Stuck in the desert for 10 hours — twice: Sébastien Loeb on his nightmare Dakar 2021

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A myriad of of disasters made this Sébastien Loeb’s worst ever Dakar, but the Frenchman still saw some light at the end of the tunnel

Sebastien Loeb Dakar 2021

Dakar 2021 threw everything at Loeb: mechanical failures, navigational issues, sandstorms and more

Eric Vargiolu / DPPI

Nine-time World Rally Champion Sébastien Loeb might have thought he’d seen it all in rallying. But that was before the 2021 Dakar.

Clouds of dust weren’t the only obstacle for the Frenchman who found himself stranded for ten hours in the desert waiting for a spare part — only to find his crew had brought the wrong one.

He rowed with officials after being slapped with a five-minute penalty for speeding; his support truck broke down; and new navigation notes left him and experienced co-driver Daniel Elena baffled. He also suffered the inevitable teething problems that come with a new car.

If there was ever an example of why the Dakar remains one of motor sport’s most gruelling challenges, then Loeb’s experience is it.

He arrived in Saudi Arabia with the fledgeling Prodrive-run Bahrain Raid Xtreme team, driving the new T1 class Hunter car.

Loeb, a veteran of four Dakar events who finished second in 2017, knew that blooding the car would be difficult after Covid had severely limited testing. He might have thought twice if he knew what he was facing.

Recounting the story of his Dakar disaster to Motor Sport, Loeb says the issues began early, as an unfamiliarity with the new roadbook system, where competitors are now handed their navigational directions 15 minutes before the start of a stage instead of the day previously, immediately got them off on the wrong foot.

“For the first time we didn’t do any cross country rallies [in preparation],” the 79-time WRC rally winner said. “So it started in the first [stage] getting lost with this new system. He [co-driver Daniel Elena] wasn’t really used to it, there wasn’t enough [familiarisation time]. So we lost a bit of time, but that was not the worst point!”

Sebastien Loeb Dakar 2021

Loeb joined BRX hoping for – and expecting – some big jumps

Bahrain Raid Xtreme

Loeb and Elena got lost not once but twice on Stage One. The Frenchman made a split decision to do a u-turn and retrace steps, which paid off as he rediscovered the correct route, but his troubles were far from over.

“We had our first puncture in a fast section of the stage, then shortly afterwards a second and a third puncture,” he said. “This was one of the hardest stages I have had in the Dakar.”

Competing in Saudi Arabia for the first time, Loeb found the terrain particularly unforgiving.

“Irrigation at the moment is not really, really good,” he says. “The cars are very heavy, [and] the ground [is] very hard with big stones. And we have some little tyres, so it doesn’t suit really to what we need.”

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The Frenchman bounced back on Stage Two though, setting the sixth fastest time, but hit further navigation issues which would continue to plague him for the rest of the rally.

Sometimes a Dakar driver has to use compass directions, at other times just follow the tyre tracks of those that have gone before. For Loeb the latter became increasingly difficult as the shifting sands of Saudi Arabia made it almost impossible for the driver to find a well-defined route.

“For me, as long as you’re off-road, you sometimes need to follow the compass – it’s not a problem,” he says. “The main issue occurs when we needed to go to follow a track [made by other cars] and the track disappears because it was windy before.

“And when you are on the track, you need to follow it. It’s [successful navigation] not only [down to] the compass. The compass can change but you [sometimes] still need to follow [the tracks made by other cars]. But if you don’t see the lines, you don’t see the tracks, you don’t know where to go. And that causes problems.”

Loeb battled on though and, despite picking up three more punctures, was sixth fastest again on Stage Three to haul himself up the same position in the overall standings.

He went even further on Stage Four, a 209-mile run from Wadi Ad-Dawasir to the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh. Loeb had risen to fourth, just one place off the podium placings, after being 22nd on Stage One. It was clear, on pace at least, that Loeb and the Hunter are a potent combination.

However, it was here that things started to really unravel. Loeb exceeded the speed limit in a controlled area, and was duly slapped with a 5-minute penalty. The BRX driver blamed a faulty GPS system for not warning him (via an electronic alarm sounding) that he was in a slow zone, with even the equipment provider backing him up. However, the stewards were unrelenting.

The Frenchman was not backward with coming forwards in directing his subsequent ire towards the stewards.

Sebastien Loeb Dakar 2021

Many a u-turn: navigational issues plagued Loeb and Elena throughout

Eric Vargiolu / DPPI

“You have begun to know me a little for all these years and I very rarely ‘rant’,” Loeb said in a post on Instagram.

“But tonight, I need to share with you the incompetence of the stewards’ panel of an event as legendary as the Dakar Rally. We have just been penalised five minutes for exceeding speed in a controlled area. In all my participations, in all the stages and in all the speed control zones, I always respect this rule as best I can.

“Despite our explanations, but above all despite the confessions of the GPS system provider stating that there was an issue with the equipment in our car today, the jury of the marshals did not want to know anything.

“He decided, cowardly sitting behind his desk, with spilling his coffee as his only risk, when we risk our lives every day in the car, to hand us a penalty far more severe than what this GPS ‘bug’ gained us … about two to three seconds being generous.

Though slightly more sanguine about the situation now, Loeb still feels the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.

“For me, I always drove to the sound of the GPS. For the first time in four years, it didn’t work,” he says.

“And then I got the penalty, I gained maybe one second because I saw it [the speed limit] a little bit late. Maybe they should give me 15 or 30 seconds [penalty], but five minutes was far too much for that. But then okay, the regulation doesn’t speak about sound.”

He also attributes some of his subsequent travails to being penalised.

“At the end, it didn’t actually affect my race. Except that we were lost, because of the car that started in front of us because of the penalties. So it’s just not that good to start in order.”

What Loeb refers to is getting lost in giant dust clouds created by competitors who set off beforehand. As if navigating vast desert and far-stretching rocky plains hadn’t been hard enough, being engulfed in a Dakar-generated sandstorm made things even trickier.

Sebastien Loeb 2021 Dakar

Loeb enjoyed dune stages in parts – but said he found rocks too much of a headache

Julien Delfosse / DPPI

“The two times we were really lost, we were a bit unlucky because I was just trying to overtake and I was in the dust of another car,” Loeb explains. “So my co-driver didn’t really see where we were going and I didn’t couldn’t see much more. And when we passed the car, [we realised] the car was lost. So both times, we were following a car and we got lost from that point.”

Carlos Sainz likened this year’s Dakar to a “gymkhana”, saying that the rally was overly reliant on navigation, and Loeb’s opinion isn’t much different.

The Frenchman found himself having to channel his inner Parker, feeling at times more like Elena’s chauffeur.

“This year was more a ‘co-driver rally’ than a ‘driver rally’”

“This year was more a ‘co-driver rally’ than a ‘driver rally’,” comments Loeb. “I’m not the pilot, I’m the driver of my co-driver, just bringing him from one point to the other.

“It doesn’t really matter the speed you go, it’s more to find the waypoints, because we can gain 10 seconds, 30 seconds, one minute, then you lose 25 minutes because your co-driver doesn’t find the way. So for me it was more looking at it like this.

“Okay, maybe some co-drivers were a little bit better. On another side, we always got lost in the same place as many of the others. So I think some details weren’t really clear in the roadbook and a lot of co-driver were lost in the same place. The roadbook needs to be perfect I think.”

Loeb got lost again on Stage Five, losing another 50 minutes. Combined with the penalty, this left him in down in 10th overall.

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The organisers conceded on the point of navigational difficulties with Loeb by this point, as so many competitors got lost on the fifth stage that they elected to shorten the following one.

However, if the BRX driver thought this might have brought some kind of respite, he was wrong, as a heavy impact spelt more disaster.

“In a double jump on a landing, we broke a [suspension] wishbone and then we started to be really in the shit, because we lost 10 hours in the desert.”

The Hunter was unable to continue. As night fell, Loeb and his co-driver Elena waited patiently for the recovery truck carrying the spare parts needed to carry on. Just as they thought their saviour had arrived, things got even worse.

The truck had brought the incorrect component due to some lax labelling. It was a case of right label – wrong part.

“Surprise! So at this point, we lost completely the race.”

Loeb and his co-driver were forced to amuse themselves and take refuge with a following camera crew.

“We had a little contact with the satellite mobile but we had no connection on the mobile phone. Yes, I played a little bit on my mobile,” recounts Loeb.

“We had a TV crew that came to film us and they made a little bivouac there and so we could go stay with them in a tent and have a coffee.”

The BRX pair had to wait for the correct part to arrive and spent over 24 hours awake as a result, but took advantage of a rest day to try and at least finish the rally, with all hope of a win long gone.

Truck Dakar 2021

The BRX truck suffered its own mechanical failure – spelling disaster for Loeb and co

Florent Gooden / DPPI

They set out on the first part of the ‘Marathon Stage’, only to suffer their seventh puncture before being hit by a wheel bearing failure, just 30km from the finish. The pair eventually made it to the end of the stage, but were now well down the order in 41st.

It seemed like fate was conspiring against them – but the Dakar wasn’t done yet.

The BRX recovery truck wich transports all spare parts had now failed to make it to the end of stage having broken its rear axle, so couldn’t get requisite spare parts and wheels to Loeb. The team made the sporting decision to give his remaining spare tyres and parts to teammate Nani Roma, who still had the chance of a good finish.

Loeb tentatively set off on Stage Eight desperately hoping nothing else would break.

“We had to start the next day, [with] only three brakes and one spare (tyre) instead of three,” says Loeb. “And then we punctured again (twice), and the truck was not allowed to go into stage because he had ‘retired’.”

Loeb and Elena were stranded once more in the desert, and with two punctures and no way to fix them, they were out of the rally. Valiantly as they had fought, their Dakar 2021 was over.

Despite having his abilities and patience tested to the limit, Loeb is remarkably upbeat about the overall potential of the project.

Sebastien Loeb Dakar 2021

Loeb now has his sights set on Dakar 2022

Frédéric Le Floc 'h / DPPI

“[It was] a lot of little things that caused a lot of loss of time and even the retirement but at the end, I think the car performed quite well,” he reasons.

“I think we are in the game or not far from it. I’m sure if we needed to start the Dakar tomorrow, we the team would be able to solve the problem and we will be fine with that.

“Dakar, we know it’s always a very tough race and every time a new manufacturer enters, you always have some surprises even if we did some good testing. We knew that 5000km will be tough and we discovered some little problems, but at the end it’s not so big.”

With plans to enter more cross-country rallies and next year’s Dakar with the BRX Hunter, the Frenchman hopes for a future Saudi layout which puts both more emphasis on him the driver and suits his driving style.

“Obviously for me the stages were nicer before [on previous Dakars] than now,” Loeb comments. “It’s the first time I did it in Saudi. We had some nice sand stages with a lot of desert and nothing around but also a lot of big stones also.

“For me there’s no nice track to push like we had in Chile – [ where] you have for 20 or 30kms of nice twisty road where you can really push, and we didn’t have anything like that in Saudi’

“I think they should find something different – it was not so interesting to drive in my opinion or [suited] for my driving style. And even when it was a bit twisty, there were so many stones that we had to go around – we were only concentrated on avoiding punctures more than going fast. That’s not really what I like.”

Whatever their trials and tribulations this year, the BRX Hunter’s potential performance combined with the steely determination of the world’s most successful rally driver should make them a force not to be discounted at Dakar 2022.