Loeb eyes Al-Attiyah's Dakar crown

Sebastien Loeb (File)
Sebastien Loeb (File)

Buenos Aires - Nine-time world rally champion Sebastien Loeb will add some extra spice to this year's Dakar Rally in which Qatari Nasser al-Attiyah will bid to defend his title in Argentina and Bolivia.

The Frenchman will seek to follow in the footsteps of Ari Vatanen, who won the Dakar in his first attempt in 1987, back when it was raced in Africa.

After Peru pulled out as one of the hosts of this edition in August, citing concerns over the El Nino weather phenomenon, the rally will be raced in Argentina and Bolivia, an 11km prologue kicking off proceedings on Saturday.

Loeb has been racing in the World Touring Car Championship since effectively retiring from WRC rallying after the last of his nine consecutive world titles in 2012.

The 41-year-old, who has made the odd appearance in rallies since quitting the WRC world championship circuit - even winning in Monte Carlo and Argentina in 2013 - will race a Peugeot 2008 DKR, having raced almost exclusively for another French manufacturer, Citroen.

Team Peugeot will enter three other cars, Loeb joining Stephane Peterhansel (11th in 2015), Carlos Sainz (DNF) and Cyril Despres (34th).

"The Dakar is very different from the type of racing I am concentrating on these days," admitted Loeb.

"It will be very long, more than two weeks! And I will need endurance to manage the car over such a distance. It is another approach to racing. I will learn all about it in January."

Loeb added that he had been impressed by the Peugeot car and will be accompanied by long-time co-driver Daniel Elena, who is also a rally-raid novice.

"When I test drove the Peugeot in June, it impressed me straight away. And it has evolved tremendously since then," the Frenchman said.

The man to beat is Al-Attiyah, the two-time Dakar champion (2011 and 2015) who will start the race in Buenos Aires as the favourite for the 2016 edition, in which he will be driving a Mini.

The Qatari won the 2015 edition with more than 35 minutes to spare over the closest competitor.

That winning form has continued, Al-Attiyah dominating the world of rally raids by claiming victory in the rallies of Qatar, Egypt and Morocco, as well as the Hungary, Italy and Poland Bajas, easily winning the sport's world cup, and taking new titles in WRC 2 and the Middle East Championship.

While a clear favourite, there are no certainties in the gruelling Dakar, where the race can be turned on its head any second even for the best car in the rally.

"Peugeot have some really good names in the team and especially some very good drivers, but I still think that the car is completely new and will take time to develop," Al-Attiyah told redbull.com.

"It will be a good car one day, but maybe now is a bit soon to win. However, the team has really looked like it's going in the right direction and we'll see at the next Dakar. Obviously I hope I can beat them."

Al-Attiyah was clear about his race tactics, saying he aimed to mirror last year's efforts when he took the lead on the second leg and ceded nothing.

"If you look at the last Dakar, there is actually a reason why we picked up a time penalty on the first day. That was so we could start seventh on day two. From this starting point we could get a really good time.

"We improved every day without any mistakes and by the finish we were leading by more than half-an-hour. It was a good plan and we'd like to do something similar at this Dakar, but every race is a different one."

Al-Attiyah will also face ferocious competition from within Mini itself: 2014 winner Nani Roma and ambitious Orly Terranova (fifth in 2013 and 2014) pose the greatest danger among the record-breaking 13 crews fielded by X-Raid, including Guerlain Chicherit's "Zebra" buggy.

Toyota Gazoo features other pretenders to the crown, especially 2009 champion and last year's runner-up Giniel de Villiers.

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