The Dakar Rally begins on Saturday in Saudi Arabia with race director David Castera telling AFP it would be worse to “turn one’s back” on the hosts over concerns about its human rights record.
Castera was speaking as just over 1000 competitors were fine-tuning the 578 cars, trucks and motorbikes which will bid for a third time to conquer the elements and the Saudi desert reaching its climax on January 14.
Saudi Arabia is increasingly becoming a host to major events including a Formula One Grand Prix — though seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton admitted he was uncomfortable racing there — and football matches.
Whilst some claim it is Saudi Arabia “sportswashing” their human rights record, Castera believes it is more an opening up and that the presence of two Saudi women on the start line — they have been permitted to drive in Saudi since 2018 — reflects this.
“I think that Formula 1, football, Extreme E, as well as the rest… Saudi Arabia has made a choice to open up via sport,” he said.
“Must we turn our back because not everything is as we wish it to be? I think that would be worse.
“This morning I was delighted to be beside a car with two women inside it, today I have two Saudi women at the start line of the Dakar.
“You can debate the point (of being here).
“But I believe that bringing all these people here a few years ago would have been unthinkable.
“There is the beginnings of an opening up of the country and to turn one’s back on countries like these would see them turn in on themselves even more.”
On the sporting front, South African veteran Giniel de Villiers will be hoping to win the car race for a second time and succeed champion Stephane Peterhansel.
The 49-year-old’s chances have improved with all-time record holder (14 wins including six in the motorbike category) Peterhansel’s Audi team — also that of three-time champion Carlos Sainz — saying their hybrid model is not capable of winning this year.
De Villiers, champion in 2009, believes he has a better chance of success this year than last year when he suffered a plethora of punctures.
“We did a lot of testing this year with the new car, really a lot of testing to get it to where it is now,” he told the Dakar website.
“It’s a big difference with the bigger wheels and more suspension. It is easier to drive in the sand.
“The last two years were really difficult with the tyre situation.
“I had twenty-four punctures last year and the year before it was almost twenty, so if you have that many it’s just impossible to fight.
“Let’s hope our fortunes change and we can get a good result this year.”
The motorbike category should also be a keenly contested affair which sees Kevin Benavides defend his crown but with two-time winner Toby Price and 2020 victor Ricky Brabec keen to reclaim his title.