Toyota’s Nasser Al-Attiyah set the pace in the first competitive action of the 2022 Dakar Rally, beating fellow three-time winner Carlos Sainz by 12 seconds on the Jeddah-Ha’il prologue.
Al-Attiyah, driving the upgraded GR Hilux DKR for the first time competitively, set a best time of 10m56s alongside navigator Mathieu Baumel.
Behind the leading two, Brian Baragwanath again showed his prowess on the short stages by setting the joint third-fastest time along with Al-Attiyah’s Toyota team-mate Henk Lategan, albeit 36s off the pace.
The 14-time winner Stéphane Peterhansel could only manage 14th, with Audi team-mate Mattias Ekström one place further behind.
The opening salvo to this year’s Dakar took the crews 139 miles from the official start in Jeddah to the 11-mile test; a varied stage featuring mainly sinuous and undulating sandy tracks, as well as three miles of dunes with a particularly precarious downhill stretch in the closing sections.
With the top 10 fastest free to choose their own road order starting position for the first stage, a 206-mile loop around the northern city of Ha’il, the importance of setting a quick time was not lost on the field of 87 T1 class cars from the off.
As defending winner, Audi’s Peterhansel was first on the road, giving the Q Motorsport-run RS Q e-tron its first competitive running on the iconic event.
Peterhansel took things carefully on the short test, trading all-out attack for a “prudent start” to the event.
“At the start of the stage, when I saw the clock counting down, it was an emotional moment, because a lot of work has gone into this for months and months,” Peterhansel said.
“The strategy this morning was to drive really slowly, to check everything and not to be in the first 10. This is the time to make no mistakes.”
While Peterhansel took things deliberately slowly, team-mate Sainz (pictured above) went the opposite way and laid down a marker of what Audi’s new electric car can achieve by ending up just over 10s shy of Al-Attiyah’s benchmark.
It was a strong performance from Prodrive’s Bahrain Raid Xtreme, with Sébastien Loeb setting the fifth-fastest time to kick off his first Dakar alongside new navigator Fabian Lurquin.
The pair emerged from the 11-mile Prologue 37s adrift of the top time and 10s ahead of Yazeed Al Rajhi’s Overdrive Racing Toyota Hilux.
The nine-time World Rally Champion, keen to avoid the sort of trouble he encountered on the 2021 edition early doors, opted for a run that gives him the best road position for Sunday’s opening test.
“I didn’t really force it, I didn’t want to get lost on the first stage,” said Loeb.
“Things still need to click a bit with my co-driver, so we didn’t want to surprise ourselves with a tricky dune.
Nani Roma was seventh in the second BRX Hunter, ahead of Giniel de Villiers and the best of the X-raid Minis of Kuba Przygónski in ninth.
Completing the top 10 was the third BRX of Orlando Terranova, who was 1m06s slower than Al-Attiyah.
Seth Quintero kicked off proceedings in the T3 Lightweight Prototype category by posting the quickest time in his Red Bull Off-Road Junior team OT3, but the big story was the performance of WRC2 and ERC champion Andreas Mikkelsen, who was an impressive second.
Mikkelsen, who was parachuted into the Red Bull Off Road team after regular driver Mitch Guthrie was forced to withdraw from the event following a positive COVID-19 test result, finished just three seconds behind Quintero ahead of his first competitive outing on the Dakar.
Last year’s SSV winner Francisco “Chaleco” Lopez Contardo was third quickest, just five seconds off the pace, with Guillaume de Mevius fourth.
Rallycross driver Sebastian Eriksson was fifth quickest on his first outing in an EKS supported South Racing Can-Am, just three seconds ahead of the 2021 T3 World Cup winner Cristina Gutierréz.
In the SSVs, Marek Goczal led the way in his Cobant-Energylandia Rally Team Can-Am, ahead of brother Michal just 14s behind.
Rui Luppi de Oliveira was the best of the South Racing Can-Ams in third, just ahead of last year’s runner-up Austin Jones, while Aron Domzala was fifth.
Extreme E champion Molly Taylor was a strong sixth on her first Dakar Rally prologue, just over a minute adrift of Goczal.
The Dakar begins properly on Sunday with a loop stage around Ha’il.
As expected, Al-Attiyah has elected to start 10th on the road, giving the Toyota driver better road conditions and less track forging than being first, which until this year had been the ruling.
Terranova will take up that mantle of being the road opener, with Przygónski second and de Villiers third. After de Villiers will come Roma, Al Rajhi and Loeb, while Lategan and Baragwanath start seventh and eighth.
Carlos Sainz will give the new Audi an excellent chance of a strong opening day result running ninth on the road, but the attention will likely be on team-mates Peterhansel and Ekström who will start in a prime position of 14th and 15th respectively.
Dakar Rally Jeddah prologue result
1 Nasser Al-Attiyah/Mathieu Baumel (Toyota) +10m56s
2 Carlos Sainz/Lucas Cruz (Audi) +12s
3 Brian Baragwanath/Leonard Cremer (Century) +36s
4 Henk Lategan/Brett Cumming (Toyota) +36s
5 Sébastien Loeb/Fabian Lurquin (Bahrain Raid Xtreme) +37s
6 Yazeed Al Rajhi/Michael Orr (Overdrive Toyota) +47s
7 Nani Roma/Alex Haro Bravo (Bahrain Raid Xtreme) +49s
8 Giniel de Villiers/Dennis Murphy (Toyota) +50s
9 Kuba Przygónski/Timo Gottschalk (X-raid Mini JCW) +1m01s
10 Orlando Terranova/Dani Oliveras (Bahrain Raid Xrtreme) +1m06s