Toyota’s Al-Attiyah wins 2022 Dakar Rally

17th January 2022
Damien Smith

The epic Dakar Rally, spanning the best part of two weeks’ duration, kicked off the 2022 motorsport season in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. The 44th running of the event, which switched to Saudi in 2020, featured plenty of adventure for the plucky crews competing in a variety of cars, trucks and motorcycles – but as is so often the case, a tinge of tragedy took the shine off an event that always seems to court controversy.


Consistency is key for Al-Attiyah

He only won two of the 12 stages, but Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Nasser Al-Attiyah kept his eyes on the bigger picture to claim his fourth Dakar Rally win. This one was extra special for the Qatari, given that his previous three – in 2011, ’15 and ’19 – had been earned when the event ran in South America. To win in Saudi Arabia, in his home region, is another signpost to the middle east’s growing influence and power in world motorsport.

The first stage set the tone for the event as navigational complications set back the challenges of a number of his rivals. Al-Attiyah and co-driver Matthieu Baumel and nine-time World Rally Championship king Sébastien Loeb and Fabian Luquin made it through without major delay, but for the likes of Carlos Sainz – who lost a devastating two hours on the test in his new Audi – hopes of victory were already lost.

Loeb too had his problems, losing half an hour to propshaft trouble on stage three, and at one point the Prodrive hero had dropped 50 minutes to the leading Toyota. But 47-year-old Loeb never gave up and put in a charge to finish 27 minutes 46 seconds down on Al-Attiyah.

To add to the significance and joy for middle eastern motorsport, Saudi local Yazeed Al-Rajhi secured third place and a podium finish in his Toyota entered by the independent Overdrive team. The Formula 1 grand prix, Formula E races in Diriyah, Extreme E choosing the kingdom last year for its maiden event… as if you hadn’t noticed already, Saudi Arabia is very much established on the motor sportmap – for better or for worse, depending on your point of view.

Love the Dakar? Read out list, the five coolest Dakar cars from the last five decades.


Decent start for Audi

Audi will take away largely positive experiences from its first campaign on the Dakar Rally. The German giant took its bow in the Saudi desert with its hybrid-powered RS Q e-tron in the new T1 Ultimate category created for such cars, taking on Toyota’s Hilux T1 and the Prodrive-run Bahrain Raid Xtreme BRZ Hunter. In fact, the signs are Audi’s hybrid tech could well set the benchmark hereafter and leaves governing body the FIA with yet another balancing of performance headache to manage.

Audi Sport didn’t contend for victory on its debut, but only because human error contrived with bad luck to keep its drivers from taking on Al-Attiyah and Loeb. The car maker’s Dakar debut got off to a calamitous start: 14-time event winner Stephane Peterhansel crashed out of contention for the overall win – although he did return to become a stage winner – while both Carlos Sainz and Mattias Ekstrom suffered from navigational woes that left them playing catch-up. But how they did so bodes well for Audi’s rally-raid future.

The new car won four of the 12 stages, with Ekstrom ending up ninth in the standings and Sainz in 12th, the WRC legend winning a couple of tests either side of the mid-event break. That form means Audi will fancy its chances of adding to its roster of big motor sport victories when the Dakar returns to the Saudi deserts next year.


Briton Sunderland wins motorcycle class

In the motorcycle category, Poole-born Sam Sunderland held off a late charge from Chilean rival Pablo Quintanilla to score his second Dakar victory. Sunderland, who took his first victory on the event in 2017, led by seven minutes heading into the final stage for Gasgas Factory Racing, but Monster Energy Honda’s Quintanilla cut his deficit to 3m 27s by the finish.

The challenge for the two-wheeled entrants is even greater and more gruelling, given the physicality of riding through the desert sand dunes while also single-handedly having to keep abreast of where they are on navigation. Sunderland had led most of the way after hitting the front on stage two and overcame difficulties on stage seven to control the race into the closing stages. But he was relieved to find his way through the final test and secure the victory, especially with his rival piling on the pressure.


Tragedy and an explosion undermine Dakar

The epic opener to the 2022 motorsport season was high on spectacle and sporting drama, but the low points this year were all too obvious. First, the event was shaken by the worrying explosion of an assistance car before the rally begun, on 30th December outside Jeddah. The incident involved a Sodicars Racing vehicle and left driver Philippe Boutron with a serious leg injury for which he was initially placed in an induced coma. Five others escaped from the explosion unharmed.

Fears the team had been victims of a terrorist attack heightened security concerns and even briefly threatened a Dakar cancellation mid-event. French anti-terrorism investigators have opened an enquiry.

Then on the final day, tragedy struck when a mechanic for the PH Sport team died following a road accident. Quentin Lavallee, 20, lost his life when the assistance car he was travelling in collided with a local truck on the last liaison road section between Bisha and Jeddah. The news cast a pall over victory celebrations, on an event that by its tough and challenging nature often seems beset by trauma and tragedy.

WRT dominates Dubai 24 Hours

On a busy weekend in the middle east, the Dubai 24 Hours ran across Friday into Saturday, with Team WRT claiming a dominant 1-2 result with its pair of Audis. The R8 LMS GT3 driven by Dries Vanthoor, Christopher Mies, Thomas Neubauer, Axcil Jefferies and Mohammed Saud Fahad Al Saud took victory by a lap from the sister car helmed by World Touring Car Cup frontrunner Frederic Vervisch, Benjamin Goethe, Arnold Robin, Maxime Robin and Jean-Baptiste Simmenauer.

The two Audis took control of the race from the sixth hour. Their biggest threat to victory came from Barwell Motorsport, until the British team’s Lamborghini Huracan GT3 Evo retired from third place with five hours to go. WRT’s success means German cars remain unbeaten at the Dubai enduro, which has been running for 17 years.

Final word to Reema Juffali. The first and so far only woman from Saudi Arabia to hold an international race licence made her GT3 debut in Dubai. Juffali, who has raced on the British single-seater scene for the past three years, recorded a respectable ninth place finish as part of the SPS Automotive crew steering a Mercedes-AMG SLS.

Images courtesy of Toyota, Audi and Red Bull.

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