Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Benediktas Vanagas: Saudi Arabia “can have many different Dakars”, but “everyone wants to feel other countries” too

The Dakar Rally will return to Saudi Arabia for the fifth year in a row in 2024, and the country is set to continue hosting the event through 2029. While competitors are fine with this as Saudi Arabia offers sweeping deserts and particularly difficult terrain, some were hoping for some of it to take place in neighbouring countries too.

Benediktas Vanagas is one of those echoing such sentiments. Speaking with Cross-Country Rally News after the Dakar Rally presentation in Prague, he expressed an interest in seeing the Dakar Rally expand beyond its current Saudi base, though he acknowledged Saudi Arabia is already large enough that even running multiple rallies would not cover its massive deserts.

Much of the interest for a multi-national Dakar stems from providing more variety and access to other populations. The original Paris–Dakar Rally route began in Europe before running through northern Africa, while its time in South America crossed the borders of countries like Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru, with only the 2019 race exclusively taking place in Peru.

Nearly every Saudi neighbour including the Kingdom itself hosts international rally raids, with Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates all having dates on the FIA Middle East Cup for Cross-Country Bajas. Qatar, Jordan, and the UAE also welcome the FIA and FIM Bajas World Cups, while the UAE’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is part of the World Rally-Raid Championship like Dakar.

Dakar race director David Castera has also not ruled out the possibility of crossing borders, but stressed that it would only be practical if the Rally stayed in a nearby country for multiple stages due to the logistics of customs and immigrations.

“We want something new every time. I can understand organisers, every time they do some really big change, it’s quite difficult,” Vanagas commented. “I believe that Saudi Arabia wants to keep Dakar inside the country, but I think everyone wants to feel other countries also as well.

“That would be nice if that would happen in the future, even though Saudi Arabia is huge country. I mean, we can have many different Dakars inside of that.”

The route for 2024 was revealed in June, with sixty percent of it being new areas not previously visited in the 2020 through 2023 editions. It will begin on 5 January in Al-‘Ula and go southwest as far as the Eastern Province near the border with Oman before turning around and ending on 19 January along the Red Sea coast.

One of the biggest additions for the 2024 Rally is the 48-hour Chrono Stage, which replaces the Empty Quarter Marathon with a two-day stage lasting roughly 600 kilometres. Due to its length, competitors are required to stop at one of eight base camps at 4 PM of the first day before continuing at 7 AM the next. While intrigue runs high, many like Vanagas were not completely sure how about its mechanics at the moment; he described it as “a bit different format. Interesting. I still don’t understand exactly how it will work, but we will get information and and that will be clear.”

Vanagas is set for his twelfth Dakar Rally, hoping to rebound after retiring from the last two due to massive crashes. He was one of seven Lithuanians at the 2023 Rally, with Vaidotas Žala also competing in the T1 category. While the Baltic state might not be known as a rally raid hotbed, interest in Dakar has grown over the years.

“Lithuania is a country where per capita, is the most participating crews. We have three million population and we had ten crews I think two Dakars ago,” Vanagas continued. “Very small country and a very big amount of competitors. We feel welcome and I don’t believe there is another country in the world where Dakar is known by 98% of population and people are interested in Dakar—it’s about 72.3%, so more than half people in Lithuania are interested in that. It’s big numbers, huge numbers.”

Since Dakar, Vanagas has raced in the European Cup for Cross-Country Bajas and even tested an Extreme E car. His Toyota Hilux T1+, nicknamed “BlackHawk” has also seen action with other drivers such as twice reigning Dakar champion Nasser Al-Attiyah and João Ramos, both of whom won in their first races with BlackHawk.