DUBAI: The long wait for the second Dakar Rally to take place in Saudi Arabia is over.
On Sunday, the first stage of the world’s most famous desert rally will start in Jeddah as the competitors tackle the 622 km route of tracks and valleys that lead to Bisha.
Saudi hopes will rest on the shoulders of Yazeed Al Rajhi, of Overdrive Toyota in the car category, who thanked the country’s leaders for hosting the competition and promised a better showing than last year.
“Last year we had some problems with navigation, we lost a lot of time, but were happy to finish fourth,” the 39-year-old said at a press conference held by the Dakar Rally organization. ‘
“Last year Dirk [von Zitzewitz, his co-driver] couldn’t come with me because he had a back injury, and now he’s back. I’m sure he can do a great job, and our target is to win.”
Saudi Arabia had held the 42nd edition of the race, and the country’s first, in January of last year, and for veteran and new competitors, the Dakar Rally remains one of motorsports most coveted competitions.
Whether in the motorcycle, lightweight vehicles, trucks or car categories, the participants have been raring to go since arriving in Jeddah, and after Saturday’s Prologue, will finally tackle the Kingdom’s desert landscape.
Team Peugeot Total’s Stéphane Peterhansel, with an astonishing record of 13 wins and taking part in his 32nd Dakar Rally, recalled “that in the beginning, the Dakar was a dream and even today it's still not a job, but rather a pleasure.”
When the race was announced last June, the Dakar Rally organizers promised an entirely new route that is more technical and dune-filled from start to finish.
“Hosting Dakar rally across our breathtaking natural landscape broke new ground for both Saudi Arabia as a nation and Dakar too, with it being the first time in the rally’s history to have the engines roar in Asia,” said Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal Al-Saud, Minister of Sports, at the time. “We always believed we had the key components needed to deliver Dakar, and we are thrilled with how amazing the rally was.”
Al Rajhi revealed that even as a Saudi he continues to be taken aback by the terrain that the competitors will have to navigate.
From Monday, the next 11 stages will set out a punishing schedule interrupted by only one day of rest. Day 2 will take place on the dunes between Bisha and Wadi Ad-Dawasir, while the action on Day 3 will continue in the Empty Quarter of Wadi Ad-Dawasir.
Day 4 provides the longest, if not exactly the most difficult, stage of the rally over 813 km that will take the competitors from Wadi Ad-Dawasir to Riyadh.
Stage 5 will be fought over the tough dunes on the route to Al Qaisumah. Day 6, the last before the rest, sees a comparatively smooth road to Ha’il.
The action restarts on Jan. 10 with the marathon stages, a fearsome sequence of sand mountains on the way to Sakaka.
Day 8 will highlight the scenic route to Neom, where the following day’s action heads to the shore of the Red Sea, starting along the seafront. And on Day 10 the competitors will negotiate the hilly terrain from Neom to AlUla.
Dakar enters its last two days with Stage 11 on the dunes between AlUla and Yanbu. Finally, on Day 12, the winner would have to make their way from Yanbu to the finish line on the shore of the Red Sea.
Arab representation will come in the form of Nasser Al Attiyah, who finished third last year in the car category.
“Winning is always the goal,” the 2019 Qatari winner, Nasser Al Attiyah, said.
“I have always won with the number 301. But I have respect for all the drivers and I am especially grateful to all those who worked so hard so that we could be together for this Dakar in Saudi Arabia, because this year  has been very difficult for everyone”.
For others, it will be a whole new experience, and the wait, as well as travel obstacles, have been worth it.
I’m just honored to be here,” said Kristen Matlock of Polaris RZR Factory Racing Team. “It took us 51 hours to get here, we had some layovers.”
The American will be taking part alongside husband Wayne Matlock and Craig Scanlon.
“The Dakar is at the very top of my list of things I want to accomplish in my life,” she added. “On the Baja 1000 in the United States, I drove from start to finish and it can last as long as 28 hours, I am used to it. But here, it will be for 12 days. My main worry is the fear of the unknown”.
Another Dakar debutant, 18-year-old Seth Quintero of Red Bull Off-Road Team USA, revealed that he has to rein in his natural instincts if he is to survive the 12 stages.
“I kind of have this switch in my head that I like to go as fast as I can all the time, and I have to learn to flick the switch off,” he said.
“It’s long 12-day race, almost 5000 miles, something I’m not used to. I’m used to 300 to 500-mile races, and I kind of have to tone it down a little bit and remember to save the car and save myself for the coming days.”