Dakar 2023: Sébastien Loeb is doubling up
This year, Sébastien Loeb is wearing a double hat at the Dakar. Since 2016, the Alsatian has been taking part in the biggest rally-raid race in the world as a driver, with the ambition of achieving the first victory there. From now on, he is also represented here by the team that bears his name. This is Team Sébastien Loeb Racing (SLR), which he founded in 2011 with Dominique Heintz, the sponsor who supported him in his rally debut in 1997. On the occasion of the 4th edition of the Dakar in Arabia Saudi Arabia, from December 31 to January 15, the SLR joined the SSV (Side by Side Vehicle) category, that of light vehicles. “I recommend the team to commit to SSV because it is a category that works well, explains Sébastien Loeb. This allows pilots to access the Dakar at a more reasonable price than the T1 (queen category). It is a fast car because it competes with big cars on several stages. It is also a good transition for bikers who want to go for the car. There are more and more participants and it’s a lot of fun to drive because it’s very efficient in the dunes and on the track.”
To maximize the chances of success in the desert, SLR chose to partner with the manufacturer Polaris, winner of the Dakar 6 times in the SSV category. The project established between the two entities spans 5 years, with the goal of a SSV T4 victory in the main rally-raid event during this deadline. “This collaboration with Polaris is the perfect opportunity to launch the rally-raid team, continues the nine-time world rally champion. I tested a stock RZR, with the new 4-cylinder atmo, there was torque everywhere. The chassis has also been changed a lot, especially the front and rear axle. In terms of efficiency, it is absolutely stunning, nimble, goes anywhere and it has incredible motor skills. For the first from SLR and Polaris, we start with a T4. Being closer to the series, it is cheaper than a T3, but it already has a very high level of performance. Even though I’m not driving for my team, because I’m in the cars with BRX Prodrive, it will be fun to meet the guys from the team in Dakar. We’re all isolated in the desert, so it’s nice to be friends with me.”
As Sébastien Loeb points out, the SSV category is an ideal springboard for motorcyclists wishing to discover piloting a 4-wheel machine. Moreover, the first rider of the team is the French Xavier de Soultrait, in search of a new challenge after 8 motorcycle participation in the Dakar. “Xavier has great rally-raid experience, he needs to get some experience with his co-driver, he knows the navigation very well, confides the native of Haguenau. In the beginning, he needs to hold his hand and he can quickly feel things. Then, sure enough, if he needs driving advice or anything else, I’ll be there. For 11 years, SLR has followed the promises of Sébastien Loeb through rally, rallycross and circuit programs, with Dominique Heintz as Team Principal. From now on, the Alsatian made the Dakar winner’s trophy one of his main goals, it makes sense that the team that bears his name follows in his rally-raid footsteps, although not directly in the car category (T1/ Q2). “I haven’t won the Dakar yet, but I’m always in the game, so I think I can bring my experience to the team”admits Sébastien Loeb.
As SLR celebrates its baptism in Dakar, the 48-year-old driver is recording his 7th participation there in 8 years, skipping the 2020 edition. So far, his best final result is a 2nd place, conquered twice: in 2017 , aboard a Peugeot 3008 DKR in the company of his historic Monegasque co-driver Daniel Elena, then in January, at the wheel of Prodrive Hunter of the Bahrain Raid Xtreme team (BRX) where he shares the cockpit with Fabian Lurquin. The Franco-Belgian duo took their first victory in the world rally-raid championship (W2RC) on October 23 in Andalusia, finishing in the rank of vice-champion behind the crew consisting of Nasser Al-Attiyah and Mathieu Baumel. “The Dakar is a complex adventure, a two-week endurance race, you go through many different states, studying Sébastien Loeb. You need to pay attention to navigation, reliability, team preparation and cooperation with the co-pilot. There are ups and downs, it’s not really easy emotionally. We know that it is very long and everything can be decided on the last day, so it is a difficult race to manage. You must know how to take care of mechanics so that everything doesn’t break, then attack when necessary.”
When assessing his chances of a final Dakar victory, Sébastien Loeb remains cautious about the level of the BRX’s two main competitors, namely Toyota, emerging winner with Nasser Al-Attiyah, and Audi, in contention for a historic success with its hybrid prototype, the Audi RS Q e-tron E2 (Auto Moto n°318 and n°319). “We don’t know exactly where the competition is, recognizes the Alsatian. We know our car, the Prodrive, performs well. From what we have seen, Toyota must be very close, especially to Nasser. For us, the big unknown is Audi, whose technology has nothing to do with it. It is a drive system powered by electric motors, with a generator that charges the batteries. Obviously the electric has an immediate response to each gas stroke. Even though the FIA (International Automobile Federation) has tried to create a fair balance of performance for everyone, we’re still pretty much in the dark. Inevitably, I hope we will be in it. While it lasts another 15 days, we have to keep our concentration and find the right rhythm, especially because this year, the Dakar stages are a priori more difficult. Without neutralization in the middle, it does parts of 500 km at once, without knowing where you are in the standings, so you can quickly lose big minutes. This edition promises to be complicated, with competition, but we tried to prepare well so that everything looks good.
As the 45th edition of the event was launched on December 31, Sébastien Loeb added, with a slight smile: “I am appealing to the organizer, both, if he can start the Dakar around January 6, as happened at one time, that would not be bad.” Throughout the two weeks of competition, competitors must cover 8,549 km, including 4,706 km of specials, from west to east, until the finish in Dammam on Sunday 15 January.