s
5 Orlando Terranova/Alex Haro Bravo (Bahrain Raid Xtreme) +6m59s
6 Vaidotas Zala/Paulo Fiuza (Teltonika Racing) +7m08s
7 Nasser Al-Attiyah/Mathieu Baumel (Toyota Gazoo Racing) +7m19s
8 Brian Baragwanath/Leonard Cremer (Century Racing Factory Team) +7m33s
9 Jakub Przygónski/Armand Monleon (X-Raid Mini JCW) +8m52s
10 Stéphane Peterhansel/Edouard Boulanger (Team Audi Sport) +8m54s
1 Carlos Sainz/Lucas Cruz (Team Audi Sport) 3h28m55
2 Sébastien Loeb/Fabian Lurquin (Bahrain Raid Xtreme) +10s
3 Yazeed Al Rajhi/Dirk von Zitzewitz (Overdrive Racing) +2m01s
4 Guerlain Chicherit/Alex Winocq (GCK Motorsport) +2m03s
5 Orlando Terranova/Alex Haro Bravo (Bahrain Raid Xtreme) +7m05s
6 Nasser Al-Attiyah/Mathieu Baumel (Toyota Gazoo Racing) +7m17s
7 Brian Baragwanath/Leonard Cremer (Century Racing Factory Team) +7m51s
8 Stéphane Peterhansel/Edouard Boulanger (Team Audi Sport) +8m51s
9 Jakub Przygónski/Armand Monleon (X-Raid Mini JCW) +8m54s
10 Henk Lategan/Brett Cummings (Toyota Gazoo Racing) +11m45s
López leads finely poised T3 battle
Things are extremely well poised in the T3 battle after the opening test too with just 26s covering the top three.
Francisco López Contardo leads the way over Red Bull Off-Road Junior Team stablemates Austin Jones and Seth Quintero, with Jones heading Quintero by just three seconds.
Guillaume de Mevius had been quickest through the penultimate waypoint but had to settle for fourth fastest in class, two minutes off the lead, while recently crowned Extreme E champion Cristina Gutiérrez suffered a trying opening day, lying ninth in T3 and almost 14 minutes down already.