Rest day: Destination Jeddah

Dakar 2022 | Rest 0 | Riyadh
January 8 th 2022 - 21:09 [GMT + 3]

The third Dakar held in Saudi Arabia has arrived in the capital, Riyadh, after six stages and seven days of racing. The bikers and quad riders reached the rest day with 1,627 km of specials and 2,170 km of liaisons under their belt, for a total of almost 4,000 km. Meanwhile, the FIA four-wheel vehicles have covered 1,933 km of timed sectors, a bit more than the motorbikes, which only completed a quarter of yesterday's special for safety reasons, for a total of 4,233 km since the start in Jeddah. The field has turned the psychological corner of the halfway point.

Former champions have got back to their winning ways in the most prominent categories, with biker Sam Sunderland, now racing for GasGas, and even more so with Nasser Al-Attiyah and his Toyota Hilux, who have put over 50 minutes into third-placed Sébastien Loeb and his BRX. "Chaleco" López is dominating the lightweight prototype race after switching to T3s in a South Racing Can-Am, while Brazilian Rodrigo Luppi de Oliveira leads the SSV competition. Frenchman Alexandre Giroud may be starting to fancy his chances of winning the quad race, while reigning champion Dmitry Sotnikov and his Kamaz are in control of the truck category halfway through the rally.

Sunderland Sam (aus), GasGas Factory Racing, KTM 450 Rally Factory Replica, Moto, W2RC, portrait during the Stage 6 of the Dakar Rally 2022 around Riyadh, on January 7th 2022 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia -
Sunderland Sam (aus), GasGas Factory Racing, KTM 450 Rally Factory Replica, Moto, W2RC, portrait during the Stage 6 of the Dakar Rally 2022 around Riyadh, on January 7th 2022 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - © ASO/Charly Lopez
A car drives in the desert landscape, paysage,  during the Stage 6 of the Dakar Rally 2022 around Riyadh, on January 7th 2022 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia -
A car drives in the desert landscape, paysage, during the Stage 6 of the Dakar Rally 2022 around Riyadh, on January 7th 2022 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - © ASO/Charly Lopez

CARS: AL-ATTIYAH KING OF THE DESERT

Nasser Al-Attiyah at the top —what a shocker! The Toyota leader, paired with his co-driver, Mathieu Baumel, won every race he entered in 2021 except the Dakar (second). In 2022, he picked up where he left off with two victories in the first two specials before marking with an X those stages in which he could open up a big gap. Sébastien Loeb and his BRX Hunter were ready to pounce on the slightest opportunity, but the Frenchman lost a lot of time to a broken transmission in stage 3 and then some more to a major navigation error on the eve of the rest day. Yazeed Al-Rajhi has capitalised on these events to insert himself between the Qatari and the Frenchman in second place overall, 48 minutes behind the leader. Combined with Giniel De Villiers's metronomic performance in fourth place (following the reversal of a 5-hour penalty for an incident with a biker) and comeback kid Lucio Álvarez's strong showing in fifth, this means that Toyota Hilux T1+ cars make up 80% of the top 5. Al-Attiyah's nigh-unhindered romp through the Saudi desert has a lot to do with the struggles of his two long-time rivals, Stéphane Peterhansel and Carlos Sainz, who seem to be running late but are actually ahead of their times. Audi is betting on its RS Q e-tron for the next few editions in its first year as an official constructor, with a view to ushering in a technological revolution. Although no longer in contention for the title, the three drivers racing for the brand with the four interlocking rings have appeared at the front of the race with a great deal of panache on several occasions, landing a stage win with Sainz and sixth top 3 finishes in the specials held so far.

The X-raid buggies that dominated the two previous editions have not made much of an impression in the fight for the top honours, although Jakub Przygoński remains within striking distance in sixth place and can still climb onto the final podium in Jeddah if the upcoming war of attrition goes his way. Behind the big factory teams, several outfits are meeting their expectations and will try to stay the course during the second week, including Century Racing's Mathieu Serradori (twelfth) and MD Rallye Sport's Christian Lavieille (thirteenth), who are ready to launch their assault on the top 10, with perhaps even better prospects for Martin Prokop (ninth). Throw BRX Hunter's stage winner "Orly" Terranova (eighth), Russian Vladimir Vasilyev (seventh) and Lithuanian Vaidotas Žala (eleventh) into the battle for the places of honour and there can be no doubt that sparks are about to fly on the road back to the Red Sea.

MOTORBIKES: GASGAS TRIUMPHANT ON ALL FRONTS

On 1 January, Daniel Sanders took the inaugural special of the Dakar to open his account and GasGas's. The Australian, who claimed top rookie honours and fourth place overall in 2021, picked up another two victories and led the general standings for two days before passing on the torch to his teammate Sam Sunderland, who has defended his lead for four stages so far. In other words, GasGas has been in command since Jeddah. Meanwhile, KTM's Matthias Walkner has been sitting in second place, 2′39″ down, since stage 3. The reigning world champion is locked in a fierce battle with Yamaha's Adrien Van Beveren, who stood second and then third until he was ejected from the provisional podium yesterday. At 7′43″ behind the leader, he trails Sanders, who has moved back within 5′35″ of his teammate. Quintanilla, the best performing asset of the Honda stable, which won the race last year, is in fifth place at 15′43″, less than three minutes ahead of Lorenzo Santolino at 18′22″. The Sherco rider, sixth in the 2021 Dakar, is slotted in the same position after reaching fifth place on three occasions. Five constructors (GasGas, KTM, Yamaha, Honda and Sherco) make up the top 6 on the rest day. Hero Motorsport have good reason to be proud of their maiden Dakar victory. Joaquim Rodrigues came through for the Indian squad, as did the astonishing Danilo Petrucci for KTM. The Italian, who claimed two Grand Prix victories in his previous avatar as a MotoGP racer, took stage 5 in his first rally raid. Meanwhile, Honda's veteran biker, Joan "Bang Bang" Barreda, continued to fire at will, bringing his tally to 29 stage wins, but a crash two days ago left him nursing a broken collarbone as the race gears up for the return trip to Jeddah. Ross Branch is not even certain to start the next stage after he made a mistake and crashed while opening stage 6. Skyler Howes had to go home due to a traumatic brain injury, but he will probably be back on his feet in no time, considering that Husqvarna has already announced that he will be entering the next leg of the World Championship.

In a repeat of last year, the winners of the previous editions have been slowly but steadily clawing their way up the standings after a torrid start. Defending champion Kevin Benavides, now riding for KTM, is no exception. The Argentinian is 25 minutes down on the leader, with Price at 39′09″ and Brabec even further back at 49′20″. The American is experiencing the same scenario as last year, when he got back in contention in the second week and finished the race in second place. In light of the small gaps separating the top 15, there remains a lot to play for. Mason Klein, in contrast, could not have asked for a better Dakar debut. The 20-year-old rookie, tenth overall at 37′08″, is playing in the big league and leads the Rally2 category by 39′37″ over another newcomer, Bradley Cox, son of KTM legend Alfie Cox, sitting in twentieth place. The third Rally2 biker, Camille Chapelière, lies twenty-second overall at 50′10″. Among experienced private competitors, Štefan Svitko (seventh) trails the leader by 24′29″, with Xavier de Soultrait (fourteenth) at 47′25″ and Martin Michek (nineteenth) at 1 h 11′47″.

In the Original by Motul class for bikers racing without support crews, reigning champion Arūnas Gelažninkas leads Milan Engel and South African rookie Charan Moore. Two regular fixtures, "Benji" Melot and Romanian Emanuel Gyenes, who was runner-up last year after winning the 2020 edition, round out the top 5. 33 of these "convicts of the desert" are still in the race. Almost five hours separate the Lithuanian from the biker running dead last, Amaury Baratin, 135th overall after spending 25 hours more on the saddle than Sam Sunderland!

QUADS: COPETTI IN GIROUD'S REAR-VIEW MIRROR

Alexandre Giroud is on track to leave the disappointment of his two previous starts, which ended up in withdrawal, well in the past. The Frenchman has been in control since stage 5, when he wrested the overall lead from Argentinian-American Pablo Copetti, who is 4′52″ down and keen to set the record straight in the second week. The title holder, Manuel Andújar, was already boarding a flight back to Argentina yesterday evening after crashing —and wrecking— his quad against a rock. However, one man's pain is another one's gain. Russian Aleksandr Maksimov is now on the provisional podium, where he trails the French leader by 36′15″.

LIGHTWEIGHT PROTOTYPES: THE "CHALECO" METHOD AND THE QUINTERO SHOW

Experienced racers are those who have learnt from their mistakes. In his victorious T4 campaigns in 2019 and 2021, Francisco López bagged 5 stages both times, but he also had to endure a roller-coaster in the general standings before wrapping up the race. This time round, the Chilean is betting the farm on a consistent approach and has not relinquished the lead since capturing it in stage 2. South Racing's key driver reached the rest day in Riyadh with 23 minutes in hand over his young teammate Sebastian Eriksson, who is lucky to make his Dakar debut under the wing of such a battle-hardened captain. The Can-Ams do not seem overly concerned about their lack of partial successes, as OT3 Red Bull's Seth Quintero takes one stage win after another. Although a broken differential case in stage 2 knocked the young American out of contention for the top honours, he continues to put on a sensational show on the tracks and dunes of Saudi Arabia; with 6 stage wins in 7 specials, he is simply untouchable when luck is on his side. He makes no secret of his ambition to break the records of 10 victories in a single edition, set by Pierre Lartigue in 1994… the kind of statistics that "Chaleco" has come to see as a trivial pursuit.

SSVs: BRAZIL IS BACK

Brazil has traditionally been a significant presence in the SSV category. Leandro Torres and Reinaldo Varela claimed the first two editions of the race in 2017 and 2018, respectively. This time round, Austin Jones was the odds-on favourite after finishing runner-up to "Chaleco" in the previous Dakar and excelling throughout the 2021 season. Indeed, the American set a consistent yet challenging pace at the beginning of the race and held the overall lead for three days. The first stages were a mixed bag for the Polish armada, which grabbed one special after another with Marek Goczał, his brother Michał or their friend Aron Domżała, but without finding the steady rhythm that would have put them in prime position to fight for the title. Meanwhile, rookie Rodrigo Luppi de Oliveira flew under the radar until he scored a double whammy by winning stage 5 and toppling Austin Jones from the lead. The Brazilian driver no doubt feels relieved to take a breather in Riyadh with 6′56″ to spare over Jones.

TRUCKS: TRUE BLUE, THROUGH AND THROUGH

Faced with reigning champion Dmitry Sotnikov, four-time winner Eduard Nikolaev, back in business after a one-year hiatus in Kamaz management, and 2020 sensation Andrey Karginov, it is hard to see who could topple the blue trucks from the throne that Kamaz has sat on since 2017. It is hard to overstate the dominance of the Russian crews since the 44th Dakar got under way in Jeddah. Janus van Kasteren placing his Iveco third in stages 3 and 4 has been the only blip in an otherwise seamless run of Kamaz 1-2-3s in the seven specials held before the rest day. Aleš Loprais, the nephew of six-time truck champion Karel Loprais, who passed away two days before the start in Jeddah, attempted to stir up trouble with his Praga on several occasions but came up short every single time. Karginov has been the most prolific stage hunter so far, with three victories to his name, while Nikolaev and Sotnikov have claimed two each. In other circumstances, this would have propelled Karginov to the top of the standings, but his title hopes met a muddy demise in stage 4, where he lost almost an hour and a half. Clawing back that much time sounds like a pipe dream, not least because the drivers standing on the provisional podium are none other than his teammates. Sotnikov has led the race since stage 1B. He has since expanded his margin to over 10 minutes on Nikolaev and 38 on Anton Shibalov, who is still hunting for his first win of the season. Van Kasteren is sitting in fourth place overall, over an hour down, but unless something really strange happens between here and Jeddah, the smart money is on blue remaining the colour of the season when the truck race draws to a close.

DAKAR CLASSIC: A STROLL IN THE PARK FOR THE LAND CRUISERS

Xavier Pina Garnatcha's Toyota HDJ 80 drew first blood for the Dakar Classic in Jeddah. A different one belonging to Serge Mogno and Florent Drulhon, tied at 15 points with Jérôme and Anne Galpin and their Protruck, leads the race at the halfway point. Despite finishing their first special in eighteenth place, the French duo were soon in synch with the rhythm of the Classic, coming in third, second, eleventh and first in the next few specials for a total of three podium spots, the kind of consistency that pays dividends in the Classic. Meanwhile, the Galpins, who started the rally in 92nd place, have been on the podium of two stages and finished three times between the top 30 and top 40. Right behind the French couple, Juan Roura Iglesias, also driving a Toyota HDJ 80, is at + 2 points, followed closely by Jesús Fuster Pliego at + 3. With no fewer than 41 Toyotas HDJ 80 on the start line, such an overwhelming dominance is not surprising. Furthermore, any rivals praying for the fleet to be hit by mechanicals are wasting their time, as no other car has proved as reliable as the lucky number of the Land Cruiser series!

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