Two-time Dakar champion (2011 and 2015) Nasser Al-Attiyah is starting the race in Buenos Aires as the favourite for the 2016 edition. However, many former winners and rising stars, including Mini teammates and Toyota drivers, could well thwart his plans. Peugeot put the finishing touch to its dream team in the shape of Sébastien Loeb, a man who rarely watches from the sidelines.
The facts on the ground can make it look like a race or a match can be won before it even starts. Nasser Al-Attiyah’s sky-high confidence and form do seem to stack the odds in his favour as he prepares to defend his title. The Qatari’s earlier reputation as a daredevil who liked to play with fire and sometimes got burnt is a distant memory. Now a juggernaut, the Prince of the Dakar was not satiated with his stellar performance in the 2015 edition, which he took with over 35 minutes to spare over the closest competitor. The most voracious driver in the world of rally raids put on a cracking display to claim the rallies of Qatar, Egypt and Morocco, as well as the Hungary, Italy and Poland Bajas, winning the sport’s world cup by a country mile, together with new titles in WRC 2 and the Middle East Championship! Al-Attiyah and Baumel are clearly the huge favourites to win this thing.
However, there are no certainties in the Dakar, where the race can be turned on its head any second even for the best car in the rally. They will face ferocious competition from within Mini itself: 2014 winner Nani Roma and ambitious Orly Terranova (5th in 2013 and 2014) pose the greatest danger among the record-breaking 13 crews fielded by X-Raid, including Guerlain Chicherit’s “Zebra” buggy. Toyota Gazoo features other pretenders to the crown, especially 2009 champion and last year’s runner-up Giniel de Villiers, but also Yazeed Al-Rajhi, who seemed to have a podium finish in the bag for his first participant last January when he was forced to quit on stage 11.
In the car category, 2016 is expected to see Peugeot makes amends for its lacklustre comeback in 2015. Tests in actual race conditions, ample experience and thousands of hours of work on their cars should help Stéphane Peterhansel (11th in 2015), Carlos Sainz (DNF) and Cyril Despres (34th) put their uninspiring debut behind them. Perhaps most importantly, the new version of the 2008 DKR will be driven by the top signing of the year, Sébastien Loeb, who has yet to reach his limits. Will the best rally driver of all times manage to repeat the exploit of Ari Vatanen, who won the Dakar in his first attempt in 1987… at the wheel of a Peugeot? Cautious pundits will point out those were different times and different competitors, while curious fans will let their imagination run amok. And so will Loeb.
The rookie who has generated the greatest buzz this year may be expected to vie for victory or a top placing, but he will have to see off a host of challengers for the podium, including Robby Gordon and his whiz teammate, 18-year-old Sheldon Creed. Team Renauld Duster is banking on Christian Lavieille (6th in 2015), while Mitsubishi pins its hopes on Portugal’s Carlos Sousa, another wonder of consistency who has finished no fewer than 10 times inside the top 10 in his last 11 Dakar starts. Not even Nasser can match that!