Rally legend Carlos Sainz says there is “double the pressure” on competitors in the 2021 Dakar Rally due to the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
This year’s edition of the rally-raid kicked off with the Prologue in Saudi Arabia on Saturday amid renewed restrictions around the world following the emergence of a new strain of COVID-19 in the UK.
Organiser ASO arranged 21 charter flights on 18 aircraft to guarantee the presence of all competitors in Jeddah after Saudi Arabia shut down its borders.
All participants were required to undergo COVID tests two days before flying to the Gulf nation, apart from getting flu vaccines, while a second set of tests were performed 48 hours after their arrival before they were granted access to the bivouac.
Masks and social distancing will remain mandatory for the duration of the event, with competitors not allowed to leave the bivouac even on the rest day, as had previously been the case.
Three-time Dakar champion Sainz, who headed X-raid Mini team-mate Stephane Peterhansel in Sunday’s opening 277km stage from Jeddah to Bisha, told Autosport he believes the pandemic has added an extra degree of pressure for all competitors.
“It was not an easy start I have to say,” said Sainz.
“First of all because of all this Covid situation which doubles the pressure and every time you do the test, there is this uncertainty about the result.
“But the organisation did a great job and it’s great that we could kick off.”
Neither Sainz or Peterhansel had a clear run in the Saudi desert, with Sainz revealing he lost four minutes with a navigational error, but he ultimately won the stage by 25 seconds after Peterhansel suffered a puncture 30-40km from the finish.
The two are now split by eight seconds heading into the second stage on Tuesday.
“As last year, the rocky paths complicated our life with a puncture in the first part of the stage around km 70,” Sainz explained.
“After the puncture we went smoother, but then there was a note on the roadbook that was not very precise and we lost four minutes going up and down to find the right way.”
Sainz’s former Citroen World Rally Championship team-mate Sebastian Loeb had a difficult first day in his Prodrive-built BRX1, with three punctures leaving him down in 22nd position, already 24 minutes behind the leader.
Loeb told Autosport that he got lost 15km into the stage at a cost of 15 minutes while before he found the right route. This then cost him more time, as he found himself caught in the dust of other competitors.
“I was quite surprised by the first two punctures because we were driving quite smooth compared to the pace I had on the [Peugeot] buggy I used to drive on the Dakar in South America,” he said.
“So I went even smoother, but we got a third puncture 80 kms further. The terrain was risky with huge rocks on the way.
“Honestly, it was very tough for almost three hours, but considered all the problems we had, we didn’t lose too much time – I was expecting a delay of an hour.”