Sainz leads from Loeb, Al-Attiyah struggles after Dakar stage 1
Audi driver Carlos Sainz Sr took the lead of the 2023 Dakar Rally with a late charge in the opening stage on Sunday, while reigning Nasser Al-Attiyah struggled to eighth place.
It was Sainz’s teammate Mattias Ekstrom who led the majority of the 367km special near Sea Camp in Saudi Arabia, the former DTM ace grabbing the lead at the first checkpoint and steadily building his advantage from there on.
But the complexion of the stage changed completely between the final two checkpoints, with Sainz producing a heroic effort to jump from fourth — and more than two minutes down — to clinch his 42nd career stage win in the Dakar Rally.
Ekstrom not only conceded a position to his more experienced teammate Sainz but also the Bahrain Raid Xtreme entry of WRC legend Sebastien Loeb over the course of the day, the Frenchman likewise gaining a chunk of time on him in the final 90km stretch to the finish line.
But having finished comfortably ahead of him in Saturday’s Prologue, Loeb only sits 10 seconds adrift of Sainz going into the second stage of the rally from Sea Camp to Alula on Monday.
Ekstrom eventually ended the day 33s down on Sainz in the overall standings, having previously been a minute clear of his competitors at the penultimate timing point of the stage.
Fourth place went to French driver Guerlain Chicherit, who finished just over a minute down in a privateer Prodrive-built Hunter campaigned by his GCK Motorsport team.
Yazeed Al-Rajhi was another privateer who impressed during the first full day of Dakar as he beat all factory Toyotas in the Overdrive-run Hilux en route to fifth overall, ahead of Brian Baragwanath in his Century entry.
Seventh place went to Orlando Terranova in the second of the Bahrain entries, although the Argentine lost seven minutes to the leaders in what wasn’t a particularly long stage by Dakar’s standards.
Toyota star Al-Attiyah fared even worse as the Qatari driver dropped 7m07s over the course of the stage, haemorrhaging most of the time in the final section that featured a wide variety of terrain including dunes.
This put him eighth in the overall standings, just ahead of ‘Mr Dakar’ Stephane Peterhansel and the leading X-raid Mini of Jakub Przygonski in the top 10.
Peterhansel had been running near the front in the first half of the stage and stood as high as third in the standings, but lost a chunk of time between waypoints 3 and 4 to end the day the slowest of the three factory Audis.
Loeb believes this could be the year that he leads Bahrain Raid Xtreme to victory in the Dakar Rally, and he underlined his intentions Sunday.
Partnered by Fabian Lurquin in his BRX Hunter, Loeb finds himself in between Audi teammates Sainz and Mattias Ekström, but has strong support close at hand following a stage on which the five quickest drivers were separated by just over two minutes.
Loeb said: “It was a good step for us at this stage, no problem. I was very safe from the beginning from the punctures. It was really rough with big stones, and I wanted to try to avoid a puncture. So that’s what we did.”
Chicherit said, “That was a real Dakar stage. It was rough, a lot of rocks. There’s a lot of things that could happen. It would be easy to destroy the car today, so we drove carefully. I think we did a pretty good pace, and got just one puncture. That cost us the victory on the day, but you know that’s what it’s like.”
Terranova added, “To open the road is not easy and the stage was very difficult. It was hard for us to to find some of the waypoints, and at the end I tried to push and we had good speed, so we are happy.”