King of the Dakar - Qatar's Nasser Rules
Written by Neil Perkins
The Dakar Rally is legendary and has an infamous reputation. It takes few prisoners and has claimed numerous lives in its 33-year history. The brainchild of French adventurer Thierry Sabine, who was killed in the event in a helicopter crash in Mali in 1986, the Dakar continues to race across the world’s remotest terrain.
As a youngster growing up in Doha, Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah had a dream to win the Dakar Rally. He had watched the likes of Finland’s Ari Vatanen and France’s Pierre Lartigue achieving success in the 1980s and 1990s, and wanted to follow in their footsteps.
The Qatari had already carved an enviable reputation in special stage rallying, winning numerous Middle East rallies and taking several class victories around the world. He led the Dakar for several days in 2009 and finished second overall in 2010.
But 2011 was to be his year. After 13 special stages and over 5,000 competitive kilometres across the most barren and demanding areas of Argentina and Chile, Al-Attiyah realised his dream in front of over one million adoring fans in downtown Buenos Aires.
The Qatari managed to beat South Africa’s Giniel de Villiers and Spain’s defending champion Carlos Sainz to earn arguably the greatest sporting achievement in history by an Arab sportsman or woman.
“I knew that the big special stage into Córdoba two days from the end was the most important of my life,” said a delighted Al-Attiyah. “I was not going to take any risks. I had a dream when I was very young that I would win the Dakar.
“Even at the start in Buenos Aires on New Year’ s Day I felt relaxed and comfortable. I cannot describe what it feels like to win this event. I was so close last year and I was leading the year before, but this is something very special. This is the biggest moment in my career.”
Al-Attiyah spoke to the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani shortly after confirming his famous win. “The Emir was so pleased with the victory,” said Al-Attiyah. “He had been following the race on the television and was always nervous when I started some days in first place and some days in second or third.
“He told me that this win had put Qatar on the world map. He wanted me to tell him about every kilometre of the race...”
The Qatari had to work like he had never worked before to achieve the victory. Sainz was in no mood to relinquish his title and was the leader for the first week in his Volkswagen Race Touareg, as the race left Buenos Aires and passed through Córdoba, San Miguel de Tucumán, Sal Salvador de Jujuy, and crossed the Andes mountain range into the Atacama desert, visiting Calama, Iquique, and Arica.
Sainz, Al-Attiyah, and BMW’s Stéphane Peterhansel – a nine-time winner of the Dakar – began to pull away from the rest of the car entry. Peterhansel struggled when the event hit stony ground, and a succession of punctures for the Frenchman enabled the Volkswagen duo to pull away and begin their own duel in the sand.
The Spaniard and the Qatari swapped fastest times as the rally headed down the spine of Chile towards Antofagasta, Copiapó, and then back across the Andes mountain range into Argentina.
The pendulum swung in Al-Attiyah’s favour on the tricky special stages between Chilecito and San Juan in northwest Argentina.
The Qatari had edged into a small advantage on the previous stage but, when Sainz wrecked his front right suspension in a deep hole and lost over an hour making repairs, there was daylight on the leader board, and the advantage was now thrown in Al-Attiyah’s favour.
He maintained his composure over two nervous days, as the route left San Juan, returned to Córdoba, and headed back to Buenos Aires with Sainz still applying fierce pressure. The dream had been fulfilled: Al-Attiyah had won the Dakar. Abu Dhabi’s Abdullah Al-Herais and Khaled Al-Kendi were also among the 55 finishers from 140 cars that had set out from Buenos Aires on New Year’ s Day. They reached the podium in 26th place in a Toyota Land Cruiser.
Meanwhile, there was a similar two-man confrontation in the motorcycle category with Spain’s Marc Coma up against defending champion Cyril Despres of France.
When Frenchman Despres made an uncharacteristic navigational error on the section between Copiapó in Chile and Chilecito in Argentina, the contest was all but settled in Coma’s favour. The Catalan refused to crack under the pressure and duly confirmed his third Dakar victory in six years.
Chile’ s Francisco ‘Chaleco’ Lopez looked set to take third position for the second successive year, but a broken shock absorber and electrical woes on the final special stage handed the remaining podium place to Portugal’s Helder Rodrigues on his Yamaha.
Russian company Kamaz have dominated the truck category in recent years, and 2011 was to be no exception. Kamaz snatched the top three positions in the final classification, with Vladimir Chagin, Sergey Savostin, and Ildar Shaysultanov leading the way for the Kazan-based operation.
2011 Dakar Rally
The 2011 Dakar
12,000 bottles of water per day
Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah
Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah is arguably the most famous Arab sportsman of his generation. A six-time winner of the FIA Middle East Rally Championship in the last eight years, Al-Attiyah has won 39 rounds of the prestigious regional series and is also a former FIA Production World Rally Championship (PWRC) and a winner of the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies. He has won the Qatar Rally for eight successive years and claimed eight victories in Cyprus, five in Jordan, six in Dubai, and four in Syria and Oman, in addition to taking wins in Abu Dhabi and Kuwait.
Al-Attiyah (40), who lives in Doha, finished second overall in the 2010 Dakar Rally behind the legendary Spanish driver Carlos Sainz, and also represents Qatar in skeet shooting at Asian and Olympic Games and World Championship meetings. He finished fourth in the 2004 Olympic Games’ skeet shooting competition.