Ekstrom tops cars, Schareina bikes in Dakar prologue surprises

Dakar 2024 started with 418 entries coming under starter’s orders for a quick 24 kilometre Prologue and a few surprises around Al’Ula in the Arabian Desert on Friday.

Although the day’s result is purely academic as it merely sets Saturday’s starting order, and many hid their true pace, the Prologue often reveals unexpected results and combinations to watch in the coming fortnight and the results certainly produced a few surprises.

Sixth on the road among the car entries, DTM and Rallycross star Mattias Ekström and Emil Bergkvist were quickest in qualifying aboard their petrol-electric Audi. American side-by side graduate Seth Quintero and Dennis Zenz were second on their maiden made in SA Toyota Gazoo Racing Hilux run. Nine-time World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb and Fabian Lurquin, and Brazilian teammates Marcus Baumgart and Kleber Cineca, and Christiaan Baumgart and Andrea Andreoletti followed in the three quickest Prodrive Hunters

Ever present on the Dakar, Pole Krzysztof Holowczyc and Lukasz Kurzeja’s Mini was sixth from Mr. Dakar, Frenchman Stéphane Peterhansel and Edouard Boulanger’s second Audi. French couple Lionel and Lucie Baud’s Toyota Hilux was another surprise in eighth from privateers Martin Prokop and Viktor Chytka’s Ford Raptor. Johannesburg’s Brian Baragwanath and Leonard Cremer will be happy to start tenth on the debut of their Ultimate T1+ class 4x4 Century Racing CR-7T. Defending champions Qatari Nasser Al-Attiyah and Mathieu Baumel’s Prodrive Hunter will set off 12th on Saturday.

Of other South African interest, Brazilian Lucas Moraes Lucas and Armand Monleon start 14th in their Gazoo Hilux, ahead of Nani Roma and Alex Haro Bravo’s SA-built M-Sport NWR Ford Ranger and Frenchmen Mathieu Serradori and Loic Minaudier’s T1.2 class leading rear-driven Century CR6-T. Teen rookie Saood Variawa eased into his debut in 22nd alongside Frenchman Francois Cazaletare aboard their Gazoo Hilux.

Wei Han and Li Ma were the quickest of the SA-built Red-Lined REVO+ entries in 25th, three places clear of Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer’s M-Sport NWR Ford Ranger. They have SA crew Guy Botterill and Brett Cummings’ Gazoo Hilux and Carlos Sainz Snr and Lucas Cruz in the third hybrid Audi between them and teen lady sensation Aliyyah Koloc in another Red-Lined REVO+ in 34th . Hennie de Klerk and Juan Möhr’s WCT built TreasuryONE Hilux starts 39th ahead of Saudi home hero Yazeed Al Rajhi and Timo Gottschalk in a Hallspeed Hilux. Giniel de Villiers and Dennis Murphy have their work cut out, provisionally starting down in 43rd on Saturday aboard their Gazoo Hilux.

The day started with the quads and then the motorcycle prologue, with riders setting off in reverse order. First of the pro riders home, Spaniard Tosha Schareina made his name known by going quickest aboard his Honda and stayed there. He fended off Aussie Daniel Sanders GasGas and Botswana Dakar hero Ross Branch riding his Hero.

Behind them, Frenchman Adrien van Beveren’s Honda starts Saturday fourth, ahead of 2023 winner Argentine Luciano Benavides’ Husqvarna and British former double Dakar winner Sam Sunderland’s GasGas in sixth. He will be followed away by Chilean Pablo Quintanilla’s Honda, factory KTM duo, Aussie Toby Price, and Argentine Kevin Benavides KTM. The bike story of the day however revolves around the man in twelfth.

With the reverse order start, it did not take too long for the first wildcard to emerge, although multiple South African motocross and Cross Country champion, Dakar rookie Kerim Fitz-Gerald’s pace on his BAS KTM came as little surprise to many. He put three minutes on the rest of the field and it stayed that way until the next 60 machines had finished, when the gap only started to come down slowly.

The big guns were however all still to come, but Fitz-Gerald’s pace was good enough to secure the quickest amateur R2 time in twelfth overall and ahead of several of the GP class pros. Of the other Southern Africans, SA cross country champion Bradley Cox KTM was 21st overall and fourth in R2.

2023 Malle Moto winner Charan Moore enjoyed a steady qualifying to see him lining up 34th on his Husqvarna, six places clear of South African 2023 rookie winner, Michael Docherty 40th on his KTM. Another SA rider, rookie Ronald Venter impressed in 42nd on his KTM, while no-service Malle Moto rider Stuart Gregory ended 114th on his KTM, and Zimbabwean Husqvarna rider Ashley Thixton starts Saturday in 121st.

In the other classes, it was a Goczal family affair as Eryk and Oriol Mena beat Michal and Szymon Gospodarczyk and World Rally star Kris Meeke and Wouter Rosegaar to T3 Challenger honours. Former motorcycle hero, the Marquis Xavier De Soultrait and Martin Bonnet sped to Side by Side T4 honours for Sebastien Loeb Racing from Portuguese duo João Ferreira and Filipe Palmeiro, and Florent Vayssade and Nicolas Rey’s second Loeb Racing machine

Janus Van Kasteren, Darek Rodewald and Marcel Snijders were the quickest of the Dakar trucks for Iveco from Praga trio, Ales Loprais, Jaroslav Valtr and Jiri Stross. Mitchel van den Brink, Moises Torrallardona and Jarno Van De Polstart third in another Iveco. And Argentine Francisco Moreno Flores claimed pole position among the quads from compatriot Manuel Andujar and French rider Alexandre Giroud.

Dakar’s first full stage is a 532 km race to Al Henakiyah on Saturday.