A lioness back on the prowl

Dakar 2024 | Stage 10 | ALULA > ALULA
January 16 th 2024 - 23:56 [GMT + 3]

Laia Sanz is THE Dakar legend among women —nay, a Dakar legend full stop, considering that she smashed the glass ceiling in the motorbike category. With 11 Dakar starts on two wheels between 2011 and 2021, including a top 10 finish in 2015, she stands as the sole woman in the history of the rally who has gone toe to toe with her male counterparts. Since 2022, Laia has been racing on four wheels with her sights set on a high-placed finish in the Ultimate class: "I did it on a bike, why not on four wheels?".

© Marcelo Murbach

Laia had a life before rallies. She was already known as "Súper Laia" in trial and enduro. Just like in rally raids, when the Catalan dives in, it is never a fleeting affair. She won fourteen women's world titles in trial and six in enduro, both all-time records in these disciplines. In fact, this past is so recent that it feels almost like the present, as Laia went back to her roots to snatch two final world titles in trial and enduro after wrapping up her professional rally-raid career in January 2021 In 2022, Laia made her debut on four wheels in Extreme E, teaming up with Carlos Sainz, who advised her to jump straight into the big league of T1. "We have a good relationship. He's the one who approached me about joining him in Extreme E. I don't know why. He must have thought I had potential. He knew I was a pro, that I put in the hard work, and he likes that about me because he's cut from the same cloth. We get each other on that front."

In the world of rally raids from three years ago, Laia was not as lucky as her compatriot "Nani" Roma, who seamlessly transitioned from handlebars to a factory car. Even Peterhansel had had to pave his own way before her. Cyril Despres had been as fortunate as Roma. It was a matter of timing, as the champion says when she explains why she decided to skip the T3 stage: "I reckon if I'd taken the plunge five years earlier, it would've been a breeze. The car competition wasn't as intense; there were about ten top-notch cars and the rest were more evenly matched. Cracking the top 10 was easier. This year, there are forty T1+ cars in the Dakar. Our generation has a harder time showing our potential. T3 crossed my mind, but Carlos told me that, if I wanted to excel in the Dakar, to have a shot at driving a top-notch car, I needed to know how to handle a real car. I chose to play on hard mode, perhaps".

Sanz Laia (esp), Gas Gas, Gas Gas Factory Team, Moto, Bike, portrait during the 12th stage of the Dakar 2021 between Yanbu and Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia on January 15, 2021 - Photo Frédéric Le Floc’h / DPPI
Sanz Laia (esp), Gas Gas, Gas Gas Factory Team, Moto, Bike, portrait during the 12th stage of the Dakar 2021 between Yanbu and Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia on January 15, 2021 - Photo Frédéric Le Floc’h / DPPI © A.S.O./F.Le Floc'h/DPPI

23rd in her first attempt, 65th last year, she made it to AlUla at the end of stage 9 despite a bout of overconsumption and a worn-out clutch during the 48 h chrono stage, topped with a failing turbo in the stage 8. Now, her Century machine in Astara livery is cruising in fifteenth place overall. Could her third Dakar in a car mark a turning point in Laia's career? "Last year was tough for me. This year kicked off better; my experience is starting to pay off. I've gained more driving skills by teaming up with Carlos Sainz and Mattias Ekström in Extreme E and I feel faster by the day. The car makes a massive difference too —we're consistent, not making too many mistakes, starting in better positions, and that's what makes life easier for us."

Her "glass half-full" analysis does not shy away from the reality of the challenge Laia chose to face:  "You can go fast with my car, but it's not easy, it's a two-wheel drive. On a bike, if you're a pro and disciplined and train hard, you can showcase your potential on a standard machine. In cars, this is out of the question. You need money. It's the only thing I don't like about the car race. It's not just about working hard, like I do. It also takes a lot of money. My car is good, but I got behind the wheel a day and a half before the start. In these conditions, it's tough to compete with people who spend the whole year sitting in their cars, racing".

This is not about impatience, resentment or disappointment. Far from it. Realistic and resilient, she remains a lioness who knows her environment and understands the need to overcome the dry season between one Dakar and the next. While Laia would love a spot in a top-tier team, much like her compatriot Cristina Gutiérrez, who is set to join Dacia in 2024, she is realistic about the odds of it happening: "It would be nice, but I don't expect it to happen too soon. It won't work out if I just show up once a year for a single race. I try to pounce on every opportunity and I hope that next year will be better. That's how I started off on a motorbike. The first year, I had no training, and I progressed until I was in a good team, on a good bike and achieving good results. I'll try to do the same in cars. I'm a rookie again. I'm starting with a blank slate. It's back to square one, and it's not easy".

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