Prologue – Short but sweet…
Quick Facts: Along the Red Sea - 13km
A leisurely cruise along the seaside?…I think not. The short stage is the palate cleanser for what awaits the teams and sets the qualifying positions for the first stage. Often it’s not always the best to start out in front, leading the way. Such is the nature of Dakar when mixed with the mindset of a racing car driver who always wants to be in the front. Talk about mixed emotions! Experience plays a massive advantage, as we’ve seen before in past years. Starting conservatively, but not too conservatively and bringing the car back to the bivouac should always be P1. Are you familiar with the term 10/10ths versus 13/10ths? Now you are…You can’t win the rally here, but you can certainly lose it.
Short but sweet…13 km is hardly a clear indicator of who will be contenders. Still, it surely doesn’t hurt winning it as Audi did with Mattias Ekstrom crossing the line in P1, followed by Stéphane Peterhasel in another Audi, followed by Nasser Al-Attiyah in P3 in the Toyota Gazoo Racing Hilux. The Audi RS e-tron E2 was forced to be reckoned with speed-wise last year, and this year they’re looking to turn the reliability issues around, given that the speed wasn’t in doubt. It’s all for Toyota to work as a cohesive unit to ward off the charge from Audi. No pun intended.
Stage 1 – Audi draws first blood
Quicks: Sea Camp > Sea Camp – 601 km in total – Special 367 km 234 km Liaison
The circular route would be the opener for the rally, getting the teams warmed up for the navigational challenge that would be faced. The stage presented a mix of narrow gorges, open fast gravel sections littered with rocks and, of course, Saudi sands…lots of it.
Unfortunately for Toyota’s top hope, Nasser Al-Attiya and his navigator, Mathieu Baumel, lost 7 minutes. Mr Dakar himself, Stephane Peterhansel and Edouard Boulanger lost 9 minutes thanks to a missed waypoint. It was another own goal for Audi Sport, with Mattias Ekstrom and Emil Bergkvist missing a waypoint as well, costing them 9 minutes. That misfortune played out well for anyone to pounce on it and that someone was Saudi driver Yazee Al Rajhi and Dirk Vonzitzewitz, who, on top of finishing third for the stage, ranked as the best-performing Toyota. Rally Legend and another example of a driver who seems to be defying the ageing process at 48 years of age, Sebastian Loeb and his navigator Fabian Lurquin, finish second for the day, 1m36sec ahead of Al Rajhi, and stamping his authority as a top contender. However, the spoils for the day went to Carlos Sainz, SNR lead, with an emphatic charge and the reason they call him El Matador. Along with having Carlos Sainz JNR along on the stage, giving support, Sainz SNR topped the day for Audi in this RS e-tron E2.
South Africans Brian Baragwanath and Leonard Cremer continue their David vs Goliath fight in their locally built Century Racing CR6, finishing the stage behind Al-Attiya in 7th position. Further down the field, fellow South Africans Henk Lategan and Brett Cummings finished in P11, 11 minutes behind Sainz with the partnership of Giniel De Villiers and Dennis Murphy in 18th, a further 7 minutes behind Lategan. The two Toyota teams will need to dig deep to bridge the gap, but this is Dakar, where anything can happen and usually does. That unpredictability is what makes Dakar so magical.
Words: Brent van der Schyff