Saudi Dakar Rally race director on steering the shift to sustainable tech in motor sports

Saudi Dakar Rally race director on steering the shift to sustainable tech in motor sports
David Castera, the race director of the Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia. (Supplied)
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Updated 03 January 2024
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Saudi Dakar Rally race director on steering the shift to sustainable tech in motor sports

Saudi Dakar Rally race director on steering the shift to sustainable tech in motor sports
  • In an exclusive interview with Arab news, David Castera also details the intensive preparations for the annual event and how the Kingdom compares with previous hosts

RIYADH: Thanks to his sweeping journey from motor sports competitor to event mastermind, David Castera, the race director of the Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia, surely embodies the spirit of one of the world’s most grueling motor sports events like no one else.

He spent his competitive career as a professional Enduro and Rally Raid driver and was crowned National Enduro Champion in France in 1992. In 2019, he was appointed director of the Dakar Rally, overseeing the event’s move from South America to Saudi Arabia.

Since then, he has been in charge of the route planning and overall organization of the annual rally raid, which this month the Kingdom will host for the fifth time.

In an exclusive interview with Arab News, Castera spoke about the evolving technological landscape of the Dakar Rally under his stewardship, the rigors of race planning, and the unique challenges that come with holding the race in Saudi Arabia.

How does the addition of new technology, including hydrogen-powered and electric vehicles, affect the Dakar Rally?

The Dakar needs to embrace new technology. It’s related to what’s happening in the world and climate issues. The Dakar must be part of and contribute to a mobility revolution. We are fortunate to have a sport that is highly demanding. If we can succeed in this sport, we can apply it to many others.

So it’s not the effects of vehicle technology on the Dakar, it’s more about the Dakar wanting to introduce these vehicles and new technologies to the rally, to the tracks. Why? Because the Dakar must align with today’s global issues, listen to them and, most importantly, serve as a laboratory.

Today, this is also the great strength of motor sport. It has always been a driver, an accelerator for technologies, including safety, performance and more.

The Dakar has begun its energy transformation and pushed new technologies so that they become part of the rally. We have the introduction of hydrogen and electric technologies but it doesn’t always progress as quickly as we want due to logistical challenges.

Today, we use them for demonstrations alongside our events to work on and develop the future of the rally so that one day we can make a complete transition. Right now, we’re in the experimentation phase but we’re working hard on the topic.

What keeps you going and what do you enjoy most about being on-site during the Dakar Rally?

First and foremost, I’m simply passionate about motor sports. I used to ride motorcycles before I got into rally raid. I became interested in the Dakar Rally at a very young age and was captivated by those vast expanses, deserts, and the idea of crossing them on motorcycles and in cars, facing the risks.

I also need that adrenaline rush. I can’t imagine living without it and I cultivate it in various ways on different levels. But being in the desert, setting up camps, as I’ve done numerous times in Saudi Arabia, those are extraordinary moments for me.

However, the 15 days of the rally itself don’t bring me the same pleasure. They are the least enjoyable because of the pressure and the many things to manage; it’s not the most pleasant part.

But things like reconnaissance missions, for example, traversing the country at a relaxed pace with smaller teams, that’s what motivates me, that’s what I enjoy. At that time, the passion I feel makes me want to share my experiences with the drivers afterward; obviously in a different way, because they are racing against the clock, while we are following and overlooking the racing action.

However, it is about conveying what I have experienced, the atmosphere, the people I have met, and I want to share that. When people are happy, I’m happy. But for me, the pleasure lies before the rally itself.

How much preparation time goes into organizing a Dakar Rally?

The Dakar Rally requires one year of preparation. We have several teams involved. There are the teams at the ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation) office in Paris, who mainly work on the sporting aspects and the specifications. And then there are also all the Saudi teams associated with us, who are more focused on logistics.

Together, we work for over a year to prepare for this rally. So, we need to make about four to five inspection trips of around two weeks each to arrive at a more or less complete Dakar. Additionally, there are roadbook (a series of instructions for navigating the rally route, including turn-by-turn information) checks. So, we end up doing five or six complete passes of the Dakar in a year to prepare for it.

So we essentially do four Dakar rallies with our vehicles to prepare for one. But to give you an idea, we cover a lot of kilometers. Some routes get approved, others don’t. Some routes are prohibited, so we need to come back. There is a lot of work to ensure that everything is validated and well-organized by all the institutions so that we can launch the rally.

The 2024 Dakar Rally will be the fifth time the event has been staged in Saudi Arabia. What changes have you noticed in the past five years?

Indeed, the rally has evolved because, first and foremost, we have learned to understand the country, we have experienced the desert and learned to read, and work with, respective terrain. Initially, we barely touched the Empty Quarter. Today, we are fully immersed in it. We explore the dunes even more. So, we discover new territories, new tracks. And we adapt the Dakar accordingly.

It becomes more challenging with time because we get better at measuring the level of difficulty of the tracks. The difficulty of the sand, rocky tracks, and the weather has presented many challenges, forcing us to be cautious, because there can be heavy rain. We’ve experienced a lot of rain and had to change stages accordingly.

It’s a constant evolution but it also has a significant impact. The nights are much shorter, so the competitors drive more at night than when we were in South America. It’s much colder, which has changed habits, and competitors face different challenges. In South America, it was summer and too hot. Here, it’s rather cold. So it has brought about many changes and has made the race tougher, if anything.

What sets the Dakar in Saudi Arabia apart from previous hosts?

I believe that all the Dakar rallies are special. Each Dakar has its own uniqueness. But as I mentioned earlier, the weather has a significant impact on the Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia, making it more challenging. The multitude of deserts, very different and vast deserts. The landscapes, too.

It’s true that this is a rally that evolves with time. Still, it remains the Dakar, with all its ingredients: the desert, the difficulty, solitude at times, the weather, night, cold, heat, dunes — everything exists.

Navigation has become more challenging in Saudi Arabia and that is one of the primary characteristics that makes it very special. It runs on relatively fast tracks, often less dangerous than what we have experienced elsewhere.

Nonetheless, the Dakar Rally must remain a special event and we always work to keep it special. That’s why we reinvent ourselves and create new concepts. This year, there’s the “48 Hours Chrono,” a two-day special in the desert, in the Empty Quarter, which will be absolutely incredible.

We constantly try to bring in something new. It’s important to maintain this attraction and keep reinventing ourselves. The desert helps us do that but we also need to be imaginative and offer new things to always remain attractive and make this rally the greatest rally in the world. We manage to do so also thanks to Saudi Arabia.

The Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia runs from Jan. 5 to 19.


Hamilton says struggling Mercedes have found ‘North Star’

Hamilton says struggling Mercedes have found ‘North Star’
Updated 16 May 2024
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Hamilton says struggling Mercedes have found ‘North Star’

Hamilton says struggling Mercedes have found ‘North Star’
  • “There is a long way to go,” said Hamilton
  • “The energy in the team is amazing“

IMOLA, Italy: Seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton offered an upbeat view on Mercedes’ future prospects on Thursday when he said the team had finally found their “North Star” in the prolonged effort to develop their car.
The Briton, without a win since the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, said he was encouraged by the directional breakthrough and both the energy and resilience of the team.
Speaking ahead of this weekend’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, the first race in Europe this year after six flyaway rounds around the world, Hamilton and his Mercedes team-mate George Russell said they were impressed by the durability of their team.
Mercedes have struggled for performance and have yet to register a podium finish this season.
“There is a long way to go,” said Hamilton. “But I am excited with what I know we have coming in the pipe-line now. We have found our North Star and we know what we want to do and what to change.
“The energy in the team is amazing. They are so resilient and continue to push all the time even though we have been knocked down quite a few times this year.”
Hamilton, who has won six of his drivers titles with Mercedes, is set to leave the team and join Ferrari next year.


Saudia unites football, motorsport with displays in Newcastle, Berlin

Saudia unites football, motorsport with displays in Newcastle, Berlin
Updated 15 May 2024
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Saudia unites football, motorsport with displays in Newcastle, Berlin

Saudia unites football, motorsport with displays in Newcastle, Berlin
  • Kingdom’s flag carrier introduces fans to new Gen3 Formula E car at St. James’ Park
  • Immersive fan zone offers variety of interactive experiences during Berlin E-Prix

BERLIN/JEDDAH: Saudia, the flag carrier of Saudi Arabia, has flown the new Gen3 Formula E car to St. James’ Park in the UK to coincide with Newcastle United’s final home game of the season.

The carrier has a strategic partnership with the Premier League club and is also the official airline partner of the all-electric Formula E series.

The event coincided with the release of a short film bringing together the worlds of motorsport and football, with football fans being introduced to Formula E and the car.

“This event provides a fantastic platform for us to engage with our guests and the global audience, whether in person or through our innovative digital portals,” Khaled Tash, Saudia Group’s chief marketing officer, said in the statement.

“Integrating our partnerships with both Newcastle United and Formula E in such an engaging manner exemplifies our commitment to bringing fans closer to the sports they love. Each year, we strive to elevate the experience for racegoers and fans worldwide, as part of our commitment to creating unforgettable memories wherever our brand is present.”

Saudia also hosted an immersive fan zone experience during the Berlin E-Prix on May 11-12 in Berlin.

Fans were given access to an E-Village, with a dedicated Discover-E Zone featuring a variety of interactive experiences, as well as games, competitions, and giveaways featuring both Saudia and Formula E merchandise.


8 watches owned by F1 great Michael Schumacher fetch more than $4m at auction in Geneva

8 watches owned by F1 great Michael Schumacher fetch more than $4m at auction in Geneva
Updated 14 May 2024
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8 watches owned by F1 great Michael Schumacher fetch more than $4m at auction in Geneva

8 watches owned by F1 great Michael Schumacher fetch more than $4m at auction in Geneva
  • The top piece in the sale, organized by Schumacher’s family, was a watch given to the German racing superstar by former Ferrari CEO Jean Todt
  • Remi Guillemin, head of watches for Europe and the Americas for auction house Christie’s, declined to identify the buyer

GENEVA: Eight watches belonging to auto racing icon Michael Schumacher sold Tuesday for nearly 4 million Swiss francs ($4.4 million) at a Geneva auction.
The top piece in the sale, organized by Schumacher’s family, was a watch given to the German racing superstar by former Ferrari CEO Jean Todt as a Christmas present in 2004. The hammer came down at a price of 1.2 million francs, or 1.5 million including the buyer’s commission.
That was well within the pre-sale estimate range of 1-2 million francs.
The custom-made platinum timepiece from F.P. Journe, the Vagabondage 1, features 18-carat white gold, a red watch face and images of a Ferrari logo, Schumacher’s racing helmet and a “7” — to honor his seven World Championship victories.
Remi Guillemin, head of watches for Europe and the Americas for auction house Christie’s, declined to identify the buyer, but said that five watches in the Ruthenium collection — a boxed set — were purchased by the same buyer.
While most of the eight watches sold within the pre-sale estimates, an Audemars Piguet featuring a Ferrari prancing horse emblem, sold for a hammer price of 330,000 francs — well above the top of the expected range at 250,000.
The sale of Schumacher watches, which garnered a total of more than 3.1 million francs at the hammer price, was timed for the 30th anniversary of his first Formula One Drivers Championship win in 1994.
The watches, which were taken to New York and Taipei for showings before the sale, were part of a larger auction of luxury timepieces to go under the hammer on Tuesday at Christie’s in Geneva.
Schumacher, who retired from F1 in 2012, shares the record for most F1 titles with British driver Lewis Hamilton.
In December the following year, Schumacher fell while skiing in the French Alpine resort of Meribel and suffered a near-fatal brain injury.
Since being transferred from hospital in September 2014, he continues to be cared for privately at a family home in Switzerland.


Felix da Costa wins historic third Berlin E-Prix

Felix da Costa wins historic third Berlin E-Prix
Updated 13 May 2024
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Felix da Costa wins historic third Berlin E-Prix

Felix da Costa wins historic third Berlin E-Prix
  • Round 10 win at Tempelhof earns TAG Heuer Porsche Formula E team first victory on home turf
  • Nick Cassidy of Jaguar TCS Racing has a 45-point lead in standings after victory in round 9

BERLIN: Antonio Felix da Costa became the only driver to win three times at the Tempelhof Airport street circuit after he clinched the win in round 10 of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship.

His win at the Berlin E-Prix also secured Tag Heuer Porsche’s inaugural victory on home turf in Formula E.

“It just feels great to win at a home race for Porsche, it’s amazing,” said da Costa. “We’ve got so many guests here: so many people who work in the factory that don’t normally get to come to the races, our board members are here, so it’s definitely a special one.

“Honestly, it’s been a tough start to the season and we’ve been building a really good momentum, always closing the gap to the championship leaders and it feels good to take this one.”

He added: “You have to work hard when things aren’t right, but when you have the right people around you it makes it a little bit easier. I want to dedicate to this to my engineer’s father-in-law who passed away this week, so it’s for him and his family.”

Da Costa held on throughout the 38-lap race, despite relentless pressure from Mitch Evans and Nick Cassidy of Jaguar, the latter being the victor of round 9 on Saturday.

Cassidy executed a last-minute move on Nissan’s Oliver Rowland to secure second place, clinching the fastest lap in the process. Rowland snatched third after a challenging starting position, ahead of Tag Heuer Porsche’s Pascal Wehrlein, who valiantly battled reigning champion Jake Dennis (Andretti) for fourth.

Cassidy’s teammate, Evans, finished in sixth. Jehan Daruvala of Maserati MSG Racing delivered an impressive seventh-place finish after navigating through the pack from 13th, marking a personal best Formula E result for the Indian driver. 

Climbing from 18th to eighth place was 19-year-old Taylor Barnard of NEOM McLaren Formula E, showing remarkable skill in what was his first full weekend in the series. Joel Eriksson (Envision Racing) also achieved his best result to date with a ninth-place finish, while Jean-Eric Vergne (DS PENSKE) rounded out the top ten. 

Cassidy leaves Berlin with a substantial 45-point haul and assumes top position in the standings with 140 points, ahead of Wehrlein on 124. Rowland occupies third place with 118 points.

In the team championship, Jaguar TCS Racing leads with 237 points, followed by TAG Heuer Porsche in second place with 183.


Yazeed Al-Rajhi romps to victory in Tabuk Toyota Rally 

Yazeed Al-Rajhi romps to victory in Tabuk Toyota Rally 
Updated 12 May 2024
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Yazeed Al-Rajhi romps to victory in Tabuk Toyota Rally 

Yazeed Al-Rajhi romps to victory in Tabuk Toyota Rally 
  • The Saudi Toyota Championship continues with the Qassim Rally on October 23 to 26

TABUK: Saudi driver Yazeed Al-Rajhi and his German co-driver Timo Gottschalk cruised to an emphatic victory in the Tabuk Toyota Rally and the Saudi extended his lead in the 2024 Saudi Toyota Championship on Saturday.

The Overdrive Racing Toyota Hilux drivers had no problems on the final 168 km selective section and secured a winning margin of 16 minutes 37 seconds.

“It was good for us,” said Al-Rajhi. “It was not easy, very tricky actually. We have good stages in Saudi now. Before it was flat, flat and now it is more technical with good navigation and you need to focus all the time. Now we look ahead to Baja Greece.”

Dania Akeel and Stephane Duple continued to flourish in the Ultimate category with the second of the Toyota Hiluxes and finished second overall, despite getting lost on the stage for several minutes.

“We had a good day except we lost around four minutes in navigation, that is part of the game,” Akeel said. “Other than that, we had a good day. The stage was narrow and quite twisty and that was good for me to get used to the car, I would love to race this car every day. We will see, I want to develop as a driver as much as I can.”

Saleh Al-Saif and Qatari co-driver Nasser Al-Kuwari rounded off the podium places and topped the Challenger standings in their Dark Horse OT3.

MX Ride Dubai’s Mohammed Al-Balooshi continued his superb run of form in Middle East regional events with the fastest time on the final stage that confirmed another victory for the Emirati on his Husqvarna.

He beat local KTM rider Abdulhalim Al-Mogheera by nearly 15 minutes on the final stage to snatch the win by 27 minutes 45 seconds, his cause helped further when the Saudi rider incurred a time penalty.

“I’m really happy, so pumped with this win. The task was difficult (but) not impossible,” Al-Balooshi said. “I really put my head down, stayed focused and I needed more than two minutes, I got a lot more than that. I am really happy to defend this title in Tabuk, I really like all the races in Saudi Arabia. Abdulhalim (Al-Mogheera) really kept me on my toes. He is progressing well.”

There was a nail-biting finish to the battle in the quads with Haitham Al-Tuwaijri managing to snatch the victory on his Yamaha Raptor from rivals Hani Al-Noumesi and Abdulaziz Al-Shayban. The Saudi’s winning margin was just 25 seconds.

The Saudi Toyota Championship continues with the Qassim Rally from October 23 to 26.