SHAYBAH, Saudi Arabia — Nasser Al-Attiyah has come out of Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter cushioned by a huge lead of an hour and a half going into the last weekend of the Dakar Rally.
Sebastien Loeb won a rare fifth stage in a row on Friday and improved to second overall. But he trailed Al-Attiyah by 1 hour, 27 minutes.
Lucas Moraes of Brazil, driving in his first Dakar, was a minute behind in third with two stages to go to the finish on Sunday in Dammam.
“If we finish in the top five each day, that’s OK for me, we have a big enough lead,” Al-Attiyah said.
The titleholder continued not wanting to race too hard, even though he finished third on the 12th stage, the second part of the marathon special back to Shaybah from the Oman border. After 185 kilometers, Al-Attiyah conceded only three-plus minutes to Loeb.
Loeb became only the second driver in the elite car category to win five straight stages, after Ari Vatanen in 1989. Mattias Ekstrom was second, more than three minutes back.
“It was a perfect day; no mistakes, no stalling, no about turns,” Loeb said. “Second place is our goal, that’s why we’re pushing. We’ve made a big comeback. I didn’t think we’d manage to climb back up to second. I thought we could get fifth place but three excellent drivers like Carlos (Sainz), Stéphane (Peterhansel) and Yazeed (Al Rajhi) were removed from the equation. So, from then on, I was aiming for second place.”
Two-time champion Toby Price has timed his elevation to the motorbike lead to perfection.
He was third on the stage behind Nacho Cornejo, who beat home Daniel Sanders by 49 seconds.
Price, thanks also to bonus time from opening the way, replaced Skyler Howes on top of the general rankings, 28 seconds ahead.
Apart from three stages, Price has been in the top three overall. His Dakar wins in 2016 and 2019 were both in South America.
“Trying to have a strategy for the race at this point in time is completely out of the window,” Price said. “I’ve just got to stay on two wheels and stay healthy. Tomorrow, I’ll try and push really hard . . . but then again you don’t want to push too crazily and risk an injury or being out of the race completely this close to the finishing line.”
Howes, aiming for his first Dakar title, rued losing seconds having to stop to pack a tracker.
“We’re fighting for seconds out there and any time you spend, literally three extra seconds to put a tracker in your pocket, is just extra time, and those seconds count,” he said. “It’s gnarly to be this close after so much racing, but it’s fun.”
Kevin Benavides remained third, nearly three minutes behind.