JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia: Nasser Al-Attiyah clinched his fourth Dakar Rally title on Friday in Jeddah after leading from the first stage on New Year’s Day.
Al-Attiyah could afford to let nearest rival Sebastien Loeb, the former nine-time rally world champion, beat him by more than five minutes on the 12th and last sandy stage from Bisha and still cruise to overall victory by more than 27 minutes. The Qatari previously won in 2011, 2015 and 2019.
British rider Sam Sunderland won his second Dakar motorbike title after beating stage winner Pablo Quintanilla of Chile by 3 1/2 minutes, the closest margin since 1994.
But the rally’s end was overshadowed by the road crash death of a support staff member from the PH Sport team on a liaison route.
Quentin Lavalée, aged 20 of France, was killed when the car he was driving collided with a local truck, police told Dakar Rally organizers. A passenger with Lavalée, Maxime Frere of Belgium, was injured and taken to a Jeddah hospital. Lavalee was a chief mechanic.
Al-Attiyah was runner-up in the last two Dakars in Saudi Arabia, and focused on rallying in the past year without sharing time with sport shooting or powerboating. Plagued by punctures on the Dakar, he fine-tuned a Toyota with bigger tires and suspension and came to Saudi having won seven rallies.
His biggest rivals struck trouble early. Defending champion Stephane Peterhansel lost a rear wheel and three-time champ Carlos Sainz made a bad navigation error. Loeb’s drive shaft broke and by the rest day a week ago, Al-Attiyah had a 50-minute lead.
Loeb desperately chipped at the gap in search of his first Dakar title but Al-Attiyah and co-driver Matthieu Baumel expertly avoided trouble.
“It was an incredible Dakar for us. The whole race went without a hitch,” Al-Attiyah said. “We opened up a gap on the first day and have since managed our lead. We’re really happy, and I reckon we’ll start thinking of the next Dakar in a week or 10 days.”
Al-Attiyah’s fourth Dakar tied him for second most with Ari Vatanen. Peterhansel leads with eight.
Loeb’s second place matched his 2017 result in Argentina.
“We never stopped attacking, so we have no regrets,” Loeb said. “Nasser has tons of experience and a co-driver who only makes mistakes once in a blue moon, so he controlled the race to perfection. I still had a blast, though, because every time we gained time on him, it felt great.”
Saudi driver Yazeed Al Rajhi was third for his first Dakar podium at his eighth attempt.
Sunderland’s preparation wasn’t ideal. Riding for his new team GasGas, he had a bad crash at the Rally Kazakhstan and retired ill from the Morocco Rally. Yet, he led throughout the first week of the Dakar and when he was challenged in the second week, timed his winning run to perfection.
“I had a pretty rough season, but when you win the Dakar, it’s all worth it,” Sunderland said.
Quintanilla was runner-up for the second time in three Dakars.
“It was physically and mentally exhausting. But I’m really pleased with my performance,” Quintanilla said.
Austrian rider Matthias Walkner, the 2018 champion and twice runner-up, was nearly seven minutes back in third overall which, he said, “almost feels like a victory.”
Sunderland’s brother-in-law, Adrien van Beveren of France, was fourth, and Joan Barreda of Spain fifth while carrying a shoulder injury.
Mason Klein, the 20-year-old American on debut, was ninth, 13 seconds ahead of two-time winner Toby Price of Australia.