Dakar Rally 2024: CAR’s in-depth preview

Published: 05 January 2024 Updated: 05 January 2024

► CAR’s Dakar 2024 preview
► Audi, Toyota, Hunter…
► …plus a new factory Ford team

The Dakar Rally gets underway today (5 January) in Saudi Arabia. Some 778 competitors contesting seven categories will cover 5000km of stages that criss-cross the stark terrain of the Saudi Peninsula. This year’s event is the fifth in Saudi Arabia and charts fresh territory, some 60% of the route being brand new. It starts in Al-’Ula and ends in Yanbu on 19 January.

Team Audi Sport hopes it’ll be third time lucky this year after two difficult outings with the hybrid-powered Audi RS Q e-tron. While its shown flashes of considerable speed, reliability has been a significant issue and 2023’s effort was further hobbled by injuries. One car made the finish, Mattias Ekström crossing the line 14th.

For 2024, Audi is running the much-improved, third generation RS Q e-tron E2. It debuted on the penultimate 2023 World Rally Raid Championship round in Argentina, but experienced reliability troubles and failed to reach the podium. At least the handling and ride quality issues that affected the E1 car seem to have been resolved.

Audi certainly has every chance of success this year – if the car holds together. The team retains last year’s driver line-up: 14-time winner Stéphane Peterhansel, four-time winner (and two-time WRC champion) Carlos Sainz, plus DTM and rallycross champion Ekström. The pressure on the squad to win is particularly intense as this is the last time Audi will contest the Dakar before it switches focus to Formula 1.

Speaking to Dakar.com, Sainz said: “We are approaching this Dakar knowing that it will be the last for Audi Sport, that it is this year or never. We are eager to win for the team and the brand. We have been working as hard as we can since just before the summer, especially on the suspension, to avoid having the problems we had last January. It won’t be easy. But I think we can fight for the win and from the start race with the Toyotas and Prodrive.”

Speaking of which, the Prodrive squad is headed by the clear favourite to win in 2023, Nasser Al-Attiyah, who won the last two Dakars. The Qatari has switched to the British outfit’s BRX Hunter after seven years with Toyota. He’s bullish on his chances. Speaking to Motorsport.com he quipped: “Audi? I give them three days and they will go home, you saw it in Morocco and Aragon after a hundred kilometres.”

Lining up alongside Al-Attiyah is nine-time WRC champion Sébastien Loeb. This year’s Dakar is his fourth in the Hunter and he’ll be keen to improve on a run of second places and finally take the win that’s eluded him in seven attempts. The Ford-powered Hunter has proven immensely fast, Loeb taking six stages win last year, but reliability has been spotty.

One team that’s unlikely to have reliability problems is Toyota. While attention is diverted elsewhere to find the 2024 winner, the Japanese brand’s South Africa-based squad could spring a surprise and add to its win tally. Leader is the ultra-consistent Giniel de Villers, who’s finished all 20 of the Dakar Rallies he’s entered and only missed the top 10 once. He won in 2009 with Volkswagen.

Joining de Villiers is 21-year old American Seth Quintero who steps up to the top class Hilux T1+ after three years in a T3 buggy. He’s been short of luck but blisteringly fast, taking a record 12 stage wins in 2022. Also look out for Lucas Moraes who made a stunning debut last year, finishing third.

Local hero Yazeed Al-Rajhi will be a factor, as ever, in the independent Overdrive Toyota, while the X-Raid Minis led by Krzysztof Holowycz will be well inside the top ten. And it’ll be interesting to see how the new factory Ford squad does as it dips its toe ahead of a full assault with a brand-new car in 2025. Always-rapid Martin Prokop heads the line-up.

The beauty of the Dakar, though, is that you never really know what’s going to happen and it’s entirely possible that a surprise winner could emerge from anywhere among the top 20 drivers.

Elsewhere in the event, the motorcycle category will be fought over by the usual suspects. 2023 winner Luciano Benavides, Toby Price, Sam Sunderland, Daniel Sanders, Pablo Quintanilla and Ricky Brabec all have a shot. Alexandre Giroud and Manuel Andujar are the main contenders on the quads.

The T3 buggy class will be a battle between last year’s winner Austin Jones, Eryk Goczal, who graduates after winning the T4 category last year, plus his father Marek and uncle Michal, and Extreme E race winner Cristina Gutierrez. The T4 class for production-spec ‘side-by-sides’ is always closely fought, too.

In the continued absence of the once-dominant Russian Kamaz squad, the truck category will be contested between the Ivecos of 2023 winner Janus van Kasteren, Martin Macik and Mitchell van den Brink. The Praga of Ales Loprais and Tatra of Jaroslav Valtr will also be in the discussion. But who knows? The trucks are the most unpredictable category by some margin.

New for this year is the M1000 class for electric Tacita Discanto bikes and it’s always fun to see the huge variety of vehicles contesting the Dakar Classic regularity rally that runs alongside the main event. Among them are a Citroen 2CV, a rear-engined Skoda, a gorgeous Peugeot 504 Coupe and a pair of (possibly replica) Porsche 959s.

We’ll bring you an update on the progress of the 2024 Dakar Rally towards the end of its first week, and round-up the results after the finish on 19 January.

By Graham King

Senior Staff Writer for Parkers. Car obsessive, magazine and brochure collector, trivia mine.