‘El Matador’ Sainz makes Dakar Rally history

Team Audi Sport’s Spanish driver Carlos Sainz (C,R) and his Spanish co-driver Lucas Cruz of (C,L) celebrate on their car after crossing the finish line of stage 12 of the Dakar rally 2024 from Yanbu to Yanbu, on January 19, 2024. AFP

Veteran Spanish driver Carlos Sainz won the gruelling Dakar Rally for a fourth time on Friday, becoming the oldest winner of the race at 61.

The two-time world rally champion known as ‘El Matador’ had been all but guaranteed success when closest rival Sebastien Loeb was stranded in the desert for over an hour in Thursday’s penultimate stage.

On arriving, Sainz climbed out of his Audi car and jumped into the arms of his son, Ferrari Formula One driver Carlos Sainz Jr.

Sainz had led since the sixth stage and, aided by his fellow Audi drivers Sweden’s Mattias Ekstrom and France’s ‘Mr Dakar’, 14-time champion Stephane Peterhansel, controlled the race from then on.

He finished more than an hour ahead of Belgian debutant Guillaume De Mevius (Toyota) with nine-time world rally champion Loeb (Prodrive) third, slipping a place from his two successive runners-up spots.

Sainz delivered German outfit Audi their first Dakar title.

The Spaniard’s fourth win takes him alongside Ari Vatanen in the rally winners’ roll of honour.

He trails only the five victories of Qatar’s Nasser Al Attiyah — whose defence of his title ended early this year — and Peterhansel and his eight car triumphs. This year was 58-year-old Peterhansel’s final race.

Sainz said his boundless enthusiasm had kept him in the driving seat.

“I think the energy comes from the passion I have,” he said.

“It’s obviously, believing in yourself, believing that you can still drive and a lot of work behind the scenes as well.

“To be here at my age and to stay at the level, you need to work a lot beforehand.

“It doesn’t just come like that. It shows that when you work hard, normally it pays off.”

Sainz — whose previous wins came in 2010, 2018 and two years later — said he was unsure whether he would pursue a fifth title in 2025.

“At the moment, I want to enjoy this victory and I will think about my future in the next weeks,” he said.

– ‘Chills down my spine’ –

De Mevius could barely believe he had battled his way to the podium.

“It was a crazy race,” the 29-year-old said.

“We never expected to be on the podium. We always dreamed about it, but it was not the objective at the beginning of the race.

“It’s an amazing feeling to be here, it’s an amazing feeling to be second.”

Earlier American Ricky Brabec had taken the honours in the motorbike category for a second time.

The 32-year-old Honda rider held an advantage of 10min 53sec, as the 12th stage brought the curtain down, over Botswana’s Ross Branch on a Hero.

Frenchman Adrien van Beveren, 33, claimed his first podium finish in the rally to fill third spot.

Brabec had made history in 2020 when he became the first American to win the crown, but he was just as excited about doubling his tally.

“I had chills down my spine as I crossed the finishing line,” he said.

“I still do not have words for how I feel, save it was a smooth ride, the team was unreal.

“I do not know how we put together such a perfect Dakar, I never fell once.”

There was an emotional moment too, but for very different reasons, for Italian rider Gioele Meoni, who was competing due to a promise he made when his father Fabrizio was killed in the 2005 edition of the rally.

He crossed the finishing line with tears streaming down his face and tapped the orange liveried KTM 450 orange, the same colour as that of his father’s bike.

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