Last year, Nasser Saleh al-Attiyah had a forgettable Dakar Rally. The then defending champion suffered as many as a dozen punctures as the event headed to Saudi Arabia for the first time.
Despite the setbacks, the Qatari star finished runner-up behind Spaniard Carlos Sainz by a little over six minutes in his Toyota, numbered 300. The near miss has only made the 50-year-old hungrier for his fourth Dakar title as the first major motorsport event of 2021 heads into the dunes and remote deserts of Saudi Arabia in a bivouac ‘bubble’ this weekend.
“Last year’s Dakar in Saudi Arabia was a real disappointment. It was great to be in a new region with incredible scenery a
nd above all we were full of confidence, but as soon as the rally started, we started getting punctures. The tyres we had in South America were not suitable for Saudi Arabia. So not winning was a big disappointment but we still finished second,” al-Attiyah, winner in 2011, 2015 and 2019, was quoted as saying on the Dakar Rally website.
He added: “Concerning the tyres, we (along with Giniel de Villiers) were able to test (in Ha’il) and I am quite confident. This year has been rather quiet for me. I only contested the Qatar Rally before the confinement and the Andalucía Rally afterwards, as well as a few rounds of the Middle East Rally Championship. I stayed at home for more than 6 months but it felt good not to travel and enjoy my family. I am now looking forward to a Dakar where there will be more dunes and tricky bits.”
Perhaps not leaving anything to chance, al-Attiyah also has his number game up to the mark, with the number 301 on his Toyota . “I have always won with the number 301.”
All participants in the gruelling event, which starts in Jeddah on Sunday and ends in the Red Sea port on January 15, have had to quarantine for Covid-19 after arriving on charter flights.
Spaniard Nani Roma, a past winner on two wheels and four, had to change co-driver after compatriot Dani Oliveras tested positive at home before Christmas and was unable to travel to the Middle East. Oliveras’ place will be taken by Frenchman Alex Winocq.
“It’s hard for us,” said 2014 winner Roma, speaking on a video call while isolating in his hotel room. “But anyway I think everyone had a real victory to start this Dakar in this situation around the world.”
Nine-times world rally champion Sebastien Loeb, with long-time co-driver Daniel Elena, will also be competing. The Frenchman has not raced in Saudi Arabia before but competed when the Dakar was held in South America, finishing second with Peugeot in 2017.
Triple winner and defending champion Sainz, father of the Ferrari Formula One driver of the same name, returns with the X-Raid Mini team.
“I’m happy to be here after such a difficult year, like everybody, happy to be at the start,” said the Spaniard.
The Dakar has a number of changes aimed at improving safety after bike riders Paulo Goncalves and Edwin Straver died in last year’s event.
All bike riders must now wear an airbag jacket and are limited to six rear tyres to encourage lower speeds to reduce wear, although some have questioned whether that will really happen.
“If we have six rear tyres for 12 days of the race, you have to go with damaged tyres without being able to slow down… I don’t think, no matter what they try, that we will slow down in competition,” said American Ricky Brabec, the defending champion.
Bike riders will also get an audible warning at dangerous parts of the route.
Electronic road books will be used by some competitors ahead of a general introduction in 2022.