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The Dakar, the first of the five rounds that make up the 2024 calendar, stands out as the only Marathon Rally-Raid, a race that consists of more than 5 stages and has more championship points at stake than the remainder. It is a real jackpot. Today, the field of the 46th edition of the Dakar is observing its traditional rest day with 6 stages in the rear-view mirror and another 6 stages ahead.

In the Rally GP motorbike race, Hero MotoSports and Monster Energy Honda have locked out the overall podium throughout the first 6 stages of the Dakar. Ricky Brabec (Honda) holds the lead ahead of Ross Branch (Hero) and Adrien Van Beveren (Honda).

In the Rally 2 class, the defending champion, Romain Dumontier, topped the leader board in the first week before fellow Frenchman Jean-Loup Lepan bumped him from the summit in the Empty Quarter. Paolo Lucci rounds out the provisional podium. In the quad race, the title holder, Laisvydas Kancius, is miles behind two consummate Dakar specialists, Manuel Andújar and Alexandre Giroud.

In the car category, the two-time world champion Nasser Al Attiyah (Nasser Racing Prodrive) waved goodbye to his hopes of taking a third consecutive Dakar win yesterday. The Qatari is still in the race and will now be hunting for top places in the specials and the haul of championship points that comes with them. His runner-up in 2023, Yazeed Al Rajhi (Overdrive Racing), had to bow out of the race in the Empty Quarter. Meanwhile, Audi, debuting in the W2RC, leads with Carlos Sainz and Mattias Ekström, with Lucas Moraes and his Toyota in pursuit.

In the Challenger class, the newcomer Eryk Goczał (Energylandia) has caused a seismic shift in the competition. The Pole leads the pack ahead of the Americans Mitch Guthrie (Taurus Factory) and Austin Jones (Can-Am Factory). In the SSV category, Yasir Seaidan leads, followed by the American rookie Sara Price (South Racing Can-Am) and João Ferreira (Can-Am Factory), who jumped ship from Challenger.

 Honda and Hero dominate the first week

It was the eagerly anticipated Season 3 showdown among the Rally GP motorbikes. Monster Energy Honda, who have won both editions of the world manufacturers' championship since the inception of the W2RC in 2022, were gunning hard for their maiden individual victory, seeking strength in numbers. HRC upped their game, bulking up from four to six riders between seasons, recruiting Skyler Howes and Tosha Schareina. Halfway through the race, their two young signings are out of the rally, the Spaniard due to a crash and the American as a result of a mechanical. Even so, Honda's core of veterans is still in the game. Hero MotoSports have also had their fair share of withdrawals, but on a whole different scale. Only one of the four riders who started the race for the Indian outfit is still standing. Joaquim Rodrigues, Sebastian Bühler and the surprise entrant, Joan Barreda, have all exited stage left, one after the other. Now, the hopes of the red-and-white squad rest squarely on the shoulders of a lone hero —a role that Ross Branch is playing with gusto. The Botswanan held the overall lead for a solid four specials, relinquishing his throne to Nacho Cornejo after stage 3 and later to Ricky Brabec at the end of the 48H Chrono. Now second overall, a mere 51 seconds from the leader, Captain Branch is seeing a lot of red on his weather radar. The airline pilot who moonlights as a rally-raid racer has been sharing the limelight on the overall podium throughout the six stages of the opening week with nothing but Hondas. There are three Hondas in the top 4 on the rest day! Sandwiched between the leader, Ricky Brabec, and Adrien Van Beveren, who in turn has Nacho Cornejo hot on his heels, Branch has been riding out the turbulence like an ace pilot. Yet here is the rub: since he is flying solo, no aid will be forthcoming from a fellow Hero rider if mechanical disaster strikes. Contrast that with the reds, who have three cards to play, as well as a luxury water carrier in Pablo Quintanilla. The Chilean lost his chance to vie for victory after running out of fuel in the 48H Chrono, but he is still there to help out his teammates. Halfway through the rally, Honda are holding all the aces to propel Brabec, VBA or Nacho to the top of the podium in Yanbu. While the odds may favour the reds, it is worth noting that sheer numbers have never translated to individual success for Honda. The second week will decide!   In Rally 2, the 2023 number one, Romain Dumontier (Dumontier Racing), started the season with a bang. Despite challenges from Bradley Cox (BAS World KTM Racing), Jean-Loup Lepan (Duust Diverse Racing) and Tobias Ebster (Kini Racing) in three specials, the Frenchman remained ensconced at the helm of the leader board. The 48H Chrono turned sour for "Dudu". He ran out of fuel, paving the way for Lepan, last season's third-place finisher, to emerge from the Empty Quarter as the Rally 2 front-runner. Lepan has a 15-minute cushion over his fellow Frenchman and almost half an hour in hand over Paolo Lucci, last year's runner-up. The provisional Dakar podium at the halfway point mirrors that of the 2023 W2RC, albeit in a different order. Lepan is also tenth in the motorbike category, as the sole Rally 2 rider in the top 10.   Among the ten quads on the start line, all registered for the 2024 season, Manuel Andújar has overcome the first critical juncture —the marathon stage, now the 48H Chrono, which dealt a fatal blow to his engine last year. The 2021 Dakar champion, who has since been unable to finish the Dakar, is out for revenge. The Argentinian leads the pack with a buffer of more than 20 minutes on the back-to-back title holder, Alexandre Giroud. One of the movers and shakers of the first few stages, the Brazilian Marcelo Medeiros, is third. The 2023 World Cup winner is fifth, over 4 hours from the front of the race.   Audi starts with a bang Nasser Al Attiyah's switch to Prodrive, Seth Quintero and Lucas Moraes rising to fill his shoes in Toyota Gazoo Racing, and Audi's debut in the championship were the three game-changers that everyone was buzzing about for W2RC Season 3. They all remain in the race following the first week of racing in the Dakar, but the reigning world champion has been brought back down to Earth. The German maker emerged triumphant from the Empty Quarter, with Carlos Sainz and Mattias Ekström leading the charge, followed closely by Lucas Moraes, their closest pursuer among the championship entrants. Nasser Al Attiyah, slotted into third place overall ahead of the 48H Chrono on what was supposed to be his stomping ground, ended up 2 h 41′21″ behind "El Matador", due to a front-end breakdown. As soon as the special drew to a close, the two-time reigning world champion made no secret of his revamped game plan: hunting podium spots over the next six stages, racking up championship points and keeping pace with the front-runners following the Dakar. Using this strategy, Loeb even managed to finish the race ahead of the Qatari winner last year, thanks to a bumper harvest of seven stage wins, including a six-banger streak —an all-time record! Al Attiyah, aware that the championship is far from a lost cause, will switch to "Al Attack" mode. As things stand, the Qatari is leading the virtual ranking with 14 points to his name to Sainz's 13. Yazeed Al Rajhi faces a steeper climb. The W2RC runner-up had started the Dakar in his usual consistent fashion. However, a nasty spill in the dunes near the start of stage 6 torpedoed his dreams of clinching his maiden Dakar title. The local hero will not be heading to Yanbu for the Dakar's second act, making a premature exit with a big fat zero in the championship column. He has his work cut out for him for the rest of the season, but if there is one driver who can turn this situation around, it is the Saudi human metronome. Fourth among the W2RC entrants, Guillaume de Mevius is kicking off his Ultimate campaign in style. Overdrive Racing's fresh recruit is 5′47″ behind Moraes in the other Hilux, putting him in a prime position to capitalise on the overconfidence of drivers further ahead and soar to the podium. The two Audi drivers and the two first-timers in their Hiluxes are the standout performers of the opening week of the Dakar. The verdict will be pronounced in Yanbu!   In the Challenger class, the 19-year-old Eryk Goczał has left the veterans fighting for scraps. Mitch Guthrie took a win in stage 3 and "Chaleco" López nabbed stage 5, but Eryk has been perched at the summit of the ranking since it all began in the Start Camp. The young Pole holds a lead of more than one hour over his closest pursuers and more than two hours over Rokas Baciuška (Can-Am Factory). Last season's number one in SSV accompanied Goczał the Younger in his switch to Challenger.   Yasir Seaidan is stealing the show in the SSV race, proving wrong all the pundits who predicted a rematch between Sara Price and João Ferreira following their epic clash in the Rallye du Maroc. It was wrong to overlook the experienced Saudi, who has a shade under 3 minutes in hand over the American and a whopping 17 minutes over the Portuguese, who fell prey to a mechanical straight off the bat. It has become clear that this class will be the real nail-biter of this Dakar. The next few stages will be decisive.