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Sebastien Loeb gave Bahrain Raid Xtreme a solid start to the Dakar Rally today as the opening round of this year’s World Rally-Raid Championship got underway in Saudi Arabia with a 27km Prologue stage.
Partnered by Fabian Lurquin in his BRX Prodrive Hunter, Loeb recorded the third fastest time on the day as Sweden’s Mattias Ekström in an Audi set the early pace ahead of American Seth Quintero’s Toyota.
Nine-time world rally champion Loeb is pursuing a first Dakar victory for Bahrain Raid Xtreme, and for himself, after securing a record six consecutive stage wins in Saudi 12 months ago on his way to a second successive Dakar runner up finish.
The traditional Prologue is an appetiser for the much longer, demanding desert stages to follow over the next two weeks in a route of nearly 8,000 km, and it took the cars across rocks and sand into the canyons around AlUla, where navigation skills were put to the test.
While the stage timings will not count in the overall standings, Loeb and the other top ten finishers were later allowed to pick their starting positions for tomorrow, when the rally starts in earnest with a 414km special stage from AlUla to Al Henakiyah.
Defending champion and five-time winner Nasser Al Attiyah, driving one of five other Prodrive Hunters in the event, finished the stage in 12th spot following a small navigational error.
Loeb is determined to give the BRX Prodrive Hunter a breakthrough victory on the team’s fourth Dakar, and he was happy with today’s outcome, knowing he could face another huge battle with Al Attiyah as the rally progresses.
“It was a clean stage, with no mistakes for us,” he said at the finish. “We tried to push to have a good position and it was a good stage for us. It was not so easy. The navigation was quite difficult and for sure it was not an easy start.
“I was little but nervous this morning, as always, but once we were in the car it all went well.”
Traversing the Kingdom from northwest to southeast and concluding at Yanbu on the Red Sea coast on January 19th, the fifth Dakar Rally in Saudi promises to be a rigorous test of both human endurance and technical engineering.
Once again, the Empty Quarter in the south will provide a dramatic chapter, as the cars take on the dunes that overall cover an area the size of France.
A new '48-hour Chrono' stage at the midway point spans 600 kilometers in the dunes over two days, allowing service only by the drivers and rally truck crews at the overnight bivouac.
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