Friday, July 19, 2024

Wheels on 2024 W2RC Silly Season continue to turn

Nasser Al-Attiyah and Sébastien Loeb are the two biggest stars of rally raid today, but both might be headed for greener pastures in 2024.

Speaking with MARCA, Al-Attiyah revealed his contract with Toyota expires on 1 September, the final day of the World Rally-Raid Championship‘s next race Desafío Ruta 40. While Toyota will certainly want to keep him in their ranks and he intends to launch negotiations for such a possibility, he also noted he expects to be in talks with two other brands.

Already a two-time winner of the Dakar Rally and FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies champion he signed with Toyota in 2016, Al-Attiyah quickly turned the Toyota Hilux into one of the most successful rally raid vehicles of all time. Save for a retirement in his first try in 2017, he has never finished worse than second at Dakar with victories in 2019, 2022, and 2023, while also claiming the final World Cup title followed by the inaugural World Rally-Raid Championship in 2022. He currently leads the W2RC standings after winning the Sonora Rally.

“My contract ends after Argentina, and it will be there when we will talk with Toyota and with two other manufacturers,” Al-Attiyah told MARCA. “We finish the contract in August and it will be then when we will look at it.”

Loeb sits second behind Al-Attiyah. He has raced for Prodrive and their rally raid factory team Bahrain Raid Xtreme since 2021, stringing back-to-back runner-up finishes at Dakar which included winning seven stages with six in a row at the 2023 edition.

However, there are rumours suggesting BRX’s primary backer Mumtalakat Holding Company has ended its funding of the team; Mumtalakat is the sovereign wealth fund of the Kingdom of Bahrain. While not enough to shutter the team entirely, the chatter speculated BRX would skip the Desafío Ruta 40 and focus on the season-ending Rallye du Maroc to prepare for the 2024 Dakar Rally, which would surrender the championship to Al-Attiyah.

MARCA suggested that had Prodrive won at Sonora, where Loeb was leading the overall before crashing in Stage #3, they “would surely go” to Argentina to continue the W2RC pursuit. However, since they failed to “even get on the podium, it is difficult for the team” to do so. Loeb racing the DR40 was already uncertain as his co-driver Fabian Lurquin fractured his shoulder in the wreck.

Even if BRX finishes out the season with Loeb, his contract with them is still reportedly set to expire at year’s end. Should either driver depart their outfits, there are still plenty of options in T1 and the T1+ subcategory.

M-Sport is perhaps one of the more intriguing options as they are developing the Ford Ranger T1+ to début in 2024. The team had signed Loeb’s BRX team-mate Nani Roma in early May and is also negotiating a deal with Laia Sanz to pilot a second entry, while principal Malcolm Wilson has expressed interest in fielding three Rangers total. Loeb is a natural candidate for the third ride, having run four World Rally Championship races for M-Sport in 2022 and winning the Monte Carlo Rally.

Al-Attiyah was asked by MARCA about Ford, to which he simply responded he had his own plans to follow but called the arrival of new manufacturers “very positive”.

Renault, who intends to return to rally raid in 2025 with the Dacia brand, has also been linked to Loeb. It would not be Loeb’s first time working with a fellow French team, having raced for Peugeot from 2016 to 2020; Bruno Famin, Peugeot’s boss for the first half of that stretch, is currently the director of Renault’s Alpine F1 Team. With Prodrive’s future in doubt should Bahrain’s sponsorship indeed be gone, French media has entertained the possibility of Prodrive also partnering with Renault.

Audi’s plans for 2024 are equally unknown. Despite much hype surrounding their RS Q e-tron E2 and its participation in the T1.U class, MARCA reported the brand is wary of returning due to the performance gap between them and the T1+ operations.

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