Thursday’s 420km test between Al-’Ula and Yanbu marked Loeb’s last real chance of overhauling Audi’s Carlos Sainz Sr in the overall standings, with Friday’s final stage being too short to make a serious impact.
The Prodrive star had a 13-minute deficit to overcome in one of the most treacherous stages of 2024 Dakar, but his hopes of a maiden victory in the marathon were crushed when he hit a big rock after jumping off a crest, damaging the front-right A-arm on his Hunter.
The Frenchman had called on the Prodrive assistance truck for help, which wasn’t even positioned at the start of the special, before YunXiang China driver Zi Yungang arrived on the scene and happened to have he required spare parts in his customer Hunter.
Loeb was eventually able to take his hobbled car to the finish line, not helped by a slew of punctures, but dropped to third in the standings behind the Overdrive Toyota of Guillaume de Mevius.
Loeb would have likely been able to repair his car on time had Al-Attiyah still been running in Dakar and acting as a rear-gunner, but the Qatari driver withdrew from the event on Stage 9 due to a series of issues of his own.
This meant that the 49-year-old was effectively left on his own in a stage that caught out a number of drivers last year, while Sainz and Audi team-mates Mattias Ekstrom and Stephane Peterhansel worked in unison to ensure the Spaniard could safely make it to the finish.
Loeb feels this put him in a serious disadvantage to Sainz and meant he didn’t stand a chance of ending his losing streak in Dakar.
“We are happy with what we did,” said the Prodrive man. “For sure it didn’t work like we wanted.
“At the end we didn’t have any chance against Team Audi. They were driving together. They had two cars helping Carlos. He was safe, he had three punctures yesterday.
“I couldn’t have three punctures because I would stay [stuck] in the stage. So yeah. Fighting alone against a complete team like Audi is difficult.”
Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool
#203 Bahrain Raid Xtreme Prodrive Hunter: Sebastien Loeb
Asked if it was a bad decision to let Al-Attiyah withdraw from this year’s Dakar, Loeb said: “Nasser is doing what he wants at the end.
“So it’s not a decision we made to let him go. But for sure today we had no chance against the Audi. When you see how the stage was, being alone there with all these punctures, it was no chance.”
Loeb’s troubles didn’t end after his car was repaired at the 132km mark as he suffered three more punctures on his way to the finish line.
Amid a limited amount of spares, Loeb was forced to crawl to the finish line on reduced speed on “three completely destroyed tyres.”
Asked how many punctures he suffered over the course of the entire stage, including before the accident, he said: “Five. Then we had to reuse all punctured tyres down to the rim.
“Once you’re on the rim, if you hit a stone and you crumple it, it might not go over the caliper anymore, then you can’t take it off.
“So when we really were on the rim, we swapped it with a wheel that still had a tyre on, and it lasted for ten kilometres until it delaminated. Once delaminated, we put the last one back, but we drove at 50 km/h.”
Loeb admitted that he had given up hope of finishing the stage before another Prodrive stablemate Yungang came to his rescue and allowed him to stay in the hunt for a podium finish.
Asked if finishing the stage was a small miracle given his ordeal, he said: “At some point, I contemplated taking the helicopter to come back and wait for the truck, but we weren’t going to leave the car in the middle of the desert,” he said.
“They would have had a hard time retrieving it. I had no plans today, so I thought we’d wait for the truck! In the end, the Chinese driver arrived and that was perfect.
“We thought we’d retired, we were sat on a stone. After all we got going again, so a small miracle, I don’t know… Those aren’t my favourite miracles!”
Additional reporting by Ben Vinel