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Exclusive: Peterhansel doubtful about new Dakar marathon stage

Stephane Peterhansel will hunt for his fifteenth victory in the Dakar Rally from January 5, 2024. The Audi driver has a fit navigator again and is eyeing the new 48-hour marathon stage with suspicion. Peterhansel stresses that strategy is going to be more important than ever in the world's toughest rally.

Peterhansel Rally du Maroc
Interview
To news overview © Audi Communications Motorsport / Joao Filipe, DPPI

With 14 overall wins, Stephane Peterhansel knows how to approach the Dakar Rally.

The Frenchman has achieved success after success on the motorcycle and in the car, and is taking part for the third time in an electric Audi. That car has so far failed to deliver the successes desired, but Peterhansel is confident after a lot of testing that this could be Audi's year.

"The preparations were the same as in previous years," Peterhansel said in an exclusive interview with RacingNews365.

"We did some tests and rallies. We started in Saudi Arabia. That took five to six days. The plan was to test the new tires from BF Goodrich and it was necessary to adjust the suspension accordingly.

"That test was quite interesting because it was the first time we had driven in Saudi Arabia during preparation. Last year we had a lot of punctures and problems. Then we tested in Spain and Morocco and we think we found a good set-up now."

Navigator Boulanger is back to top fitness

Peterhansel has been referring to last year, when he crashed hard and his navigator Edouard Boulanger suffered serious injuries to his back. The Frenchman admits that he did walk around with some trepidation for a while.

"The first test I drove with Lucas Cruz, the navigator of Carlos Sainz Sr. In Spain, Edouard was back. At the beginning I was still a little scared, because with such surgeries it might not be so good to fully attack bumpy sections. But after a few kilometres and days it went very well."

The relationship between a navigator and driver is very important in rally events, something Peterhansel was keen to point out when it comes to success.

"That goes for results, but also for the human aspect. We spend a lot of time together. First of all, we obviously want to get good results, but it's also important to be safe. I'm very close with Edouard. We share many passions, including on the bike, and he is really a friend of mine."

"Is it a good idea? I don't know."

The organizers of the Dakar Rally have come up with something new for the 2024 edition: a 48-hour marathon stage.

On days six and seven, the participants will have to cover as much as 818 kilometers around Shubaytah, receiving no help from mechanics.

Several bivouacs will be built on the course, where the drivers, if they arrive before 4:00 p.m. local time, will decide for themselves whether to stop or not. From 16:00, it is mandatory to stay in the bivouac until 7:00 in the morning, before continuing your way to the finish line. Your finishing time over two days will count toward the overall standings.

Peterhansel does not know if he is a fan of the idea: "That will become clear this month, but I know David Castera [the director and course builder] is keen to try something different. Is it a good idea? I don't know. We do need a different strategy, because it's also two days where we can't follow tracks for the bikes. So the cars open up the road and the sand, which means you need a different strategy one or two days before."

To the suggestion that Peterhansel thus does not want to win the stage before the marathon stage, the driver responded affirmatively: "You understand quickly. The day before the marathon stage is also pretty short, so I don't know what the rules are. It's pretty confusing right now. We never know if it's going to be the key to success, because two days before the end we have another long stage through rocky areas. Sebastien Loeb lost two hours there last year. Anything can happen in that place."

So who will be his biggest competitors? "I always start with last year's winning team: Toyota. I have to say that Yazeed Al-Rajhi is starting to become more consistent and we know Toyota has a fast car. They are definitely one of the potential winners."

Toyota did see Nasser Al-Attiyah, last year's winner, leave for Prodrive Hunter. According to Peterhansel, that team, which Loeb also drives for, is also capable of winning, although he foresees some problems for them.

"Sebastien and Nasser are definitely competing for the overall win, although the Hunter is not as reliable as the Toyota. The car and the drivers are fast, though. Indeed, they are the fastest at the moment, but it is not easy to manage two captains on one ship. With us [Audi], Sainz and Mattias Ekstrom are also capable of winning."

Why is it so difficult to win the Dakar?

Ekstrom and Loeb switched from other racing and rally classes, but so far they have not been able to win the Dakar Rally. So what makes this rally so different?

"It's complex because it doesn't take two or three days, like in the WRC. You can make mistakes for 12 to 15 days, but for Sebastien and Mattias it's a matter of time before they win the Dakar Rally. They are very intelligent and fast, but so far all the puzzle pieces have not yet fallen together."

"Sebastien competed with me at Peugeot," Peterhansel continued. "But he wasn't ready to win then. He lacked some experience. Then he switched to another team and they were not ready because the car was not strong enough. If everything falls right, Sebastien will win the Dakar. And so will Mattias."

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