The Dakar Rally roars into life on Friday in Saudi Arabia with Qatari Nasser Al-Attiyah seeking a sixth title and third in a row in the mythic motorsport marathon.
A 425-strong colourful caravanserai made up of cars, bikes, quads and trucks sets out from Al-Ula on a treacherous 4,900-mile odyssey around the Gulf kingdom with a January 19 finish in Yanbu on the Red Sea.
This year’s route includes a first ever 48-hour stage in the Empty Quarter, a vast sea of sand with dunes as far as the eye can see.
Al-Attiyah, 53, is adept at multi-tasking – juggling the sand dunes of Saudi with his other passion, skeet shooting.
He took bronze at the 2012 London Olympics, and in September added two medals at the Asian Games to add to the shooting golds he collected in 2002 and 2010.
He now puts his preparations for his seventh Olympics in Paris in July to one side to try to become only the third driver to win three successive Dakars.
“The last Dakar was difficult for everyone. It’s incredible that I was able to hold on to my title,” he told the event’s official website.
Al-Attiyah first mastered the Dakar in 2011 in a Volkswagen, winning the 2015 edition in a Mini before success for Toyota in 2019, 2022 and last year.
He has since left the Japanese constructor to drive his Nasser Racing Team-sponsored and British-based Prodrive Hunter.
“I’m so happy to have won five times. I’m now delighted to be part of a new team and to take on a new challenge for the next Dakar.
“It gives me new motivation in my quest for victory on the Dakar. I’ve won the Dakar five times with three different teams. We will make rally history if we win the 2024 Dakar with the Prodrive Hunter.”
One of his arch rivals, nine-time world rally champion Sebastian Loeb, is also behind the wheel of a ProDrive for his BRX Team.
Loeb has finished second to his new teammate in the past two runnings with no fewer than seven stage wins last term.
Al-Attiyah said he had “a lot of respect” for Loeb.
After knocking at the Dakar door in 2022 and 2023 Loeb approaches his eighth edition full of optimism.
“What I remember from the last Dakar is that this second place is motivating for the future because we were competitive,” said the 49-year-old Frenchman.
“We now have to put everything together to win. Of course, it’s not easy to beat Nasser Al Attiyah and (co-driver) Mathieu Baumel. They hardly make any mistakes. To do that, they’d have to have a few little problems.”
Stephane Peterhansel, who holds the all-time record of 14 Dakar wins, and former rally champion and three-time winner Carlos Sainz, father of Ferrari’s Formula One driver who bears the same name, are driving Audi’s hybrid-electric car.
In the bike section defending champion Kevin Benavides, who beat Toby Price by a thrilling 43 seconds last year, is back to defend his title after recovering from a broken femur and wrist.
The Argentinian KTM rider, a winner with Honda in 2021, said: “I have nothing to prove. But the motivation is the same.
“I continue to ride because I love it. I think I have a chance to achieve more. I’m ultra-competitive. I’m going to give my best. I’m going with the hope of winning a third star.”
The 46th running of the event may be called the Dakar, but the last time the Senegalese capital actually hosted the finish was way back in 2007 – the security situation in Mauritania forced the 2008 cancellation.
It moved then to South America until finding a new home in Saudi Arabia since 2020.
The Saudis are spending billions to turn the conservative arab monarchy often criticised for its human rights record into a major sporting force as it tries to diversify its economy away from oil.
Aside from the Dakar the Saudis have invested spectacularly in luring some of the world’s top footballers into the Saudi Pro-League.
The kingdom also stages a Formula One Grand Prix in Jeddah, high profile boxing fights, the world’s richest horse race, and last season rocked the world of golf with the launch of the LIV Tour.
The kingdom is also the sole bidder for the 2034 World Cup.
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