Qatari driver Nasser Al-Attiyah on Sunday won his fifth Dakar Rally driver’s title and second in a row with Argentina’s Kevin Benavides securing his second motorbike crown.
The 52-year-old won three stages and had more than an hour’s advantage in the overall standings over Frenchman Sebastien Loeb, who also finished runner-up last year.
Al-Attiyah’s Toyota team-mate Lucas Moraes of Brazil finished third in the iconic test of endurance which reached its climax in Dammam, Saudi Arabia.
Al-Attiyah took the overall lead after the third stage, having built up a commanding advantage in the first week and deployed a safety-first strategy in the second half of the race.
Loeb, though, gave it all he could as he won a record six successive stages in the second week. But the 48-year-old Frenchman had lost so much time on the first part of the race that it was a lost cause.
Two of the main contenders Loeb’s compatriot Stephane Peterhansel and Spaniard Carlos Sainz failed to finish the race.
The 14th and final stage honours went to Loeb’s Prodrive team-mate Guerlain Chicherit.
– ‘Unreal feeling’ –
The car category may not have had a lot of suspense about it but the motorbike title race more than made up for it with plenty of thrills and spills.
Benavides — the 2021 champion — edged out Australian Toby Price by 43 seconds with Skyler Howes of the United States finishing third.
Benavides — who celebrated his 34th birthday during the race — trailed two-time champion Price by 12 seconds entering Sunday’s 14th and final stage.
He produced a sterling ride to win the stage, however, and post a time 55 seconds faster than his 35-year-old rival.
Benavides win will be a popular one as he showed selflessness in stopping to aid a stricken rival Matthias Walkner in Saturday’s penultimate stage.
“It’s incredible to pull off the win at the end of this completely crazy Dakar, and with such a small gap,” said Benavides.
“I’m also the first to win with two different motorbike brands, and that makes me very proud.”
It brought to an end a fascinating battle for supremacy in the motorbike section which had seen Howes lead for six days.
Price could not hide his disappointment despite praising Benavides for doing a ‘great job’.
– ‘Dream come true’ –
“Yeah, hard to take at the moment, but at the end of the day I’m going home in one piece and we got a Dakar trophy,” he said.
“It hurts a little bit.”
Howes for his part was ecstatic.
“How could I be anything but happy?” said Howes, who became the fifth American to finish in the top three.
“You can always look back and say ‘Aw, man, maybe I could’ve saved this here and here’, but we’re at the finish safely, and I’m on the podium.
“It’s such a dream come true and an honour to share the podium with two legends like Toby and Kevin.
“It’s the most unreal feeling.”
Several of the title contenders had bowed out along the way including last year’s British winner Sam Sunderland, who got no further than the first stage.