Sometimes in motorsport, the figures simply do not lie. Nasser Al-Attiyah’s fifth Dakar Rally victory is one which, in case there had been any doubt before, firmly cements his place as one of the all-time greats.
Matching Ari Vatanen’s tally of four wins put him in the same bracket as Dakar legends, but number five sets Al-Attiyah apart as the second-most successful driver in the car category behind Stéphane Peterhansel.
The Dakar is a thinking driver’s game. Al-Attiyah has played the game for a long time and in his last two victories, he has shown that he is the tactical master of the desert when the chips are down.
“What makes Nasser special is what we have created together from the beginning,” explains navigator Mathieu Baumel, with whom Al-Attiyah has won four of his five Dakars (in 2015, 2019, 2022 and 2023).
“We’ve been together for nine years, won four times, plus all the other results in the Middle East Rally Championship and in rally-raid so our relationship is a big part of our success.
Dakar’s top winners (Cars)
|R Metge, P Lartigue, C Sainz||3|
|J-L Schlesser, H Masuoka||2|
“It’s fantastic to be with Nasser every year, and we still have the motivation to enjoy what we do.”
Baumel is the ying to Al-Attiyah’s yang, that much cannot be denied. It’s not Armageddon level, but without one, the other simply isn’t themselves. Add to that the Qatari’s determination and the incredible structure Al-Attiyah has built around him at Toyota Gazoo Racing, under the leadership of team principal Glyn Hall, and you start to get a pretty clear picture of how success comes so naturally.
“There are so many different elements of Nasser,” Hall told DirtFish. “He is tough. I think the softest part of Nasser is his teeth!
“He’s got some sort of fifth element to him that enables him to imagine which crest has the drop off, and he’s kind to the car and I think this is what makes him a true professional. Although we change plenty of parts on his car, he never abuses it, and he takes care of the car and knows how hard to push it.
“That’s the mark of a true champion and, of course, he builds the whole team around him, both him and Mathieu.”
Like last year, the path to Al-Attiyah’s victory relied less on pure outright speed on the day, but more staying out of trouble, always keeping one eye on the bigger picture.
When he and Baumel lost 11 minutes on the opening stage to Audi’s Carlos Sainz, there was no panic. The math was simple: there were 12 more stages, 13 more days to run. In other words, plenty more time to make that deficit up if – and when – others encounter trouble.
His cause was helped no end by a near total implosion from Audi when Sainz and Peterhansel crashed at the same point on stage six. His two former team-mates had already shipped over 20 minutes through various issues on stage three, and Al-Attiyah emerged in the lead while his rivals got caught out.
Sébastien Loeb was another to hit trouble early on, but his issues didn’t stem from errors. Instead, bad luck dented his cause as five punctures in two days, plus a broken suspension arm and power-steering loss contributed to a nightmare opening week.
Dakar’s top stage winners (Cars)
It’s impossible to know if Loeb and Fabian Lurquin would have had the pure pace to trouble Al-Attiyah’s rally lead during the second week had things gone to plan at the start of the event. By the time Loeb notched up a record-breaking six consecutive stage wins, Al-Attiyah was in management mode, not stressing his GR DKR Hilux pick-up and not taking risks.
Al-Attiyah often comes across as a happy-go-lucky, laid-back kind of person, but he’s got a perfectionism that has driven both team and crew to new heights.
“The more I work with him, the more you see how much work is given,” explains Hall. “But Nasser wants everything perfect as well, he says ‘I do the perfect job, I want the perfect car’ and every time we give him a good car, he seems to win.
“The fighting spirit is still there, and when it comes out, you are never quite sure. A couple of years ago, in Kazakhstan he had a problem with the car and lost around 30 minutes. And he said to Mathieu: ‘OK, we go? We go’. Bloody hell, he nearly won the stage.
“You know when he’s been pushing when he has salt on his overalls. He hasn’t had too many days like that, but you never know when it’s going to come out.
“If you don’t see the whole picture of the race, it becomes a mess quickly, so Nasser has got a good view of the race and how he wants to manage it.”
The relationship between driver and navigator is one of the most important aspects for success on the rally.
Iconic partnerships over the years have proven that chemistry inside the car translates to fast times.
Peterhansel and Jean-Paul Cottret, Vatanen and Bruno Berglund, Sainz and Lucas Cruz: all multiple winners and all long-lasting partnerships. Al-Attiyah and Baumel have perhaps taken that barometer to a whole new level.
“[In rally-raid], every time there is something different, you still make mistakes, some new mistakes but after thousands and thousands of kilometers together and many, many mistakes, we can say that we are at the top level now,” said Baumel.
“We are also getting older and older, and the young guys are pushing us more now, look at Lucas Moraes from Brazil in his first Dakar and he is third.
“You need to use your head and that’s why it’s the older guys who are normally winning.”
To win one Dakar is an incredible feat, but to be a multiple winner of the world’s toughest rally takes a certain type of driver.
Of course, four is only one less than five, but five Dakar wins… five, is simply legend-making. Hats off to you Mr Al-Attiyah. He’ll take some beating in 2024.
Comment below with your thoughts on Al-Attiyah’s latest Dakar win, and where he sits in the pantheon of rally-raid’s greats