The Dakar restarts after the rest. Two Italians close to the podium in the Classic

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The 45th Dakar, the fourth held in Saudi Arabia, restarted this morning from the capital Riyadh after the only rest day. The Civil Protection had issued an alarm on the weather conditions, but the metropolis was spared from torrential rains. And with it also the participants who had to deal with extreme conditions during the first week of the race. Audi, which for the second year is taking part in the toughest rally raid in the world with an electric prototype with extended range, the RS Q e-tron E2, powered by a sustainable fuel which further reduces CO2 emissions ( -60%), even scraped ice off cars on January 5th.

Nasser Al-Attiyah, the prince of Qatar, former Olympic bronze medalist in skeet in London, is leading towards his fourth victory, the second in a row. At the wheel of the Toyota Gazoo Hilux pick-up, he gained more than an hour on his closest rival, South African teammate Henk Lategan, and on Brazilian rookie Lucas Moraes who travels over an hour and twenty from the top: Toyota he monopolized the entire provisional podium.

In fourth position, still among the cars, there is the “cannibal”, Sébastien Loeb, who drives a Hunter of the British ProDrive fielded by the Bahrain Raid Xtreme. Victory is probably lost again this year, but third place is just 32 minutes away. After last year’s debut, Audi and its “dream team” (Stéphane Peterhansel, 14 victories, Carlos Sainz, 3 successes, and Mattias Ekström) were aiming for the podium. The German team had won the prologue and first fraction, but in Thursday’s stage they were forced to deal with a double accident, on the same dune, at kilometer 212 (the 216th would later cost the Saudi Yazeed Al Rajhi dearly as well): Peterhansel he had to retire because the navigator, Edouard Boulanger, who lived for years near Turin, suffered a fractured vertebra, and Carlos Sainz suffered an abysmal delay. In three kilometres, the third, second and fourth of the general had “jumped”.

In the following days, Ekström also had problems: “The car is fine, but we didn’t expect such extreme conditions, which we had never faced before,” specified Rolf Michl, head of Audi motorsport. “But this is the Dakar: you have to be able to get the better of the desert. In any case, we learned a lot,” he adds. Al-Attiyah, who everyone already considers the winner, cools the enthusiasm: “We have a good margin, but the race is still long and we have to know how to manage it”.

The test of the bikes is extremely balanced: the first six are enclosed in less than 3 minutes. The first three even in 13 seconds: the American Skyler Howes (Husqvarna) precedes the Argentine Kevin Benavides (Ktm) and the American Mason Klein, paired with the same time. The Tuscan Paolo Lucci (Ktm) is the first of the Italians, eighteenth in the general classification and second in Rally2.

Among the trucks, an “open” race due to the absence of the Russians from the Kamaz, the Czech Ales Loprais is in the lead, but the next four places are occupied by crews driving an Iveco. Claudio Bellina, Bruno Gotti and Giulio Minelli are the first Italians, twelfth. Naturally with an Iveco.

At the halfway point – the Dakar 2023 ends on Sunday in the Persian Gulf, in Damman – a 66-year-old youth from Faenza, Paolo Bedeschi, and a 42-year-old photographer from Turin, Daniele Bottallo, are the Italians closest to the podium among the seventy registered representing Italy. They take part in the Dakar Classic (83 crews still in the race) reserved for vintage vehicles: theirs is a 1988 Toyota BJ71. Shorter than the Dakar, the test is a story of people who put themselves to the test. The two are fourth at 436 points from the first, the Spaniards Juan Morera and Lidia Ruba.

They find out from the reporter that without the penalty they would already be on the podium: “And when did they give it to us?” the two ask themselves. That they met in another race that Paolo did together with his wife Manuela and that Daniele had won together with his father Walter. The mechanic from Romagna worked eight hours a day for three months on the car and the photographer joined him at the weekend: in the race they rely on Tecnosport, but apparently, at least so far, the car hasn’t needed major interventions. Betteschi smiles when asked what is the most difficult thing in the Dakar: “To get up every day at half past three in the morning. If we left at nine it would be fantastic”. For Bottallo it is the fulfillment of a dream: “When I was little I consumed the pages of a book that dad had at home, ‘The price was high: ten years of the Paris Dakar’, by Paolo Scalera and Luigi Soldano. I’ve always wanted to do at least one.” And he even risks ending up on the podium.

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