2024 Dakar Rally | 6 talking points

23rd January 2024
Damien Smith

Carlos Sainz Sr. vs Sébastien Loeb? It can’t get much better than that. The 2024 Dakar Rally came down to the battle we all wanted to see in the grit and sand of Saudi Arabia, between two of the greatest rally drivers of all time. And in the end, it was the wily Spaniard who prevailed, as Audi signed off on its Dakar adventure with a cherished first victory – and the first for a car using an electric powertrain.


Sainz goes fourth

At 61, two-time World Rally Champion and all-round legend Sainz remains a force to be reckoned with in the sphere of rally raids. This marked his fourth victory in 17 appearances on the gruelling Dakar, and impressively he led most of the way.

A dreadful start on the short Prologue, on which he finished only 48th, put him on the back foot for the start proper. Yet by stage two, Sainz led the way. Overdrive Toyota’s Yazeed Al Rajhi did overhaul him after an impressive stage three win – but when he rolled his Hilux in the monstrous 48-hour chrono stage Sainz picked up a lead he was destined never to lose.

Consistency and reliability were key for ‘King Carlos’ to rule again. He never actually won any of the 12 stages, but still leaves Saudi with his fourth win with as many different manufacturers, having previously conquered the event for Volkswagen, Peugeot and Mini. That’s a stat that only adds to the great man’s charismatic aura.


Job done for Audi

This was hardly a case of third time lucky for Audi given the emphatic nature of Sainz’s win – but it’s true that nothing less than victory would have been acceptable for the German giant on what will be its final appearance on the Dakar. The much-vaunted Formula 1 project that will formally begin in 2026 will now become its focus.

Pre-race mutterings about a favourable Balance of Performance only added to the perception that Audi really should win this time. But let’s take nothing away from Sainz, his co-driver Lucas Cruz and the ground-breaking Audi RS Q e-tron. Powered by three motor generator units (MGUs) mated to a TFSI petrol engine, with a clever software-driven centre differential featuring variable torque distribution, this is a complex piece of kit that has been perfected by Audi’s trademark no-stone-unturned approach.

“With our revolutionary electrified drive, we have overcome one of the biggest challenges in motor sport after just three years,” proclaimed Audi AG board member Oliver Hoffmann. “We are thus continuing a long series of pioneering achievements that have always characterised Audi in four decades of motorsport.”


Loeb falls short

It seems wrong that nine-time World Rally Champion Loeb still hasn’t added a Dakar victory to his incredible roster of achievements. Over the two weeks of this year’s event, if anyone was going to overhaul and beat Sainz the best bet was Loeb and his Prodrive Hunter – but in the end a string of misfortune left him falling short once again.

Early problems and punctures left Loeb with a 30-minute deficit in the opening days. But as ever the Frenchman fought back, winning the fourth, sixth and seventh stages to climb to within five minutes of Sainz’s lead – only to spoil his good work by getting lost on the next test. Loeb then won stage nine, but his hopes for victory ended for good on the penultimate day when he lost an hour with suspension damage.

Still Loeb pushed on, winning a fifth stage of the event – comfortably more than anyone else – on the final day. But he was still only third overall, behind Overdrive Toyota driver and the surprise winner of the opening stage, Guillaume de Mévius, who was a full 1:20:25 behind Sainz. Consistency and not necessarily outright speed – or stage wins for that matter – is the best approach to victory on the Dakar, it seems.

Image courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool.

Image courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool.

Al-Attiyah’s unhappy defence

Nasser Al-Attiyah’s bid for a third consecutive Dakar Rally win turned into a miserable experience following his switch from Toyota to Prodrive’s Hunter. The Qatari was plagued with ill-fortune and ended up walking away from his car in a case of what sounded like well-spent patience. He’d won the fifth stage, but then incurred suspension damage with a heavy landing on the following two-day chrono test.

Engine trouble followed on stage eight, but he returned to the competition using a ‘joker’ option. Then on the final Tuesday, when a rear left suspension arm broke, Al-Attiyah chose to retire from the event there and then – without a backward glance. He joined Prodrive because he’s committed to the new Dacia programme the British organisation will be running in 2025 – but this was hardly the ideal start to the new marriage.


Ekström and Peterhansel in support of Sainz

A word on the two other Audi entries. Both Mattias Ekström and Stéphane Peterhansel achieved what Sainz didn’t by actually winning stages – the Prologue and stage eight in Ekström’s case, stage two for 14-time Dakar winner Peterhansel – but both endured too many problems to mount a challenge for victory. Ekström did appear to be on course to deliver a possible one-two for Audi, only for mechanical issues on stage seven to ruin his hopes. But to the credit of both they put their troubles behind them to support Sainz and contribute to Audi’s big win.


Overdrive overshadows works Toyota

Without Al-Attiyah to lead its charge, the factory Toyota Gazoo Racing team had little to cheer about – especially as its Overdrive customers ended up performing better. Along with the impressive de Mévius finishing in second place, Guerlain Chicherit grabbed the tenth and 11th stage victories for the team to finish fourth overall. Martin Prokop was fifth in his Ford to score his best result on the Dakar, ahead of a quartet of Toyota Gazoo entries headed by Guy David Botterill who completed the top six.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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