The heat is on: rivals aim to topple Toyota at Dakar 2023 | CAR Magazine

The heat is on: rivals aim to topple Toyota at Dakar 2023

Published: 27 December 2022 Updated: 27 December 2022

► Audi targeting a podium finish with updated RS Q s-Tron
► Loeb determined to cap a great year with his first Dakar win
► Toyota sticking with its un-green winning formula

What promises to be one of the most keenly contested Dakar Rallies ever kicks off on New Year’s Eve, with Toyota out to defend its crown, Audi keen to fulfil the promise of its radical hybrid and Prodrive’s Sébastien Loeb itching to end a sensational 12 months with that elusive first Dakar win.

But the gruelling fortnight-long Saudi Arabian desert race, with more than 3000 miles of competitive stages, can scupper even the best-laid plans. This time around there will be more time in the dunes and fewer opportunities for drivers to meet up with their support crews. There have also been some tweaks to the rules, to level the playing field between the different classes.

Loeb, the nine-times World Rally champion, has won rounds of the WRC, Extreme E and the World Rally Raid Championship in 2022. He’s finished second twice in the Dakar, including in 2022 in the Prodrive-developed BRX Hunter, but has never won. 

In 2023 the Hunter is using a new blend of British fuel specialist Coryton’s advanced sustainable fuel, Prodrive EcoPower, which combines biofuel from agricultural waste and e-fuel from carbon capture. It claims an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to petrol; BRX’s four-car squad claims it produces less harmful gas than one car running on normal petrol.

A different approach to green racing is taken by Audi’s RS Q e-Tron, now in its second year. Batteries power the wheels, with a combustion engine charging the batteries. It appeared in its E2 form for the first time at October’s Morocco Rally.

The new body is wider but lighter, with better aero, and there have been a host of tweaks to the cabin controls.

Rolf Michl, head of Audi Motorsport, says: ‘We have clear goals. I hope to clinch a pdium. We’ve improved the car, we’ve got the best drivers and a highly motivated, competent team. The important thing for me is that if everything works, I think a pdoium is possible. We have to be optimally prepared, highly concentrated at every moment, and team cohesion will be the decisive key to success.

‘But I’m also realistic enough to realise that, especially in this sport, there are a number of unpredictable factors: damage, accidents, freak weather or navigation are what make this competition so exciting and challenging at the same time. We have no control over these general conditions. But I’m in good spirits because we weren’t just thorough in preparing the three RS Q e-Tron cars. We have also made considerable progress with processes and procedures.’ 

The man to beat is Nasser Al-Attiyah, whose fourth Dakar win came in 2022 – which he followed up by taking the World Rally Raid Championship.

He’s driving an evolved version of 2022’s winning Toyota Hilux, powered by a twin-turbo V6 petrol engine. Technical director Glyn Hall says: ‘The basic DNA of the car has stayed the same. We got the basic design of the car right a year ago. There have been lots of refhinements. We’ve addressed every single issue and worked hard to improve response. We’ve been making sure the car does exactly what the driver wants, to make sure it’s good all day.

‘Last year Audi were very fast in some stages and would have been a real threat if they had gone well every day. There’s going to be massive competition, much more than last year. But we’re faster than we were last year.’

By Colin Overland

CAR's managing editor: wordsmith, critic, purveyor of fine captions