At the Dakar sea camp, no one wants to wait any longer.
After three days of technical and administrative checks in the XXL bivouac set up by the organization, night falls and the competitors try to fall asleep before starting the 45th edition of the legendary rally.
It is the fourth foray into the Saudi desert, but not just any.
Last year, the participants complained about the relative naivety of the test, and for this reason the race management has decided to increase the distances (8,549 kilometers, 4,706 of timed specials), the number of stages (15) and the complexity of the terrain , especially in the second leg of the competition.
“The first week is to win the Dakar, and the second is to not lose it.
I think it could be summed up like this, ”David Castera, director of the race, explains to EL PAÍS.
“We have put in more kilometers and then we have the part of the dunes, which will force us to change the pace for sure.
Between the third and ninth stage there will be a lot of navigation, and then the problems will be technical.
This year the organization proposes regulatory changes to reduce the impact of the strategy.
The cars will not have neutralized sections and will not be able to rest during refueling, which will not allow them to find out about their position in the stage.
In addition, the FIA will establish a confidential performance control of the leading vehicles and will be able to modify the benefits and match the potential of the teams.
“An independent committee will analyze the motor performance of each team so that there are no abysmal differences in the technical section.
The organization does not want to punish those who work best, but to level the battlefield”, explains Isidre Esteve (Toyota).
In motorcycles, the main change will be the time bonus for the riders who open the track, a measure that may favor the riding style of Joan Barreda (Honda), who faces his last chance to win the event.
“It is a good step.
Before, people thought a lot about the strategy so as not to open up and now we feel freer, we can focus on riding without being afraid that being fast will harm us”, points out Pablo Quintanilla, a teammate from Castellón and second last year.
"It's been a long time since anyone repeated Dakar victories and I want to break the spell",
says Sam Sunderland (GASGAS), winner of the 2022 edition. Marc Coma, in 2014 and 2015, was the last to do so.
“There are many strong competitors, but the desert is the toughest,” he adds.
Returning to the cars, Carlos Sainz (Audi) keeps a low profile and lets the rest of the rivals get wet about the fight for victory.
"Seb [Loeb, second last year] is my great rival, I don't see Carlos that much," provokes Nasser Al-Attiyah (Toyota), last year's winner.
"Well, very good," replies the man from Madrid, happy with his vehicle and the words of his teammate, Stéphane Peterhansel, winner of 14 Dakars.
"He is a prudent person, and you always have to have respect for what he says."
The Frenchman is forceful with the options for the hybrid with electric batteries from the German brand: “We have the car to achieve it and we are prepared.
For me there are five capable of winning.
Nasser, Seb and my teammates Carlos and Mattias [Ekstrom] are well positioned”.
The 2023 Dakar has 119 Spanish participants out of a total of 820 who will start, with 68 countries represented and 54 women in the race.
Laia Sanz (Astara), in cars, and Cristina Gutiérrez (Can-Am), in light prototypes, aspire to achieve historic results this year: the former wants to enter the Top 15 and the latter is the favorite to win in her category.
Spaniard Daniel Vila Vaqués, a rookie in the quad category, will have the honor of being the first to leave at 8am (local time) after passing the podium overlooking the Red Sea.
The unknown of the inhospitable desert
In these previous days, much has been said about the harshness of the route and the second week in the Rub Al Khali desert -which in Arabic means empty quadrant-, a harsh setting reminiscent of the old days in Africa.
“There will be days of going 40 km/h, and more people than usual will stay in the sand, like when we went to Mauritania or Mali.
I remember one in 2005 where only three cars had arrived before dark”, says a member of the BRX, Loeb's team.
During the reconnaissance of the prologue stage, Tom Colsoul, winner of the 2012 Dakar and one of the most sought-after co-drivers of his generation, also warned about the first week: “Everyone pays close attention to the second, but the first is tricky.
It will be very complicated, with a lot of navigation.
The fourth stage and its first 100 kilometers can be key.
This Saturday, the 13 kilometers to open your mouth and start to order the table have incentive: the first 10 cars and the first 15 motorcycles will be able to choose their starting position in reverse order for the first stage.
No one wants to come out on top, as the rest benefit from the markings in the sand and follow their trail.
Until January 15, when the procession arrives in Dammam, on the shores of the Persian Gulf, after crossing the country and with no time to celebrate the end of the year, the participants face the toughest Dakar of their journey in Saudi Arabia.
"I prefer not to imagine too much, here you always get surprises", Sainz intervenes, who prefers to go day by day.
On that everyone agrees.
The rally-raid World Cup expands its horizons
The Dakar repeats as the opening event of the second World Rally-Raid Championship (W2RC) in history, a new initiative that aims to organize and consecrate the discipline of endurance rallies.
In 2023, the new championship promoted by ASO, the French company that organizes the Dakar, in collaboration with the FIM and the FIA, will have five events on three continents, adding two new stops to the calendar in Mexico and Argentina.
Yann Le Moënner, CEO of ASO, explained during the event's presentation the importance of expanding to the American continent and underlined the championship's vision of sustainability.
"We want to achieve that our sport reduces emissions to a minimum in the not too distant future," he said.
The intention is that in 2026 the main competitors will run with clean vehicles.
W2RC Calendar 2023
1: Dakar Rally (Saudi Arabia, December 31 to January 15)
2: Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge (United Arab Emirates, February 25-March 2)
3: Sonora Rally (Mexico, April 22-28)
4: Route 40 (Argentina, August 26 to September 1)
5: Rally du Maroc (Morocco, October 12-18)
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