DAKAR! Dakar 2021! After two days in quarantine, teams reclaim vehicles and prepares for shakedown!
The wide panel of champions who took part in Wednesday’s video press conference (available on the official digital platforms) singled out the former winners of the race as the big favourites to claim this year's edition, starting with reigning champion Carlos Sainz and the two men who escorted him on the podium last year, Nasser Al-Attiyah and Stéphane Peterhansel. X-Raid and Toyota have the firepower and technical experience needed to prevail, but new projects such as Bahrain Raid Xtreme, which has put Sébastien Loeb and Nani Roma behind the wheels of its two 4×4s, are determined to take the fight to them. Mathieu Serradori's Team SRT, Christian Lavieille's MD Rallye Sport and Khalid Al Qassimi's Abu Dhabi Racing are also eager to cause an upset.
It is hard to believe there was a time when Carlos Sainz was known for a flamboyant yet ultimately futile approach to the Dakar. His take-no-prisoners driving style was as daring as it had been on WRC courses, netting him no fewer than 15 stage wins in his first three starts (2006, 2007 and 2009)… but never taking him higher than ninth overall. Then, last year, the Spaniard gave a masterclass in level-headed driving and controlling the race, coming into his own to claim his third title with as many different manufacturers. El Matador's skilful performance in Saudi Arabia after taking the spoils in South America makes him a legitimate favourite to win the 2021 edition, but his main rivals have also got loads of raw speed and experience! He will find other contenders for the crown even within his own X-Raid Team, in which Stéphane Peterhansel, a seven-time winner of the car category (not to mention his track record in the motorbike category) and household name in rally raids, will be driving the same two-wheel drive buggy.
Toyota is banking on experience too. Over the years, Nasser Al-Attiyah has morphed from a driver known as a "car smasher" into a lean, mean winning machine. The Qatari's victories in this season's Andalucía Rally and the recent Baja Ha'il have shortened the odds in his favour, but teammates such as the ever-consistent Giniel De Villiers (with 13 top 5 finishes, including 1 victory, in 17 starts) and Saudi Arabia's standard-bearer, Yazeed Al-Rajhi (fourth in 2020), also have what it takes to put a Hilux back on the top step of the podium. Toyota has also got other cards to play after signing Poland's Jakub Przygoński, who will be seeking to get back on track and build on his fourth place in 2019 after his progression was truncated last year (19th).
The facts on the ground in the last few editions put the focus on the Mini-Toyota duel, but their competition has also got good reason to be optimistic. The impact of Bahrain Raid Xtreme's challenge on the plans of the two major manufacturers is anyone's guess. Meanwhile, Prodrive, which has mainly shown its mettle in WRC, got its hands on two star signings —Sébastien Loeb and Nani Roma— in its attempt to fight for the win from its Dakar debut. One step ahead after cracking the top 10 for the first time last year (eighth), Mathieu Serradori will be seeking to emulate the exploits of Jean-Louis Schlesser, who at the turn of the century embraced the role of the private constructor who could go toe to toe with the big and the powerful. His ambition and his CR6 buggy have made a strong impression on Saudi Arabia's Yasir Seaidan, who finished right behind him in the general classification last January and will be fighting at his side in this adventure. Making buggies that pack a surprise punch is also the ethos of MD Rallye Sport, which has recruited Christian Lavieille for this year's edition. Meanwhile, the Peugeot lions, which stamped their authority on the race three years in a row, have yet to get their mojo back in their recycled form under the care of Khalid Al Qassimi (sixth in 2018) and his Abu Dhabi Racing Team, which is also supporting Cyril Despres and Mike Horn in their quest to develop the Gen-Z project and field a hydrogen-powered car in 2023. The Lithuanian and Chinese clans will have also become a force to be reckoned with by then, if not earlier. Their key assets Benediktas Vanagas (11th in 2019), Vaidotas Žala (12th in 2019 and a stage win in 2020) and Wei Han (10th in 2020) are determined to play a leading role in the car race.
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