In January 2020, the Dakar Rally will dive headfirst into the 30th host country of its illustrious history. After three decades in Africa and 11 editions in South America, the toughest rally on the planet is coming to Saudi Arabia.
A vast expanse of desert as well as a mosaic of other challenging terrains await the world’s best offroad racers. Speed and navigational skills will be put to the test for two weeks, from the Red Sea to the Arabian Gulf. 250-metre high dunes must be successfully traversed by any competitor hoping to cross the finish line.
Reigning Dakar car champion Nasser Al-Attiyah (QAT) is a frontrunner for success in Saudi Arabia. Alongside co-driver Matthieu Baumel (FRA) and at the wheel of his Toyota Hilux, Al-Attiyah has been on great form during recent years. A dune-driving natural, it’s hard not to see the Qatari challenging for a fourth Dakar title in January.
« There’s so many good drivers out there, the only way to stay in front is to be at your best every day of the rally. » – Nasser Al-Attiyah
Also taking their place on the start line in Jeddah on January 5 will be a pair of all-new MINI John Cooper Works Buggies. The husband and wife team of Stéphane (FRA) and Andrea Peterhansel (GER) will take charge of one buggy, while Carlos Sainz (ESP) and Lucas Cruz (ESP) will race the other.
Can Stéphane win his 14th Dakar title, and his first while racing alongside Andrea? The fact that the married couple won the 2019 FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies suggests they have a great chance of more success in Saudi Arabia.
« For us it will be a really interesting race in Saudi Arabia. I only know a little bit of the country, from a motorcycle race I did a long time ago. I remember beautiful landscapes. » – Stéphane Peterhansel
Among the Peterhansels’ biggest challengers for the win will be their team-mates Sainz (ESP) and his co-driver Cruz (ESP). Sainz himself is a two-time winner of the Dakar car race and one of the most recognisable faces in the bivouac.
Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Giniel de Villiers (ZAF) is another driver in the pack who knows what it takes to win the Dakar. De Villiers won the first Dakar in South America, can he win the first Dakar in the Middle East? That’s his aim along with co-driver Alex Haro (ESP).
Further contenders for car class glory include Kuba Przygonski (POL) and co-driver Timo Gottschalk (GER). The pair finished the year as runners-up in the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Bajas and have a powerful MINI John Cooper Works Rally at their disposal.
In the bike race it’s all eyes on the Red Bull KTM Factory Team to see if their winning run can extend to a third region. The team are coming to Saudi Arabia with the aim of winning an unprecedented 19th consecutive victory at rally-raid’s most prestigious event.
They have three bikers in their squad who have already won the Dakar: Toby Price (AUS) in 2016 and 2019, Sam Sunderland (GBR) in 2017 and Matthias Walkner (AUT) in 2018. While Price is the reigning Dakar champion, Sunderland has been busy this season and picked up the 2019 FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship.
« The goal for 2020 is the same as always. We always want to finish on that top step at whatever race we enter, but especially at the Dakar. » – Toby Price
Also in the Red Bull KTM Factory Team comes Luciano Benavides (ARG) who this year won the FIM Junior Cross-Country Rallies World Championship.
The Dakar welcomes back GasGas rider Laia Sanz (ESP), once again the FIM Women’s Cross-Country Rallies World Championship winner.
« I’m very excited, I think the Dakar needed a change. Of course we all enjoyed South America a lot, but it’s always good to discover something new. » – Laia Sanz
We’ll also be keeping an eye out for tough two-wheel competitors such as CS Santosh (IND), Mohammed Balooshi (UAE), Walter (BOL) and Daniel Nosiglia (BOL).
It’s hard to imagine a new route causing much trouble for serial truck race winners Team Kamaz Master. Of the 11 editions of the Dakar to take place in South America, this Russian team won nine of them. They’ll be looking to maintain those standards in the Middle East.
Current Dakar champion Eduard Nikolaev (RUS), plus winner of the 2019 Silk Way Rally Anton Shibalov (RUS), as well as Andrey Karginov (RUS) and Dmitry Sotnikov (RUS) will drive for Kamaz at the upcoming rally in Saudi Arabia.
« The terrain could be similar to African Dakars – not quite the amount of high dunes like in Peru, but a lot of rocky terrain like in Morocco. We are prepared for a hard route. » – Eduard Nikolaev
Defending his side-by-side title in Saudi Arabia will be Chaleco Lopez (CHI). The Chilean took the category at his first attempt and is now out to make it back-to-back wins.
« In 2020 things will be different, the geography will change. However, I think the essence of the Dakar will remain the same. » – Chaleco Lopez
After trying out the side-by-side race, Ignacio Casale (CHI) is back in the quad bike category. The two-time Dakar quad champion has been motivated to chase a third title by the rally’s switch of location, but will face stiff competition from rivals such as Fahad Al Musallam (KUW).
« It’s a shame for South America that it loses a tremendous event, but the move to Saudi Arabia has given me an injection of extra motivation. » – Ignacio Casale
It feels like the entire Dakar Rally bivouac has been given a shot of extra motivation ahead of the 2020 edition in Saudi Arabia. The offroad action gets started on Sunday, January 5 in Jeddah and finishes 9,000km later on Friday, January 17 in Al-Qiddiya.
Nasser Al-Attiyah: « OK, the location has changed but the Dakar will still be the Dakar. It will still be tough, we know that. I’m always learning. Even when you win, like we did at the last Dakar, you can still learn a lot. There’s so many good drivers out there, the only way to stay in front is to be at your best every day of the rally. »
Stéphane Peterhansel: « For us it will be a really interesting race in Saudi Arabia. I only know a little bit of the country, from a motorcycle race I did a long time ago. I remember beautiful landscapes. I’m sure it’s perfect for the Dakar. Lots of desert and open spaces, lots of possibilities. »
Andrea Peterhansel: « The closer we get to the Dakar, the more excited I’m getting. I’ve been looking at how the desert is in Saudi Arabia and we’re getting more information to work with. From what I’ve seen, this next Dakar will be a big challenge for everyone. »
Carlos Sainz: « We know there are going to be long days at this Dakar. Endurance is going to be a big part of it. It’s always long days at the Dakar, but this year I think it’s going to be a bit extra than before. My method has always been to prepare for the worst. That way, whatever happens, you are prepared. »
Giniel de Villiers: « I was the first winner when the Dakar went to South America so let’s hope I can be the first winner in Saudi Arabia! When it’s a new challenge for everybody it levels the playing field. I can see the terrain being pretty well suited to us. We’re going to try our best and see what happens. »
Toby Price: « The goal for 2020 is the same as always. We always want to finish on that top step at whatever race we enter, but especially at the Dakar. There’s also the aim to come out the other side of the rally in one piece, healthy and safe. »
Sam Sunderland: « It can’t be a negative that I know the region very well, having lived there for 11 or 12 years. Away from the race I’m also familiar with life in Saudi Arabia so I think that might help me out. Just simple things like knowing what types of food to expect can be a big help. »
Matthias Walkner: « I’m expecting the terrain to be more-or-less the same as what we’ve had in South America. I’ve spent much of the year recovering from injury. Thankfully after a few months I got into a rhythm and worked hard to get back on my bike. It’s great to know that all that hard work has paid off. »
Luciano Benavides: « Being from Argentina, of course there are things I will miss now the Dakar has moved away from South America. However, racing far from home takes a bit of pressure off. This can be a positive for me. »
Laia Sanz: « I’m very excited, I think the Dakar needed a change. Of course we all enjoyed South America a lot, but it’s always good to discover something new. These places will be unknown to all of us. Because of this I think the 2020 Dakar will be one of the best races we’ve ever had. »
Eduard Nikolaev: « The Dakar is moving to a new continent and we’re all waiting for what lies ahead. Very unpredictable. The terrain could be similar to African Dakars – not quite the amount of high dunes like in Peru, but a lot of rocky terrain like in Morocco. We are prepared for a hard route. »
Dmitry Sotnikov: « For this Dakar we are switching to an automatic gearbox. We see serious advantages, and automatic gearboxes are gaining popularity among competitors at the race. We never stop trying to improve our trucks. »
Chaleco Lopez: « I’ve had three podiums at the Dakar, two on a motorbike and last year with the side-by-side. In 2020 things will be different, the geography will change. However, I think the essence of the Dakar will remain the same. »
Ignacio Casale: « It’s a shame for South America that it loses a tremendous event, but the move to Saudi Arabia has given me an injection of extra motivation. There are new routes to discover, new challenges and new places to know. That’s why we all fell in love with this sport in the first place. »