Who says top-line motorsport is only a young man’s game? If this past week proves anything, it’s that there’s room for both new, relatively raw talent and the experience that comes with maturity at motor sport’s highest levels.
Our two big winners of the week are separated by 35 years, but their achievements were, in the own way, equally impressive, as relatively unknown Max Günther shot himself into the limelight in Formula E and the somewhat more familiar Carlos Sainz Sr. rolled back the years on the Dakar Rally.
The youngest driver on the Formula E grid outshone the many, more familiar names in Santiago on Saturday by claiming an impressive and dramatic last-lap victory for the BMW-Andretti team.
German Maximilian Günther, 22, is an ex-Formula 3 and Formula 2 racer who previously raced for Geox Dragon Racing in the all-electric single-seater series, but for this season has landed a plum drive at BMW. He has replaced Antonio Felix da Costa, who has switched to the championship-winning DS Techeetah team – and to add to his team’s satisfaction, it was the Portuguese Günther defeated in Chile, even after the race had seemingly slipped through his fingers.
Günther had looked set for victory after passing pole sitter and early leader Mitch Evans, after the Jaguar driver’s strategy of using his two bursts of ‘attack mode’ power boost early in the race to build a lead backfired and made him vulnerable to attack. Günther looked comfortable in the lead once he hit the front – until a charging da Costa homed in.
The DS driver rudely barged past the BMW entry into the Turn 10 hairpin, knocking Günther aside. But in the closing stages both drivers faced rising battery temperatures, which gave Günther his chance for revenge – and he swept around the outside of da Costa in impressive fashion into Turn 9 on the last lap to claim the biggest victory of his career so far.
Evans clung on to third place, even if Nyck de Vries beat him across the line. The Mercedes driver was given a five-second penalty for a technical infringement, dropping him to fifth behind Mahindra’s Pascal Wehrlein.
Former McLaren F1 driver Stoffel Vandoorne was sixth and now leads the standings for Mercedes in the car maker’s maiden season in Formula E. He is three points ahead of the other BMW driver, Britain’s Alexander Sims, who was out of luck in Chile after his own maiden victory in Saudi Arabia back in December. Sims clashed early on with André Lotterer and later retired with a broken driveshaft after hitting a wall.
The next round takes place in Mexico City on February 15th.
Sainz Sr. hits Dakar triple
Two-time World Rally Champion, father of a McLaren Formula 1 ace – and now Carlos Sainz Sr. is a three-time winner of the Dakar Rally, at the age of 57. What a remarkable man.
The event still carries the name of its old African destination despite it quitting the continent more than a decade ago because of security concerns. Since then it has been held in South America, but this year relocated once again to Saudi Arabia. Time for a new name perhaps? You’d think, but it seems ‘Dakar Rally’ has a power far beyond any association with the small country that originally inspired it.
Sainz’s previous South American victories, in 2010 and 2018, were achieved with Volkswagen and Peugeot, and now he has hit his hat-trick in a Mini – a variety of manufacturer that only adds to his legend. This time, he beat defending champion Nasser Al-Attiyah by 6 minutes and 21 seconds.
Another Spanish legend surely took some inspiration from Sainz to make his Dakar debut this year. Fernando Alonso continued his global motorsport adventure by rallying for Toyota in the desert. Naturally, it was a tough baptism for the two-time world champion, but just as naturally he met that challenge head on to finish a creditable 13th overall.
Next weekend the World Rally Championship kicks off as is traditional with its most famous event, the Monte-Carlo Rally, for what looks certain to be a firecracker of a season.
New world champion Ott Tänak will begin his title defence in unfamiliar colours having switched from Toyota to Hyundai over the winter, while six-time consecutive champ Sébastien Ogier will be plotting how to reclaim his old position of dominance having quit Citroën for Toyota.
Ogier will be bidding for an incredible seventh consecutive victory on the Monte after defeating Thierry Neuville in a last-stage head-to-head in 2019 to win by just 2.2 seconds. It might be hard to top that drama this year, but with the WRC right now anything is possible. We’re in the midst of a new golden era for rallying after years of domination by first Sébastien Loeb and then Ogier.
New intra-team rivalry between Tänak and Neuville looks potentially tasty, while Ogier’s extra determination to win a title for a third different manufacturer following his successes with Volkswagen and M-Sport’s Fords only heightens the anticipation. Last season was gripping – this one could be even better.
Banking on Daytona thrills
The Daytona 24 Hours is another end-of-January annual tradition and the Florida sportscar classic looks set to launch another competitive season for the US IMSA series next weekend.
Mazda Team Joest set the pace at the recent ‘Roar before the 24’ three-day test at the circuit, which combines most of the iconic banked tri-oval with an infield road course section. Olivier Pla lapped well below the new track record set in qualifying last year by his team-mate Oliver Jarvis. But the pair, joined by Tristan Nunez, know they will face plenty of opposition, from a field that includes seven-time grand prix winner Juan Pablo Montoya and IndyCar heroes Sebastien Bourdais and Scott Dixon.
There’s no Fernando Alonso this time, following the Spaniard’s victory last year, but his old Wayne Taylor Racing team will spearhead those who will be out to stop Mazda claiming its first Daytona victory – and a first major 24-hour sportscar crown since its famous win at Le Mans way back in 1991.