As the Dakar Rally came to a close on Friday, top driver, Sebastien Loeb, offers his view about taking part in the race amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, joining a new team, the physical and mental strength needed to compete and eventually retiring from the race with car trouble.
The Dakar Rally is a truly special event for me. It has such a rich history, and a real mystique surrounds it. For drivers, teams and the vehicles themselves, it’s probably the toughest challenge out there. As David Richards, the Bahrain Raid Xtreme (BRX) team Director said: “it is the Everest of motorsport.”
With the backdrop of COVID-19, and all the challenges facing so many people around the world, it was great that the organisers were able to stage the Dakar Rally this year. For the team, there were a huge number of new protocols we had to follow; PCR tests to make sure we could safely enter the sanitary environment of the Dakar, isolation periods when we arrived. Even getting to Saudi was tricky, with cancelled flights and changing timelines. The event was more special, arriving at the first stage because there had already been so many difficulties to navigate before the race had even begun.
I missed the Dakar last year, and I was really excited to come back having joined the BRX team. The project has evolved over several years, and gave birth to the Hunter vehicle.
Throughout my career I've shown I'm a competitor. I drive with passion and I use this to push myself to the limit. The cars are built to stand up to the challenges drivers put them through, but it's the human element of rallies that make the difference. You’re in the car for hours on end, and the punishments your body, and mind go through are incredible.
To build the Hunter, in such a short space of time, and during a global pandemic, was a great achievement by the team. We began testing in November, in Dubai.
It looks striking, but its speed, reliability, and responsiveness were above and beyond anything I was expecting. You might see a team competing in the Dakar for several years, and have some of these attributes with their car, but the Hunter's debut race was great.
I quickly learnt a lot about the Hunter, as soon as we began taking on the stages. It has genuine speed and I was confident the car would be competing at the top of the pack. From the first stage,
I was attacking and chasing a strong finishing position each day, but that speed is nothing without accurate navigation. The Hunter is quick, which suits my driving style, but spot on navigation is a must. It’s the single bit that let us down.
These are some of the key lessons from this year’s rally. The speed of the Hunter is a huge positive, but we need to have plans and processes in place on the navigation side of things, to make sure we don’t lose time, by making avoidable errors.
From a technical perspective, we'll be looking at the repeated punctures we received across several stages. It was really frustrating and we're trying to figure out why it kept happening, and how best to fix it for next year. On so many stages, I was really happy with my driving, and we were strong, but to receive multiple punctures on several stages broke up my rhythm and I ended up chasing time.
I never like to retire from a race, obviously, but Dakar really is one of the toughest challenges in motorsport. We suffered several setbacks over multiple stages that we couldn’t come back from. Stage eight; the second part of the marathon stage, was the last blow for us. We had no spare wheels after so many punctures, and we simply couldn't go on, so that was that.
The disappointment felt throughout the team was an understatement because great things to come was in our minds, but no team has entered and won the Dakar in its first year.
With a clear vision for how far we can go, the team has huge ambitions going into the rest of the year. In Dakar 2021 we’ve learnt a lot, and next year, we’ll put these lessons into practice.
For me, it remains a challenge I desperately want to win. I’ve enjoyed success in other motorsport disciplines and competitions, but to step on the podium as a Dakar winner is a real ambition. In the earlier years I’ve competed, I’ve come away determined to come back, push myself, and go after that success.