Qatar’s Nasser Al-Attiyah put in a commanding performance to secure his fifth Dakar Rally driver’s title – Copyright AFP DAVID MCNEW
Qatari rider Nasser Al-Attiyah won his fifth Dakar Rally driver’s title on Sunday and the second in a row with Argentina’s Kevin Benavides securing his second motorcycle crown.
The 52-year-old won three stages and had more than an hour advantage in the general classification over Frenchman Sebastien Loeb, who also finished runner-up last year.
Al-Attiyah’s Toyota teammate Lucas Moraes of Brazil finished third in the iconic endurance test that reached its climax in Dammam, Saudi Arabia.
Al-Attiyah took the overall lead after the third stage, having built up a commanding lead in week one and deployed a safety-first strategy in the second half of the race.
However, Loeb gave it his all, winning a record six consecutive stages in week two. But the 48-year-old Frenchman had lost so much time in the early part of the race that it was a lost cause.
Two of the main contenders, Loeb’s compatriot Stephane Peterhansel and Spaniard Carlos Sainz failed to finish the race.
The 14th and final stage honors went to Loeb’s Prodrive teammate Guerlain Chicherit.
– ‘Unreal feeling’ –
The car category may not have had much suspense, but the moto title race made up for it with plenty of thrills and spills.
Benavides, the 2021 champion, edged Australian Toby Price by 43 seconds with Skyler Howes of the United States finishing third.
Benavides, who celebrated his 34th birthday during the race, trailed two-time champion Price by 12 seconds entering the 14th and final stage on Sunday.
However, he put in an excellent run to win the stage, posting a time 55 seconds faster than his 35-year-old rival.
Benavides’ win will be popular, as he showed disinterest by stopping to help an injured rival, Matthias Walkner, on Saturday’s penultimate stage.
“It’s incredible to win at the end of this completely crazy Dakar, and with such a small gap,” said Benavides.
“I am also the first to win with two different motorcycle brands, and that makes me very proud.”
It capped off a riveting battle for supremacy in the moto section that had seen Howes lead for six days.
Price couldn’t hide his disappointment despite praising Benavides for doing a “great job.”
– ‘A dream come true’ –
“Yes, it’s hard to take at the moment, but at the end of the day I’m going home in one piece and we got a Dakar trophy,” he said.
“It hurts a little.”
Howes for his part was ecstatic.
“How could I be anything but happy?” said Howes, who became the fifth American to finish in the top three.
“You can always look back and say ‘Oh man, maybe I could have saved this here and here,’ but we made it to the finish safely and I’m on the podium.
“It is a dream come true and an honor to share the podium with two legends like Toby and Kevin.
“It’s the most unreal feeling.”
Several of the title contenders had withdrawn along the way, including last year’s British winner Sam Sunderland, who failed to make it past the first stage.