And just like that, the 2023 Dakar Rally has reached the end of its opening week of action in Saudi Arabia. The first seven days of the event have been dreamlike for the few, and nightmarish for many others.
The 45th edition of the classic rally-raid has had as many ups and downs as the rolling dunes, and you can be sure that more of the same is on the cards for week two.
But, in case you’re a bit late to the party, as the crews and mechanics take a well-earned rest day in Riyadh, let’s look back on one of the most action-packed Dakars for years.
Al-Attiyah holds commanding lead
There’s no escaping the fact that the Dakar Rally, for now at least, appears to be Nasser Al-Attiyah and Toyota Gazoo Racing’s to lose. That said, the problems that have hampered the Prodrive run Bahrain Raid Xtreme team and Audi’s T1-Ultimate effort can almost certainly find their way to the Hilux T1+ cars.
Al-Attiyah leads team-mate Henk Lategan by over an hour, with Sébastien Loeb fourth, albeit nearly two hours down on the overall lead after three punctures on day two and a roll on day five.
Audi’s Stéphane Peterhansel is out of the event after a crash on stage six in which navigator Edouard Boulanger suffered a fractured vertebra, while Carlos Sainz is effectively out of the running after twice having to wait on the assistance truck during the opening week.
Elsewhere, the second BRX Hunter of Orlando Terranova is also out of the event after aggravating a back injury sustained years back when the Argentinean competed in the bike category.
Guerlain Chicherit has won one stage in the customer GCK Motosport Hunter but is also well down the order after an eventful stage four in which he broke a rear track rod arm, lost power steering, rolled and the had to disconnect the front driveshaft and complete the stage on two-wheel drive.
But one of the stars of the Dakar so far has gone largely unnoticed. Overdrive Racing’s Lucas Moraes – partnered by veteran navigator Timo Gottschalk – lies third overall, on his maiden appearance in the event.
Sainz Jr nearly gives his dad a penalty
Perhaps one of the most peculiar stories from the opening week was the penalty that never was for Carlos Sainz and Lucas Cruz.
The double World Rally champion was joined in Saudi Arabia by his son, Ferrari Formula 1 driver Carlos Sainz Jr, but the Grand Prix winner nearly got his father in hot water after a seemingly benign action.
Sainz Jr was pictured closing the door of the RS Q e-tron E2 after wishing his dad good luck, an action which forced the stewards to investigate a possible breach of Article 49.2.1 of the 2023 Cross-Country Rallying sporting regulations.
That article states that “the presence of team personnel or any team conveyance is prohibited within one kilometer of its competing vehicle.”
A stewards investigation found that there was, in fact, no offense had been committed given that Sainz Jr was not a member of the Audi team.
“The stewards decide that in this case there is no evidence confirming a violation of the regulations in a legal sense but draws attention to the fact that in the name of popularizing motorsport, raising prestige, competitors are encouraged to avoid any situations that may raise doubts.”
Sainz Jr joked that his presence on events generally gave his father bad luck, and it looked like that might have proven true as Sainz Sr suffered a puncture early on in stage two. But the three-time Dakar winner recovered to take his first stage victory of the rally before his event unravelled later in the week.
Surprise package Lategan learning from Peterhansel
With a lot of attention naturally focusing on the trials and tribulations of Bahrain Raid Xtreme and Audi during the first seven days, Toyota’s Henk Lategan has flown somewhat under the radar in second overall.
A double South African Rally-Raid champion, Lategan’s Dakar debut in 2021 lasted just five stages before he was forced out in a crash which broke his collarbone. Two stage wins last year was the perfect response while the 2023 edition is another learning curve for the youngster.
So much so that he’d taken to picking up a few tips from Mr Dakar, Stéphane Peterhansel, in the rival Audi car on stage four.
“To be honest, it didn’t start off too well, we struggled in the dunes and with the camel grass,” Lategan explained. “We struggled to get a good rhythm and had to turn around at one or two dunes, I think my inexperience in the dunes was showing today.
“Eventually, Stéphane caught us and when he overtook us, we could stick to him and see what he was doing and that was really good for me. Those guys are really, really fast in the dunes and off-piste stuff where there’s no road. We were with him most of the day; when there were roads, we were in front and when there weren’t roads, he was in front.”
Lategan’s steady progress on the Dakar has been rewarded with second overall, an hour behind team-mate and four-time winner Al-Attiyah, while another youngster Lucas Moraes is third on his Dakar debut in an Overdrive Racing Toyota Hilux.
Both drivers received substantial praise from Toyota Gazoo Racing team principal Glyn Hall.
“Henk is just doing a fantastic job, if he didn’t have his 20-minute penalty [for holding up the BRX Hunter of Orlando Terranova in the control zone], he’d have been 30 minutes behind Nasser, and we’d be well clear.
“And of course, Lucas Moraes is doing a super job as well. He’s young, he’s the future of the Dakar, Henk is also the future of the Dakar, and they are both up there fighting with the best.”
Long days and late nights for Extreme E team-mates
When things go wrong on the Dakar, a day can feel like an age. And for Laia Sanz, it’s been a long week. Competing in her second Dakar on four wheels after making the switch from the bike category in 2022, Sanz and her navigator Maurizio Gerini have enjoyed the highs but equally had to endure the lows.
After placing inside the top 25 overall, Sanz and Gerini had high hopes of making progress on stage two, but mechanical woes meant they lost hours and had to drive the remainder of the stage and liaison well into the night.
The Astara team repaired the car overnight, but they were soon forced into more work after a frightening crash on a flat-out stretch of road 28km in three days later.
The car was heavily damaged but, again, Sanz made it back in the cover of darkness to the bivouac. Having disputed the Dakar 11 times on a bike and battled Lyme’s disease, Sanz is made of tough stuff and duly continued.
Seguim en carrera. Anàvem bé i, de cop, en plean recta al km 28, hem començat a donar voltes de campana. No entenem què ha passat perquè la pista era plana i no hi havia res. Hem anat a veure si hi havia alguna cosa que expliqués la bolcada, però res. pic.twitter.com/fcr2YSK7nz
— Laia Sanz (@LaiaSanz_) January 5, 2023
“The first week of the rally has been really hard for me,” Sanz said. “We had problems with the car, a big roll because something on the car broke, so it’s been a bit disappointing because on Monday, we were eighth.
“I know I can be much faster, and Maurizio is doing a good job and hopefully we can show our real rhythm and have a clean week at least.”
Sanz’s Extreme E team-mate Sainz also endured long stays in the desert, on two successive days. The first when he crashed at the same point as Audi colleague Peterhansel and the second when he and Cruz donated a transmission and two wishbones to their other team-mate Mattias Ekström who stopped on stage seven.