On the face of it, Sébastien Loeb’s victory chances on this year’s Dakar Rally are bleak. The Bahrain Raid Xtreme driver is a whopping 37 minutes behind the overall leader, Toyota’s Nasser Al-Attiyah, with just four stages remaining.
Mission impossible, surely?
While the task ahead of Loeb and navigator Fabian Lurquin is as steep as any sand dune they have had to negotiate – and some of these are upwards of 100m in height – the Dakar remains an unforgiving beast, ready to serve up twists at any time.
Starting first on the road, courtesy of his second stage win of the rally on Sunday, few would have predicted Loeb to challenge for top honors midway through the 245-mile journey to Wadi Ad-Dawasir on Monday, especially after being forced to replace a punctured tire just 17 miles in.
And yet, that’s exactly what he did.
“We attacked really hard from the start, we had super navigation and zero errors, we didn’t have to go looking for waypoints and really had a good rhythm until 28km in where we punctured,” Loeb told stage-end reporters.
“We managed to change the tire really quickly and lost maybe only about two minutes and then we continued to push hard until the neutralization.”
Not only had Loeb and Lurquin recouped the lost two minutes, by the fourth waypoint, they headed the Audi of Stéphane Peterhansel by 36s – a margin that was reduced by only 12s at the next time control.
But things began to take another turn for the worse for Loeb as the remaining replacement wheel parted company with his BRX Hunter, causing the nine-time World Rally Champion to adopt a more cautious approach to the second half of the stage.
“With 250km [155 miles] to go we had to get the car to the end of the stage, with no room for error,” Loeb added.
“So, I took care, in the rocks, I didn’t want to take a risk of puncturing again. I knew that we were on the way to a good time, and I didn’t want to lose that, so we preferred to take it a little cool until the end. At the end of the day, it wasn’t too bad.
“I saw the wheel coming past us on the side, I think it was the strap which had broken, and it came loose.
“We need to avoid that, it’s a problem which is quite easy to resolve because once you lose your spare wheel, you’re a bit uncomfortable.”
Loeb and Lurquin took just over seven minutes out of Al-Attiyah on the stage, a handy margin in anyone’s book, particularly after beating the Qatari on the previous stage by five-and-a-half minutes.
The gap to the top of the overall remains a mammoth task to overcome. But it’s not totally insurmountable, which Al-Attiyah knows only too well.
The triple Dakar winner had his own struggles on stage eight, suffering a puncture at almost exactly the same point as Loeb; a 16-mile section at the start of the stage which the organizers forewarned as one which was ‘littered with sharp rocks’.
Once clear of that danger, Al-Attiyah was dealt a first mechanical issue of the event. An overheated rear transmission cut the drive from the rear wheels, leaving the Hilux T1+ to battle over the soft sand in the dunes with just front-wheel-drive.
He coughed up 10 minutes to stage winner Mattias Ekström but limited the damage to just seven minutes behind Loeb.
“We had one puncture and then for 350km [217 miles] we only had front-wheel-drive because we broke the rear transmission, and I was so scared all the way through the stage,” admitted Al-Attiyah at the end of the stage.
“But for the last 50km [31 miles], I just said, ‘I don’t care’ and attacked since there were no dunes.
“We needed to go slow but there was a small part inside which was making a lot of noise and we needed to manage it all the way, but we are lucky to be here. We put in a lot of good work last week, so we need to see with the team and see why this is happening. The Dakar is never over, we must respect it!”
Al-Attiyah has driven within his limits since the opening stage, knowing that he doesn’t need to win every stage. In fact, he’s in a unique situation where he can drop large chunks of time each day, trading flair for care in order to protect his lead.
But Loeb is acutely aware that it only takes one navigational error or another mechanical mishap for the tide to turn back in his favor.
“I saw that [Nasser] wasn’t that fast at the neutralization, and I’ve also done a special with only two-wheel-drive and it’s a pain in the a**.
“Last week it was me who was bugged [with it], this time it’s him.”
The battle resumes on Tuesday, with the Wadi Ad-Dawasir loop. Loeb starts third on the road, while Al-Attiyah could potentially have better road conditions from 11th.