Dakar Rally 2023 preview: Will Audi defeat Toyota and Prodrive?

14th December 2022
Damien Smith

The last great epic adventure in motorsport. That’s the fully justified billing for the Dakar Rally, as preparations gear up for the 2023 edition of the gruelling desert classic. Now in its fourth year transposed from North Africa – via ten years in South America – to its new home in Saudi Arabia, the Dakar remains true to its endurance rally-raid roots. Even if its name is a clear and obvious non sequitur.


Two weeks of action – and hell

A prologue kicks off the 45th edition on 31st December, before the rally proper begins on New Year’s Day. A total of 14 stages over 15 days faces the 365 entries made up of car classes, monstrous trucks and intrepid motorcyclists. To finish, all must complete a total distance of 5,312 miles, nearly 3,000 of which are against the clock. Towering sand dunes and some of the world’s toughest rocky terrain await to catch out the brave drivers, co-drivers and riders, with only a single day of rest in Riyadh on Monday 9th January to offer respite before the finish in Dammam on 15th January. Safe to say, the Dakar is not for the faint of heart.


Audi’s hybrid targeting first Dakar win

A year on from its impressive debut, Audi’s ground-breaking hybrid RS Q e-tron racer returns to the Saudi desert with one target in mind: victory. Born from an idea to build a Dakar-ready car in just 18 months, Audi’s contender was only fully completed a day before the 2022 race but scored victories on four of the 12 stages. Suspension troubles and navigational woe scuppered any chances of an overall win, but the obvious speed and potential – and the surprising reliability of its complex and heavy hybrid powertrain – left furrowed brows in the rival Toyota and Prodrive camps. Now the fear is Audi will return with a beefed up and improved contender that might reset the competitive bar. 

‘Mr Dakar’ Stéphane Peterhansel will be aiming for a record-extending 15th win (on two wheels and four), while two-time World Rally Champion Carlos Sainz Sr. remains hungry for a fourth Dakar crown. Then there’s former DTM and rallycross king Mattias Ekström to complete a daunting super-team. Run by Sven Quandt’s deeply experienced Q Motorsport operation, Audi claims its car represents the future of rally-raid motorsport. The FIA and Dakar organisers have moved to stem the tide by adding a further 100kg and reducing the power of the top contenders by 30kW (41PS) – but there’s a sense that only misadventure across the dunes will cost Audi the victory it craves.


“The Dakar is a competition in the toughest conditions in the world,” says Julius Seebach, the man who leads Audi’s Dakar ambitions. “So far it has been a competition just for the internal combustion engine: all the stage wins and overall wins were with conventional technology. But the new T1 Ultimate regulations gave us the freedom to do our own concept for overall victory.” And that’s what he wants this time.

“No question,” backs up Quandt with a laugh. “They can try and stop us on the political side… but our aim absolutely is to win the Dakar. We all know you cannot guarantee anything because it is one of the most difficult races. Previously I’ve lost on the last day and this is always possible. But after the 2022 performance we all know our goal.”


Toyota and Al-Attiyah defend their crown

But it would be foolish to rule out Toyota and its new, inaugural world rally-raid champion Nasser Al-Attiyah. In an evolution of Toyota Gazoo Racing’s awesome and conventionally powered GR Hilux DKR T1, Qatar’s Al-Attiyah is chasing a fifth Dakar win – having won previously for three different manufacturers, including last time in the Hilux. Also a winner in Extreme E, he and co-driver Mathieu Baumel will begin their defence of the new world championship that was launched in 2022, spearheading a trio of Toyota Gazoo entries.

Dania Akeel: Saudi Arabia's female sensation

Once the event starts, also keep an eye out for Dania Akeel, the Saudi Arabian female racer who competes in the lightweight prototype T3 class. She finished eighth in the category on her debut last time and returns having finished second in class in the FIA Cross-Country World Cup, partnered by experienced Uruguayan Sergio Lafuente in a South Racing Can-Am Maverick X3. Akeel was the first Saudi woman to be granted a licence to race motorcycles, but switched off-road following an accident.

“Honestly, I love it, I love the novelty,” she says of her chosen sport. “On each event the terrain is always new, even on the same event two years running. It will always be different. Also you are always changing as a driver. It is exciting and definitely ‘adventure’ is the word for it. It pushes you to limits you don’t know you have. You really face yourself in these races. While that can be enjoyable it can be emotionally quite challenging, to constantly face a point where you think ‘OK, this is my limit’. But then you see yourself pass it and cross the threshold, and your perspective changes. It has implications on every part of your life.”

Such intensity, almost every day for two weeks, in a remote, dangerous and mysterious landscape… that’s what makes the Dakar Rally so special. It will be epic.

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