The 45th edition of Dakar Rally kicked off on New Year’s eve with a short 13km timed run on the shores of Red Sea, with the entire section designed around the Sea Camp that also serves as the first bivouac of the rally.
Although there was little opportunity to gain time on rivals, the Prologue was fairly significant as it helps determine the starting order for the first stage proper on Sunday — with the top 10 finishers getting the chance to pick their preferred starting positions.
As the action came to a close, it was two-time DTM champion Ekstrom who ended the day on top, completing the timed loop in exactly eight minutes in the vastly-improved Audi RS Q e-tron E2.
Ekstrom was the last among the three factory Audi drivers to cross the finish line and was able to overhaul not only his more experienced teammates Carlos Sainz Sr and Stephane Peterhansel but also early leader Sebastien Loeb, snatching the top spot from the Bahrain Raid Xtreme star by just one second.
Nine-time WRC champion Loeb was able to hold on to second position in his Prodrive-built Hunter, as he continues his quest for a maiden Dakar triumph having finished runner-up twice before in six attempts.
Loeb has given immediate notice of his desire to secure victory for Bahrain Raid Xtreme. Partnered by Fabian Lurquin in his BRX Prodrive Hunter, Loeb is aiming to go one better after finishing runner-up in Saudi last year.
Lithuanians Vaidotas Zala and Paulo Fiuza in the fourth Prodrive Hunter suffered two punctures, but were happy to finish the Prologue before real test begins tomorrow, with the first of the long desert stages that add up to 4,705kms in a route totaling 8,550 kms in length.
“The stage was good, no problem,” said Loeb. “I tried to push hard, but to drive like in the WRC as it’s a flat stage, like in the WRC. I tried to be efficient, and that seems to have worked.
“Of course, the Prologue was nothing to compare with the rest of the stages. But it's good to start like this. The car feels good. It's the right set-up for the big stages. So yes I'm confident we can do something.”
Dakar legend Peterhansel made it two Audi drivers in the top three with a time that was 11 seconds off Ekstrom, while pre-rally favorite Al-Attiyah had to settle for fourth in his Toyota Hilux.
The Qatari driver was the first out of the blocks in Prologue but ended up 12 second off the pace of Ekstrom, making a relatively underwhelming start to his title defense.
Guerlain Chicherit put in an impressive performance to finish fifth-fastest for his GCK Motorsport team, which has switched to the same Prodrive-built Hunter contender as the Bahrain team in 2023.
Sainz ended up sixth but only 14 seconds off the top spot in his Audi, while Yazeed Al-Rajhi outpaced several factory Toyota cars in his customer Overdrive-run Hilux to finish seventh on the timesheets.
Competing for erstwhile frontrunning X-raid Mini team, Jakub Przygonski set an identical time to Al-Rajhi to finish eighth, ahead of the second Bahrain entry driven by Orlando Terranova.
The top 10 was rounded by works Toyota driver Henk Lategan, the South African finishing 21s off the outright pace and nine seconds down on his teammate Al-Attiyah.
With the Prologue now complete, the 2023 Dakar Rally will kick off in earnest on Sunday with a 367km special near the Sea Camp.
With more than 1,000 people lining up to race nearly 7,500km across Saudi Arabian deserts, the 2023 Dakar Rally promises to be another epic rally-raid adventure over the sand dunes with a host of established global stars and talented young racers out to impress.