Al-Attiyah’s bid for a sixth career win in Dakar took a crushing blow on the 48-hour Stage 6 when his Prodrive Hunter screeched to a halt just before the penultimate waypoint with a broken steering bearing, leaving him stranded in Empty Quarter.
The Qatari driver was eventually able to get the car repaired with the assistance from his team, but by the time he reached the final bivouac at Shubaytah he had already dropped 2hr45 mins to the leaders.
With Al-Attiyah now out of the running, Loeb is now the only driver with a realistic chance of overhauling Audi duo Sainz and Ekstrom in the 46th edition of the prestigious rally-raid as the field heads to Riyadh for a much-needed rest day.
Loeb, competing for Prodrive under the Bahrain Raid Xtreme banner, came from behind on Friday to claim his second stage victory of 2023 and move up to third in the standings, 29 minutes behind Sainz.
An overall win at Dakar has eluded the Frenchman despite seven previous attempts, but Al-Attiyah hopes he can spoil Audi’s party in the second week of Dakar.
“It wasn’t a good day,” said Al-Attiyah. “We broke a steering bearing with 50 kilometers to go and we had to wait for our assistance to repair it. It’s a pity, because we had a good special stage despite starting at the front yesterday. In any case, we will continue and see what we can do”.
“The idea is to help Seb [Loeb] to win the Dakar. I’ll do everything I can to make it happen.”
Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool
#203 Bahrain Raid Xtreme Prodrive Hunter: Sebastien Loeb, Fabian Lurquin
Loeb had intentionally missed a waypoint on Stage 5 to incur a penalty and secure a more favourable starting position for the 48-hour test, where drivers won’t have the luxury of tracks left by bike riders as they took diverging routes in Saudi Arabia.
While the strategy ended up costing him more time than he would have liked, he ended the opening day of the stage in a solid third place, before jumping both Ekstrom and Sainz on Friday to take the stage win.
“It was a good day for us, a good stage, no problems,” the nine-time WRC champion explained.
“It was very long with that first part of the special yesterday, more than 400km. I tried to take it easy, especially on the Dakar, and not to be too hard on the car, because it’s very hard on the mechanic[al components] in the dunes.
“The strategy was the right one. What makes Audi’s strategy better is that by losing nine minutes they were far enough back and, also, Nasser at the front was opening up the track very well.”
“So it wasn’t as close as we expected. We had to do the stage, we won it, and we will probably move up in the overall standings.
“It’s not too bad, we’re still in the fight. All in all, we lost time twice between a tyre lever and a triple puncture.
“Apart from that, we’re having a good week, but it’s still going very fast.”
There are still six more stages to run in Dakar, with drivers set to fly to Riyadh to resume the rally on Sunday before making their way to the finish line in Yanbu via stops in Al Duwadimi, Hai’il and Al’Ula.
The 49-year-old said he and Prodrive will have to cut down on punctures in order to improve their chances in the second and final week of the rally.
“Everyone has accelerated to the maximum and the level is very high,” he said. “At this pace, it’s normal for things to break and things to happen.
“For now everything is going well for us, we just have to keep going like this and find a solution to the punctures for the last stages with stones, and that’s it.”
2024 is likely to be Audi’s last chance of winning Dakar, with the German manufacturer set to pull the curtain down on its last remaining factory effort to focus on its upcoming Formula 1 project with Sauber.
Loeb, meanwhile, will be joining Renault brand Dacia in 2025 in a programme that will also be run by Prodrive.