Carlos Sainz (ESP) and Lucas Cruz (ESP) of Team Audi Sport race during stage 08 of Rally Dakar 2024 from Al Duwadimi to Hail, Saudi Arabia on January 15, 2024 // Marcelo Maragni / Red Bull Content Pool // SI202401150161 // Usage for editorial use only //

Ultimate Dakar 2024 .. At Long Last Audi!

Published: Sunday January 14 2024
Riders, crews and pundits often end up eating a slice of humble pie when the race ventures into the desert. After six stages, but with a whole week of competition under their belts, the entrants often derided as "daredevils" have proved resilient to the vagaries of fate, while the usual paragons of consistency have made one uncharacteristic blunder after another.

Carlos Sainz knows the formula for success in the Dakar, with a hat-trick of victories to his name (2010, 2018 and 2020), but he also has an unfortunate knack for self-sabotage. Having been the living embodiment of “haste makes waste” more than once and driving an RS Q e-Tron that had struggled to go the distance at the highest level, the Spaniard was far from the odds-on favourite for the 2024 title. Yet, lo and behold, there he is topping the leader board at the halfway point, as he was in his victorious campaigns in 2010 and 2020. Performance is a collective affair at Audi, with Mattias Ekström in second place. The Swede has been on an upward trajectory since the rally got under way in AlUla, building on his ninth-place finish from 2022 and swelling the ranks of the brand with the four interlocking rings near the top of the standings. Their closest rival still constitutes a serious threat.

Sébastien Loeb can erase a 30-minute deficit in no time when everything falls into place. Like the Audi drivers, he took the daring gamble of losing time on purpose before tackling the sands of the Empty Quarter. After emerging more or less unscathed from the volcanic panic stage, he opened his 2024 account in the 48H Chrono, marking his 25th career triumph and reigniting hopes for Hunter to take its maiden win. The conqueror of the main course showcased his nerves of steel, a trait that he will undoubtedly need to scale to the top of the ranking while keeping a close eye on his two main rivals: the Brazilian Lucas Moraes, who can finish on the podium again if he survives the war of attrition, and the Belgian Guillaume de Mevius, who took his first stage win and lies in fifth place overall, 1 h 09 off the pace.

DE SOULTRAIT Xavier (fra), Sébastien Loeb Racing – Bardahl Team, Polaris RZR Pro R, FIA SSV, portrait during the rest day of the Dakar 2024 on January 13, 2024 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Yazeed Al Rajhi and Nasser Al Attiyah share a few parallels in their stellar driving careers. Both burst onto the Dakar scene, turning heads not just for their speed but also for their penchant for giving their cars a radical makeover, to put it mildly. Over the years, both have cultivated a reputation for staying cool behind the wheel and their Teflon-like resistance to panic, a mature approach that has brought Al Attiyah a whopping five titles. Meanwhile, his Saudi counterpart seemed poised to start his own trophy haul.

Al Rajhi went into the 48H Chrono at the summit of the leader board, but he lost it after just 51 kilometres, when he somersaulted out of the lead and the race, a victim of his own overzealousness. In the next half of the same stage, Al Attiyah himself was a tad too eager to claw back into contention, pushing his luck until he wrecked a wheel, which cost him 2 h 30. Saudi Arabia seems to be no country for old winners this year: Stéphane Peterhansel readily admits as much, having squandered over two hours due to a puncture gone awry, with the jack and the entire hydraulic system failing in the dunes of stage 6. Meanwhile, Guerlain Chicherit was banking on his new Toyota Hilux to provide the stability that he felt was missing in the Dakar, only to be thwarted by mechanical woes, finding himself trailing by 1 h 58. He is bringing up the rear in the top 10, right behind Mathieu Serradori, ninth overall and topranked two-wheel driver.