Red Bull : Dakar Rally starts with surprises on the sands of Saudi Arabia during Prologue Stage

Today the 2024 Dakar Rally made its first inroads into a perilous route of 5,000 kilometres through the deserts of Saudi Arabia. The Prologue Stage took the convoy 28km through the mountainous monuments of AlUla, providing a sample of the intense desert action that will follow on 12 strength-sapping days of racing.

Massive sand dunes and extreme temperatures will test everything to the limit over the next two weeks. Reaching the finish line in Yanbu on January 19 is by no means guaranteed, not even for the most experienced desert racers. Read on to find out who got their noses in front at the 46th Dakar Rally and kept alive those dreams of winning the world’s toughest off-road race.

The clash of the cars
It’s a third visit to the Dakar for Team Audi Sport and once again they’ve put their cars in the hands of Stéphane Peterhansel, Carlos Sainz and Mattias Ekström. After collecting stage wins during the previous two editions of the Dakar the goal is to now park at least one Audi RS Q e-tron on the final podium. The star performer for Audi on today’s prologue was Ekström who took the win.

Toyota Gazoo Racing have refreshed their line-up for this latest edition of the Dakar by recruiting one of the most exciting talents in the bivouac. 21-year-old Seth Quintero made his car class debut on today’s 27km stage in AlUla and placed second behind Ekström. Quintero’s team-mates Lucas Moraes and Giniel de Villiers also have their own Toyota GR DKR Hilux machines lined up to attack tomorrow’s 405km timed special stage.

There’s a new ride for reigning Dakar champion Nasser Al-Attiyah as he joins long-time rival Sébastien Loeb in a pair of Prodrive Hunter rally cars. This pair of ultra-competitive drivers must strike a balance between teamwork and individual glory as the rally weaves its way through the dunes. It was Loeb who fared better today as he set the prologue’s third fastest time while Al-Attiyah finished less than 25 seconds behind his new team-mate.

It was a fine car category debut for Guillaume de Mévius after proving himself in the Challenger (T3) class at previous editions of the Dakar. The Belgian’s Toyota Hilux Overdrive was just 1m47s behind Ekström and in front of former Dakar champions Sainz and De Villiers.

One minute back from De Mévius came Laia Sanz who is looking to break into the top ranks of the car class at her 14th Dakar, something she did as a biker before she traded two wheels for her Astara vehicle.

The names to watch…
Nasser Al-Attiyah (QAT) / Mathieu Baumel (FRA) Prodrive Hunter #200
Stéphane Peterhansel (FRA) / Édouard Boulanger (FRA) Audi RS Q e-tron #202
Sébastien Loeb (FRA) / Fabian Lurquin (BEL) Prodrive Hunter #203
Carlos Sainz (ESP) / Lucas Cruz (ESP) Audi RS Q e-tron #204
Lucas Moares (BRA) / Armand Monleon (ESP) Toyota GR DKR Hilux #206
Mattias Ekström (SWE) / Emil Bergkvist (SWE) Audi RS Q e-tron #207
Giniel de Villiers (RSA) / Dennis Murphy (RSA) Toyota GR DKR Hilux #209
Seth Quintero (USA) / Dennis Zenz (GER) Toyota GR DKR Hilux #216
Guillaume de Mévius (BEL) / Xavier Panseri (FRA) Toyota Hilux #221
Laia Sanz (ESP) / Maurizio Gerini (ITA) Astara CR6-T #238

The tussle on two wheels
It was a strong opening day in the bike contest for Red Bull GasGas Factory Racing pair Daniel Sanders and Sam Sunderland. Sanders posted the day’s second fastest time, just 12 seconds behind Prologue Stage winner Tosha Schareina. Two-time Dakar winner Sunderland placed sixth.

Toby Price looks like Red Bull KTM Factory Racing’s best shot at victory this year. A two-time Dakar winner, the Australian is yet to taste victory in Saudi Arabia and that’s something he’d love to put right this month. Price got things going with an eighth place finish on the prologue.

It’s been a difficult 12 months for Price’s team-mate and defending Dakar bike race champion Kevin Benavides since his victory last time out. The two-time Dakar winner has suffered a broken femur, wrist and tibia since his last visit to Saudi Arabia. His latest injury, a broken tibia, was sustained less than a month ago. Despite the setback, the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing rider still placed inside the Top 10 on today’s prologue.

While Kevin Benavides has spent much of the year recovering from injury, his younger brother Luciano has had a marvellous 12 months on the bike. Luciano Benavides’s consistent performances on his Husqvarna saw him crowned the FIM World Rally-Raid Championship winner in 2023. Now the 28-year-old wants to add a first Dakar win to his already impressive résumé. Fifth place on the prologue sets up Luciano to go the attack tomorrow.

The names to watch…
Luciano Benavides (ARG) Husqvarna 450 Rally #1
Toby Price (AUS) KTM 450 Rally #2
Sam Sunderland (GBR) GasGas 450 Rally #4
Daniel Sanders (AUS) GasGas 450 Rally #5
Kevin Benavides (ARG) KTM 450 Rally #47

Calling all Challengers!
Mitch Guthrie Jr. missed out on the Prologue Stage podium by a handful of seconds after the MCE-5 Taurus T3 Max dominated the opening day in the Challenger class, taking four spots in the Top 5. Fifth place is a strong start for the American racer who picked up rally wins in Mexico and Argentina last year.

Following Guthrie Jr. home in sixth was three-time Dakar quad race winner Ignacio Casale in his Yamaha YXZ 1000R prototype.

Guthrie Jr.’s fellow Red Bull Off-Road Junior Team racer Cristina Gutiérrez is also onboard a MCE-5 Taurus T3 Max this time around and she set the category’s eighth fastest time. Next up behind Gutiérrez came Rokas Baciuška, making his debut in the Challenger class in a Can-Am after making the step up from T4.

Home favourite Dania Akeel missed out on the Top 10 by just four seconds as she made her own encouraging start in her MCE-5 Taurus T3 Max. Akeel placed ahead of the Can-Ams driven by former category winners Chaleco López and Austin ‘AJ’ Jones.

The names to watch…
Rokas Baciuška (LTU) / Oriol Vidal (ESP) Can-Am Maverick #300
Chaleco López (CHI) / Juan Pablo Latrach (CHI) Can-Am Maverick #301
Mitch Guthrie Jr. (USA) / Kellon Walch (USA) MCE-5 Taurus #303
Austin Jones (USA) / Gustavo Gugelmin (BRA) Can-Am Maverick #305
Cristina Gutiérrez (ESP) / Pablo Moreno (ESP) MCE-5 Taurus #306
Ignacio Casale (CHI) / Alvaro Leon (CHI) Yamaha YXZ 1000R #309
Dania Akeel (KSA) / Stéphane Duplé (FRA) MCE-5 Taurus #329

Tomorrow sees the 2024 Dakar Rally get down to some real business as it serves up a whopping 405-kilometre timed special stage, taking the convoy from AlUla to Al Hanakiyah. Picking up a favourable starting position thanks to a strong prologue performance could pay dividends as the Dakar’s dust cloud descends on the desert.

M. Ekström (SWE) AUDI 16.30
S. Qintero (USA) TOYOTA +0.22
S. Loeb (FRA) PRODRIVE +0.37
M. Baumgart (BRA) PRODRIVE +0.37
C. Baumgart (BRA) PRODRIVE +0.43

E. Goczal (POL) TAURUS 17.34
M. Goczal (POL) TAURUS +0.20
K. Meeke (GBR) OT3 +0.21
N. Cavigliaso (ARG) TAURUS +0.39
M. Guthrie (USA) TAURUS +0.41

T. Schareina (ESP) HONDA 17:35
D. Sanders (AUS) GASGAS +0.11
R. Branch (BWA) HERO +0.18
A. Van Beveren (FRA) HONDA +0.23
L. Benavides (ARG) HUSQVARNA +0.25

Mattias Ekström: « The prologue was difficult with a lot of navigation and I must say my co-driver Emil did a really good job. We had a clean run and I was enjoying driving the car a lot so I’m very happy. »

Seth Quintero: « Even though today’s time didn’t count towards the overall I didn’t want to play games on the prologue. I just wanted to get out there and drive and that’s what we did. I think we’re sitting second so happy with that. It was our first real outing in the new car and it feels good to be competing against the greatest in the world. »

Sébastien Loeb: « For us it was a good stage. We were not sure if we should push or not. Finally we decided to go for it and now we will have a good position for tomorrow. »

Stéphane Peterhansel: « It was a nice prologue, the place is really beautiful. I started in full attack mode, but after a small navigation mistake I decided it was best to hold back a little. »

Nasser Al-Attiyah: « It’s a good start. I’m so happy with the performance of the car, the handling was great. We lost some time when we missed one junction, but we still managed to finish strongly. Tomorrow will be a long day for everybody. »

Lucas Moraes: « It was a fast stage and very nice to drive. We had to circle around because of a navigation issue, but it’s just the prologue so we’re happy to use it to get things going. »

Guillaume De Mévius: « This prologue has really got me in the mood for what’s to come. It really feels like this Dakar has started and we’re now in the race. »

Carlos Sainz: « Everything went well for us. We did get lost a little bit and also close to the end we stopped because we don’t want to be too close to the front tomorrow. Now we will find out what our position will be. »

Laia Sanz: « It was a short stage, but also a real stage. A great warmup for what’s to come. Navigation was tough and it was easy to make mistakes. We need to be smart at this Dakar because it will be so long. »

Daniel Sanders: « There were some nerves at the start and it’s good to have got through the first day. It was rough with so much traffic in front. I tried to follow the roadbook and made just one mistake near the finish. »

Luciano Benavides: « It was a nice stage, really fast through the canyons. It was a short prologue but the navigation was not easy. Things went well and I’ll have a good position for the long day tomorrow. »

Sam Sunderland: « The prologue is always a mix between trying to get the navigation right and also trying to go as fast as possible. It’s a fine balance. I’m really happy to get this Dakar started. They’ll be some rough days ahead and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into it. »

Toby Price: « It was a good warm up today for what’s to come. I made a little mistake at the 20k mark, I went around a valley and I had to come back so I lost about 30 seconds there. Now we’ll pick a spot for tomorrow and make a game plan from there. »

Mitch Guthrie Jr.: « We spent all of 2023 leading up to this, lots of testing and racing. I’ve been ready to get this Dakar going for so long. The dream is get things off to a good start on the prologue and that’s exactly what we’ve done. »

Cristina Gutiérrez: « It was long compared with other prologues and for the co-drivers it was tricky. It was the first time that we ride in this car and we are happy with the performance. »

Rokas Baciuška: « The prologue was quite good, 27km in total so longer than most of the other prologues I’ve done. Tricky navigation for sure, but my co-driver did a good job. Tomorrow we have a proper Dakar stage of over 400km. »

Dania Akeel: « I really enjoyed the prologue. It was bumpy but with our shock settings it was comfortable. »

Chaleco López: « It was a very technical prologue, the navigation was not easy. This was an important test for my car ahead of what is coming in the next weeks. »

Austin Jones: « It wasn’t super for us today, but it wasn’t too bad either. We had a little bit of a navigation mix up. There’s also a few things on the car set up that we’ll get changed before tomorrow. »

Christina Fial,