Medina Province, in the north-western quadrant of Saudi Arabia, set the scene for the special, which went on and on for 414 kilometres and threw the riders and crews of the Dakar in at the deep end. After exiting AlUla, the field weaved its way around canyons on sand, but the landscape soon changed to more challenging terrain. Several riders were brought down by stones, including the victor of the prologue, Tosha Schareina, who was one of the favourites to take the motorbike race, but the stage winner, Ross Branch, and Mason Klein, who always has an ace up his sleeve (see “Performance of the day”), successfully navigated the fiendish course. The volcanic soil of the second half of the stage turned on the heat on big favourites such as Nasser Al Attiyah and Sébastien Loeb, but Guillaume de Mevius kept a cool head and got the better of Carlos Sainz in this chaotic stage.
Rule number 1 in a motorbike race is to stay upright no matter how many pebbles, stones or rocks stand in the way. A couple of riders broke this cardinal rule this morning, as the seasoned Joaquim Rodrigues crashed out of the race at km 82 and the budding talent Tosha Schareina bowed out of his third Dakar at km 240 with a fractured arm. “J-Rod” had earned the Indian constructor Hero its maiden stage win in 2022. In sharp contrast, his teammate Ross Branch romped home with the fastest time in the special and scooped up his fourth career Dakar stage win. The Botswanan airline pilot who moonlights as a rally-raid racer also surged ahead in the overall, where he now holds a 12-minute margin over the 2020 Dakar champion, Ricky Brabec, and Mason Klein, who embraced the task of opening the road with panache and spent the entire stage alone at the front. Meanwhile, in the quad race, the Brazilian Marcelo Medeiros overtook all his rivals, including Alexandre Giroud, who will now be in the unfamiliar position of having to claw back time after losing more than half an hour due to a mechanical. Just as Ross Branch opened up some daylight on the road to Al Kenakiyah, Guillaume de Mevius also got a big confidence boost at the wheel of his Toyota Hilux, which he had only driven in the Rallye du Maroc before. The young Belgian, who was still guarded about his prospects when he claimed his first win in T3 in 2022, can now look for parallels with his father Grégoire, who waited until his fourth start before snapping up the three stage wins on his list of victories. In his very first stage in the premier class, the latest scion of the De Mevius dynasty finished 1′44″ ahead of a driver of the calibre of Carlos Sainz in a special that scattered the rest of the favourites to the wind. A flurry of punctures cost Nasser Al Attiyah 25 minutes and his teammate Sébastien Loeb 23 minutes, while Guerlain Chicherit limped home with a 22-minute loss. It was also a bad day at the office for Stéphane Peterhansel (32 minutes down). On the other side of the coin, the outsiders who started from afar got the best results, with Giniel de Villiers finishing third at 9′18″, Vaidotas Žala fourth at 10′42″, Romain Dumas fifth at 12′18″ and Lucas Moraes sixth at 13′25″, for a total of six Toyotas in the top 8. In the Challenger race, the Goczałs did not fall prey to the volcanic panic, as Eryk seized the overall lead with 19 seconds in hand over his uncle Michał and 7′38″ over his father, Marek. As in the SSV class, Brazilian samba filled the air in the quad special, as Rodrigo Varela, the son of the 2018 champion Reinaldo Varela, took the special. Finally, Janus van Kasteren picked up right where he left off in the truck category.
Mason Klein was not even sure that he would be able to start his third Dakar on his brand-new second-generation Kove, which got stuck in customs in Dubai, but his Chinese mount finally arrived a few hours before the gong rang on the technical scrutineering. The American finished in the top 10 in the prologue and picked his starting order for stage 1. The 22-year-old privateer chose to start first, a position typically avoided by Rally GP riders that would have usually gone to Skyler Howes, the worst performer in the opening romp. “The idea of opening the first stage at the Dakar is really cool so, in the end, no regrets because now I can say I’ve done it.” Klein again showed that he is a box full of surprises, not just because he spent the 400 km long hard slog alone at the front, picking up 6′21″ in bonuses and third place at the finish, but also because he did it on a motorbike that he had barely even touched before: “This is my third time on the bike now and I couldn’t be happier.” Today, Klein proved two things to himself and the rest of the field. First, that China has what it takes to become a rally-raid superpower in the near future. And second, that the word “impossible” is just a challenge to the 22-year-old American.
A CRUSHING BLOW
Nasser Al Attiyah is such an experienced and talented rally-raid driver that sometimes it looks like he can do no wrong. However, even the five-time Dakar champion’s Teflon-like ability to slip away from danger was not enough to stop the jagged terrain from doing a number on the tyres of his Hunter T1+. After two punctures in the first 50 km left him without spare wheels, the Qatari spent the rest of the special driving on eggshells and, for the first time in what seems like forever, he finished as low as 22nd place, almost 25 minutes behind Guillaume de Mevius. Al Attiyah will find solace in the fact that his main rivals, Sébastien Loeb, Stéphane Peterhansel and Guerlain Chicherit, suffered a similar fate in stage 1.
STAT OF THE DAY: 22-5-40
Guillaume de Mevius wasted no time in adding his name to the list of Belgian Dakar stage winners in the Ultimate class. One of them is his father, Grégoire, who claimed three specials 22 years ago, back in 2002, when Guillaume was still seven. This brings the total to five members of this select club, chief among them Jacky Ickx, one of the giants of the Dakar, with 29 stage wins to his name. The others are Guy Colsoul (6), Grégoire de Mevius (3), Stéphane Henrard (1) and now Guillaume de Mevius (1), adding up to 40 Dakar stage wins.
W2RC: COX-DUMONTIER, A DUEL AT THE SUMMIT
Bradley Cox and Romain Dumontier finished third and first, respectively, in the 2023 FIM Rally-Raid World Cup in the Rally 2 class, the last rung on the ladder before Rally GP. The South African and the Frenchman make no secret of their common ambition in this edition of the Dakar: to show their faces in the top 10 of each stage to try and catch the eye of a factory team. Alfie Cox‘s son, victorious in the last two Rally 2 rounds in 2023, finished the special in fourth place, within two minutes of the overall podium. “Dudu”, sixth today, is less than a minute behind his new arch-rival for the championship. The two Rally 2 riders outperformed as many as thirteen of the sixteen factory riders still in the Dakar. The Rally 2 scene is gaining depth. Take Mason Klein: a veteran of the Rally 2 class, which he won in 2022, he is now standing on the provisional podium of the Dakar.
THE MAKINGS OF A CLASSIC
Following the one-two finish in the prologue of the two replica Porsche 959s based on the cars that Metge and Ickx drove in 1986, the historical clique composed of vehicles that actually raced in the Dakar in the 1980s and 1990s has taken back control. Maurizio Traglio‘s son Lorenzo and Rudy Briani have vaulted into the lead of the Dakar Classic in a Nissan Pathfinder that used to belong to the Tecnosport squad, which Traglio Sr. used to manage in the 1990s. It was a perfect Italian job, with their Nissan topping the leader board ahead of the Toyota driven by Paolo Bedeschi and Daniele Bottallo, third in the previous edition and also racing for Tecnosport.
Jordi Juvanteny is a diehard of the Dakar truck race, which he has only missed once since 1991. He is starting his 32nd edition as the standard-bearer of a virtuous future, behind the wheel of a 12-tonne juggernaut equipped with a mixed hydrogen-diesel power plant. This technology is confidently rising to the challenge of Mission 1000: “These last two days have been fantastic. We decided to move on from diesel because it’s the right thing to do. Everyone needs to do their bit to heal the planet. Yesterday’s prologue was fabulous. The hydrogen engine worked like a charm on a striking variety of terrains, delivering an unusual level of power with no pollution at all. Today’s stage pushed us to the limit and, once again, our main source of power showed what it was capable of without polluting. Where we used to have black fumes, now we see white steam”.