Peru is about 15,000 kilometres away from Qatar, but for Nasser Saleh al-Attiyah the South American nation could yet prove a bridge not too far.
As a rally driver of immense ability – and we are not wasting words here describing his qualities – al-Attiyah never looks for favours from the terrain. You are supposed to adapt to whatever challenge is thrown at you, but occasionally special circumstances do put you in a position of relative comfort, sometimes very minor, that top athletes are supposed to exploit.
The 2019 edition of the Dakar Rally is one such event where al-Attiyah has an advantage, perhaps offering him the best chance in four years to win the prestigious title for the third time.
The reason for this is simple: the 5,000km event will be contained within the borders of only one country, Peru, and 70% of the route is made of desert with plenty of dunes.
It’s the kind of terrain which sons of the desert revel in, on foot, bike, camel or by car. And there’s nobody who can possibly boast better credentials in such conditions than al-Attiyah, who has dominated regional rallies for close to two decades and earlier this year won his 14th Middle East Rally title, shifting another giant of the dunes, Mohamed bin Sulayem, of the UAE.
“Mentally and physically I am in great shape. I’ve been training in Qatar for the Dakar Rally and I’ll be heading for Peru on December 28,” al-Attiyah told the Gulf Times in an exclusive interview.
The Paris-Dakar Rally, earlier originated from the French capital and culminated in Dakar, Senegal, but was moved to South America in 2009 for security and sponsorship reasons. It was held across multiple countries since then but Argentina, Chile and Bolivia opted out for reasons of austerity this time, although organisers denied it was a “cut price” edition.
Al-Attiyah, for one, is not complaining.
“I like racing across the desert and the dunes. I feel it’s my area. It gives me added confidence that I can go on to win the event again,” said the 2011 and 2015 champion who will be driving a Toyota Hilux.”
While the Dakar rally route has added to al-Attiyah’s confidence, it’s not the only factor that puts him in a positive frame of mind.
“My form has been excellent. I won the Rally of Morocco recently for the fifth straight time. Winning adds to your confidence, naturally.”
In all, 334 vehicles will line up at the start of the event on January 7, with drivers tasked with navigating almost 3,000km of intense special stages.
“It is a little like as if we were competing in the Vendée Globe only in the roaring 40s”, says race director Etienne Lavigne in defining the degree of difficulty of the 2019 edition.
Al-Attiyah, however, has a host of illustrious rivals to contend with, especially Stephane Peterhansel and Carlos Sainz.
Frenchman Peterhansel is undoubtedly the Dakar Rally king with 13 titles under his belt, six times of which was in the motorcycle category before he switched to cars in 1999. Spaniard Sainz won the 2018 event at the age of 55, with al-Attiyah a close second.
“No doubt the competition is always very tough but this time I am ready to win,” declared al-Attiyah.
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