Stage 1A, a short 19-kilometre stint to determine the starting order of the Dakar ’22 rally, not only shattered all hopes of a podium finish for some competitors, but it also saw the historic debut of the electric Audi RS Q e-Tron.
Instead of extracting all available kilowatts from their cars, though, some competitors started the stage with strategy in mind. Mr Dakar himself, 14-time winner Stéphane Peterhansel in his electric Audi, said that his aim is to finish the stage in tenth in what was more than likely an attempt to start the race on compacted sand.
South African duo Brian Baragwanath and navigator Leonard Cremer driving the Century Racing CR6 finished third in what essentially served as a qualifier of sorts while Toyota Gazoo Racing young gun, Henk Lategan, finished the stage fourth quickest in his locally-built GR Hilux. Hilux teammate Nasser Al-Attiyah seemingly threw any and all strategies of compact sand to the wind with a flat-out sprint to the finish line finishing the short stage in 10 min 56 secs – 12 seconds ahead of Carlos Sainz Sr in another electric e-Tron.
Stage 1B & 2
Nobody ever said that day 2 of the gruelling Dakar was going to be an easy trek with a 338 km stage that awaited competitors. Car competitors Manuel Plaza Perez and navigator and daughter Monica Plaza Perez in the Sodicars Racing Chevrolet were already forced to fix a broken suspension system during the official opening stage costing them a precious five-hour deficit from the leaders.
The Audi of Stéphane Peterhansel also suffered suspension problems, paired with a hefty penalty, meaning the Frenchman’s hopes of making it a coveted 15 wins was non-existent as the number 200 Audi e-Tron was placed an overall 80th at the end of day 2.
At the front of the car pack, it was a dual between Al-Attiyah and WRC legend Sebastian Loeb in the Prodrive Hunter with Loeb saying "we had to push as we did in the WRC" with him finishing Stage 1B twelve minutes shy from the leader. Stage 2, however, proved favourable to Loeb who finished the 791-kilometre route between Ha’il and Al Qaisumah three and a half minutes clear of the Toyota Gazoo driver.
Carlos Sainz also had an impressive second stage in one of the still-contending Audis from a 47th placed Stage 1 B finish, charging to a third-place finish of Stage 2 moving his overall ranking up to 32nd.
South African Dakar legend Giniel de Villiers in his Gazoo Hilux had a respectably consistent Stage 1B finishing 7th while things didn’t go his way during Stage 2 with a 75th place classification.
Stage 3 & 4
Following his historic Stage 2 win, Sebastian Loeb was one of the unluckiest drivers of the day with a transmission failure on his Prodrive resulting in the car limping through the unforgiving dunes with only two-wheel-drive available. This translated into a near 38-minute overall deficit over Al-Attiyah who was still leading the overall car standings at the end of Stage 3 despite an 8th place stage finish just behind Giniel who, again, finished the stage in 7th.
Young SA driver, Henk Lategan, didn’t leave anything in the dunes as he raced to a second-place finish at the end of stage 3 – behind Carlos Sainz who for the first time since 1985 drove an Audi to a stage win – and moving him up in overall rankings to 37th following a few hic-ups in previous stages.
Toyota Gazoo Racing and Nasser Al-Attiyah continued their dominance during Stage 4 with another stage victory, securing a massive 38-minute overall lead over Sebastian Loeb.
Quietly slipping into a main protagonist seat was Yazeed Al Rajhi and navigator Michael Orr with their Overdrive Toyota Hilux that, despite finishing Stage 4 in fifth, proved incredibly consistent moving the outfit into third overall following the massively long stage.
While luck favoured some, others weren’t as lucky with wheels coming undone and the Audi e-Tron of Stéphane Peterhansel once again having teething problems with another round of mechanical failure on the Audi's suspension system. At least, according to the Audi racers, there’s very little in the way of range anxiety with the electric-engine that works in tandem with an ICE to charge the batteries which in itself is already a significant leap forward as far as this motorsport discipline is concerned.
There are still some ways to go with this year's Dakar and, if previous years serve as any indicator, the battle for the win isn't over until it's over.