The 44th edition of the Dakar Rally marks the start of two new eras. The famed event is on a path towards fully alternative energy solutions by 2030, while the cross-country discipline has been rewarded with world championship status from this year.
As such, the Dakar – which kicked off with the road-order setting prologue earlier on Saturday – not only presents a glimpse of the future but is set to be one of the most unpredictable in recent years.
Nearly 100 cars will take the start of the event, held solely in Saudi Arabia for the third year in succession, with another 153 taking part across the T3 Lightweight Prototype and T4 Side-by-Side (SSV) classes.
But just who has the edge ahead of the opening stage on Sunday morning? Here are the favorites and the dark horses in with a shout.
The main contenders
Overall victory in the cars will almost certainly come from the new T1+ class, which has been reworked by the Dakar organizer, the Amaury Sport Organisation, to ensure greater parity between the 4×4 and Buggy competitors. This means that the likes of Toyota and Prodrive will benefit from the same suspension travel and wheel size as the X-raid Mini JCWs, the grandfathered Peugeot 3008 DKRs and the Audi RS Q e-tron buggies.
It’s a measure implemented to reduce the effect of punctures sustained primarily with the 4x4s as well as levelling the competitive order.
On paper, the South Africa-based squad is the favorite for the Dakar this year, given that Audi’s electric project is so new. Team leader Nasser Al-Attiyah – who has won the event three times for three different brands and was fastest on the prologue – says it’s time to win again and the Qatari will be a force to be reckoned with from the off.
The threat from within the TGR camp is not limited to Al-Attiyah though: 2009 winner Giniel de Villiers has overcome a late COVID-19 scare and will be keen to put his extensive knowledge of the GR Hilux DKR, which he has developed throughout the year, to good use as he attempts to return to the podium for the first time since 2018.
Then there’s the rapid hope for the future, Henk Lategan, who is aiming for a clean run to the finish after his impressive 2021 run came to an abrupt end following a crash during the opening week in which he fractured his collarbone.
Bahrain Raid Xtreme (Prodrive)
Nani Roma’s fifth place on the 2021 edition showed the team that the BRX Hunter had the pace to fight near the front. Quite a feat considering it was the Prodrive-run operation’s first crack at the Dakar.
Unfortunately, while Roma rightly celebrated a strong finish, much of the attention focused on the misfortune of team-mate Sébastien Loeb, who was forced to retire in the second week following a disastrous return to the event after a year away.
The Hunter has been upgraded to T1+ specification now and, according to Loeb, the difference is night and day compared to that of the original car. Loeb will also have to get up to speed with new navigator Fabian Lurquin, with whom he narrowly missed out on victory on the Baja Aragón. But if things start off on the right foot, a podium for either Roma or Loeb could be on the cards.
Since last year, BRX has also expanded to a three-car effort to accommodate the highly experienced Orlando Terranova. The Argentinian, while admitting that he has “no reference points”, is another to keep a close eye on.
The Outside Bets
A real unknown quantity, even to itself, but if there’s one proven thing about motorsport it’s that anything coming from Audi tends to be very good. Make no mistake, Audi – which is led by X-raid founder Sven Quandt and his Q Motorsport program – faces something of an uphill battle for this Dakar but the goal of fighting for victory in 2023 is real. But as ever, don’t rule out a win this year.
The RS Q e-tron is an impressive piece of engineering: two MGUs, stemming from the brand’s Formula E project, powered by the hyper-efficient TFSI combustion engine means that on the stage, the car is 100% electric driven.
Leading the way are drivers who need no introduction. Monsieur Dakar himself, Stéphane Peterhansel says this is his “last big challenge” while three-time winner Carlos Sainz is desperate to reclaim his crown from 2020 with co-driver Lucas Cruz.
The relative newcomer to the outfit is Mattias Ekström who, making just his second Dakar start after his Lightweight Prototype debut last year, is reveling in his opportunity to fight at the front alongside navigator Emil Bergkvist.
Not the same team as the works JCW set-up that won the Dakar last year, but the Mini is still a car with a lot of pedigree and potential in the right hands. And with Kuba Przygónski at the wheel of the Orlen Team car, there’s a podium firmly in sight. The Polish driver has a best Dakar finish of fourth, achieved last year and in 2019 in arguably inferior machinery to what he has now, so the pace most certainly is there.
The former biker is joined at the team by experienced hands Sebastian Halpern and Denis Krotov in the buggy.
X-raid will also field a 4×4 Mini John Cooper Works Rally each for Yasir Seaidan and bike convert and Extreme E regular Laia Sanz.
While anything can happen on an event such as the Dakar, the chances are that the overall victory will fall for someone in the teams mentioned above. But stranger things have happened. And if anything, the fight for the places just off the podium could prove to be just as exciting, if not more.
Keep an eye on the likes of Guerlain Chicherit, returning to the Dakar after six years and giving GCK its debut on the Dakar, while Cyril Despres/Taye Perry and Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi and Dirk von Zitzewitz pilot a pair of Peugeot 3008 DKRs run by PH Sport respectively.
A real dark horse could come in the form of Saudi driver Yazeed Al Rajhi, alongside British navigator Michael Orr in a Toyota Hilux T1+ operated by Overdrive Racing. Al Rajhi won two stages last year and should have been in the mix for a podium had it not been for a number of mechanical issues that stunted his progress.
Occasional WRC2 driver Martin Prokop should also be a solid top-10 contender in his upgraded Ford Raptor RS Cross Country T1+1.
All to play for in T3 and SSV
Recently crowned FIA World Cup for Rallies T3 class champion – and Extreme E event winner – Cristina Gutierréz is riding the crest of a wave and is a serious contender for victory in Saudi Arabia alongside navigator François Cazalet. Her aim is the podium and she’ll face stiff competition in the form of OT3 Red Bull Off-Road Junior team-mates, Seth Quintero and Guillaume de Mevius.
Quintero’s compatriot Mitch Guthrie would almost certainly have been in the hunt for victory too, but he’s been forced out after a positive COVID-19 test. His place in the team has been taken by Andreas Mikkelsen, who showed impressive pace in the prologue to set the second-fastest time.
Ekström’s EKS team has some interest in both the T3 and SSV categories, with a partnership with South Racing to run a car for Swedish rallycross driver Sebastian Eriksson in T3 and for defending SSV winners Francisco “Chaleco” Lopez Contardo and Juan Pablo Vinagre Latrach.
Last year’s runner-up pairing Austin Jones and Gustavo Gugelmin head the South Racing Can-Am Factory Team, a line-up that also features Extreme E Champion Molly Taylor, with Aron Domzala and Maciej Marton also in the mix.
The route and itinerary
|Prologue||Jeddah-Ha’il (11.80 miles)||Jan 1|
|Stage 1||Ha’il-Ha’il (206.91 miles)||Jan 2|
|Stage 2||Ha’il-Al Artawiyah (210.02 miles)||Jan 3|
|Stage 3||Al Artawiyah-Al Qaysumah (228.66 miles)||Jan 4|
|Stage 4||Al Qaysumah-Riyadh (288.93 miles)||Jan 5|
|Stage 5||Riyadh-Riyadh (214.99 miles)||Jan 6|
|Stage 6||Riyadh-Riyadh (249.79 miles)||Jan 7|
|–||Rest Day (Riyadh)||Jan 8|
|Stage 7||Riyadh-Al Dawadimi (249.79 miles)||Jan 9|
|Stage 8||Al Dawadimi-Wadi Ad Dawasir (245.44 miles)||Jan 10|
|Stage 9||Wadi Ad Dawasir-Wadi Ad Dawasir (178.33 miles)||Jan 11|
|Stage 10||Wadi Ad Dawasir-Bisha (233.01 miles)||Jan 12|
|Stage 11||Bisha-Bisha (214.99 miles)||Jan 13|
|Stage 12||Bisha-Jeddah (101.90 miles)||Jan 14|