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2023 Rallye du Maroc: W2RC season comes to close in Stage 5

The 2023 World Rally-Raid Championship season wrapped up Wednesday with a “simple” 152-kilometre dash to Merzouga to conclude the Rallye du Maroc, but headlines and championship pictures pervaded the paddock entering the leg.

Ironically, none of the W2RC winners on Wednesday won the championship. Save for the attrition-heavy Open classes where Jérôme Cambier and Tomas Mickus were among the few to complete the rally, João Ferreira and Alexandre Giroud were the only Stage #5 winners who also claimed the overall in their categories.

Ferreira held off Sebastián Guayasamín to win in T4 by seventeen minutes, aided by the latter receiving a six-minute penalty. Giroud only needed to worry about Juraj Varga, but the latter struggled to a fifth-place finish that enabled Giroud to pull away for the Quad victory; Varga was still the highest finisher in the W2RC and thus received maximum points in that department.

With his fellow rivals dropping to the bottom of the T1 rankings on Tuesday, Yazeed Al-Rajhi was in the clear to win the overall after second-placed Stéphane Peterhansel stopped just twenty-eight kilometres into the stage with a mechanical issue, though he ultimately ended without any stage wins after getting a ten-second time penalty that allowed Orlando Terranova to win by five seconds. Terranova is the only driver besides Sébastien Loeb to win a W2RC stage in 2023 for Prodrive.

Nasser Al-Attiyah, with the title clinched and leading the overall until he and Loeb were among the Stage #4 victims, retired again after completing just six kilometres.

2023 Rallye du Maroc: Eryk Goczal, team reprimanded for rescue fire

Eryk Goczał is under fire from the FIA for starting a literal fire during Stage #2 of the Rallye du Maroc while he was stranded in the desert with a broken-down car. Although he intended to use the fire to signal for help from his team, it is illegal under Moroccan law which prompted the sanctioning body to issue a reprimand. Goczał has since apologised and donated €5,000 to the United Nations World Food Programme‘s Morocco chapter in compensation.

During the second leg of the rally on Monday, both the front and rear differentials broke on Goczał’s MCE-5 Taurus T3 Max. He and co-driver Oriol Mena stopped but could not make repairs themselves, so they were left waiting for their EnergyLandia Rally Team to arrive with assistance.

According to Goczał, matters were exacerbated by a lack of cell phone service in the desert and his location relayed to the team being inaccurate.

“Contrary to what you saw in the photos, the atmosphere was not nice at all, a lot of time passed and help didn’t arrive,” he explained. “We had no phone reception, after a few hours we managed to get some contact with the team, it turned out that the coordinates given to the mechanics were not correct. The place where we waited was very close to the Algerian border. Local residents warned that this area was not safe and that we need to get back to the bivouac in [Zagora] as soon as possible.”

Eventually, the duo “received information that the local assistant of our team suggested lighting a fire in the place where we were,” which would double as a smoke signal for the team. To do this, Goczał and Mena poured a canister of gasoline over nearby bushes with a trail a distance away that they ignited. Help finally arrived at the pair six hours later.

O’Donovan To Make World RX Debut in Hong Kong

British rallycross star Patrick O’Donovan will make the step up the the world stage at the final rounds of the 2023 FIA World Rallycross Championship. The reigning 5 Nations BRX champion will make the transition to the top level of world rallycross as part of Hansen World RX Team‘s effort in Hong Kong on 11/12 November.

The Team

The Hansen team will field three cars in the concluding double-header event of the year, with O’Donovan joining the fraternal pairing of Timmy and Kevin Hansen. The team will be racing the same ZEROID X1 machinery as the rest of the field, due to ongoing investigations following the fire that took place back in July. These cars are used in the support RX2e category, which both the team and O’Donovan have great experience with. Kevin Hansen runs #YellowSquad, the Hansen’s RX2e team, and O’Donovan completed two years in that class, taking a pair of victories in 2022.

Patrick O’Donovan in action in RX2e on his way to victory at Spa-Francorchamps in 2022. Credit: @World / Red Bull Content Pool

The teams have already had a chance to race the ZEROID X1 cars this year, most recently in South Africa, where Kevin Hansen managed to secure a double podium, finishing second on both Saturday and Sunday. Not only are all of the drivers working with the same machinery, but they are going to a circuit which will be brand new to all of them. With such experience and talent behind the wheel and such a level playing field, the team are clearly aiming to round off the 2023 season in style. Reigning champion Johan Kristoffersson is almost unassailably ahead in the points standings, but the Hansens and O’Donovan will want to make his life as difficult as possible on his quest for a sixth world title.

The Driver

O’Donovan, affectionately referred to as P.O.D by fans, has been making headlines ever since his rallycross debut. His father, Ollie O’Donovan, won the British rallycross championship back in 2007, and Patrick has been quick to make his own mark on the series. In 2022, he made history by becoming the youngest ever champion of the series, aged just 18.

Patrick and Ollie O’Donovan both reached the podium at Lydden Hill in July

In 2023, he has been competing in the 5 Nations British Rallycross Championship, including a memorable double victory at Lydden Hill in July. Simultaneously, he completed the 2023 FIA European Rallycross Championship, securing a podium in the opening round of the season and claiming a victory in Sweden. He finished third in the championship behind World RX heavyweights Anton Marklund and Janis Baumanis, an incredible achievement for his first ever full Euro RX campaign.

Hino Team Sugawara returning to Dakar Rally in 2024

Hino Team Sugawara will aim for their thirty-third completed Dakar Rally in a row in 2024. The lone Japanese manufacturer to compete in the T5 category for trucks will retain their Hino 600 hybrid truck that they used in the 2023 edition, though with various reliability upgrades. Team director Teruhito Sugawara will drive as he has done since 2005.

The team nearly missed the 2023 race, which would have snapped a streak of starts dating back to 1991, when their parent company Hino Motors was marred by a falsified emissions scandal that ruined its image in the Japanese motoring realm. Despite uncertainty that led to months of silence, the team eventually committed to the Dakar.

The Rally began on an inauspicious note when problems with the fuel system in the Prologue relegated them to the back, followed by two days plagued by tyre punctures and electrical issues. They ran as high as eighth at the halfway mark but rising water temperatures, a damaged fuel line, and even an accident forced them to settle for tenth in class.

“Despite the extremely difficult circumstances surrounding Hino Motors at the time, we were able to continue our participation in the 2023 event with the support and encouragement of many people,” said Sugawara. “Once again, I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to everyone on behalf of the team.

“The 2024 event, which will take us into the deepest parts of the Empty Quarter—often described as the ‘Desert of Death’—will be more gruelling than ever before and face us with dramatically higher degrees of difficulty. Against this backdrop, we invite you to expect great things as we are steadily preparing for the 2024 event working with the development staff at Hino Motors, aiming for a truck that is not only faster but also tougher and stronger than ever to surpass our 2023 results.

John Hunter Nemechek gets dress rehearsal start with Legacy at Homestead

John Hunter Nemechek might be Toyota’s top prospect today, but he will race a Chevrolet in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway as part of a unique arrangement. Legacy Motor Club announced Monday that Nemechek will drive the #42 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 at Homestead to provide him some experience with the team before he joins them for the full 2024 Cup calendar.

While it might seem unusual for a driver committed to a manufacturer to race for another, even if a one-off in a different series, the deal was made possible as Legacy will switch from Chevrolet to Toyota starting in 2024.

He replaces Carson Hocevar, who has been driving the #42 for the Cup Series playoffs save for the Charlotte Roval where Mike Rockenfeller did so. The team will put Hocevar back in the car for their final two races as a Chevrolet outfit at Martinsville and Homestead before he also graduates to the Cup Series in 2024.

“Thanks to our long-term partners at Chevy and our future partners of Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing, we have an opportunity to run one race this season with our future driver John Hunter Nemechek in the #42 car,” explained team co-owner Jimmie Johnson. “So just for one race, Carson’s going to step aside, he’s going to come and hang at the race and watch, and we’ll put Carson back in to close out the season.”

Nemechek ran the full Cup calendar in 2020 for Front Row Motorsports, finishing twenty-seventh in points before dropping down to the Truck Series to revitalise his career with Toyota. After a successful two-year stint there, he joined JGR’s Xfinity programme for 2023 and currently leads the standings with six wins.

Trevor Bayne joins Rackley WAR for Homestead Trucks

Trevor Bayne has been entrusted with Rackley WAR‘s #25 Chevrolet Silverado RST for Saturday’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“I definitely didn’t see this coming two weeks ago. This deal came together rather quickly,” admitted Bayne. “Willie Allen and Curtis Sutton have been working very hard over the past few years to improve their Truck programme. The results have shown all season with their consistent top-ten runs.

“I look forward to working together with crew chief Chad Kendrick and the Rackley WAR team and produce a strong run this weekend. Homestead-Miami has always been good to me, including last season when we were on the pole and ran sixth in the Xfinity race. I’m thankful to the group for the opportunity to be back behind the wheel.”

Bayne last raced in the Truck Series on an eight-race schedule for Niece Motorsports in 2020, which in turn was his first action in any NASCAR national division since losing his Cup Series ride after 2018. He scored two top tens during his part-time slate including a runner-up at Talladega.

Since 2022, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner has also been dabbling in the Xfinity Series with Joe Gibbs Racing. In twelve races for the team, he has eight top tens, five top fives, a best run of second twice, and two poles. One of the poles came at Homestead where he finished sixth.

2023 Rallye du Maroc: Martin Macik Jr. disqualified

Martin Macík Jr.‘s World Rally-Raid Championship pursuit has come to an abrupt end. On Tuesday evening, following the fourth and penultimate stage of the season-ending Rallye du Maroc, FIA stewards announced Macík has been disqualified from the rally because his truck’s turbocharger restrictor did not meet regulations. He had been leading the overall prior prior to the penalty.

After Stage #4 on Tuesday, the FIA Technical Delegate raised a report about multiple T5 trucks and their engine restrictors. Under Article 287, Section 5.7.2 of the FIA International Sporting Code’s Appendix J, “all engines must be fitted with an air restrictor. All the air necessary for feeding the engine must pass through this restrictor, which must comply with Article 284-6.1, except for its internal maximum diameter which is 74 mm.”

A hearing was conducted in the evening. According to the stewards’ report, Macík conceded he was unable to explain why his truck’s restrictor had the incorrect dimensions; after his team measured the offending part for confirmation, they argued it was unlikely to create a performance advantage. Nonetheless, the FIA ruled that under Article 1.3.3 of the ISC, non-compliant vehicles have “no defence to claim that no performance advantage was obtained.”

“The stewards conclude that, in view of the clear provisions of the relevant regulations, it was indeed up to the competitor to ensure that the restrictor was compliant during Rallye du Maroc 2023,” the report continued. “If the competitor wishes, he can ask the Technical Delegate or scrutineers during the pre-event scrutineering to check the restrictor.

“The International Court of Appeal has already deemed in the past that in ‘exceptional circumstances, the objective responsibility of a competitor for a case of non-compliance of its car can lead to a less severe sanction than disqualification.’ The stewards cannot see any exceptional circumstances in this matter.”

2023 Rallye du Maroc: Contenders fall in Stage 4

Stage #4 of the Rallye du Maroc was described by organiser David Castera as “the most beautiful, varied and difficult one of the rally.” The last descriptor was disturbingly accurate as Tuesday’s action saw the frontrunners in nearly every class suffer some kind of misfortune that drastically shook up the overall results entering the final day.

The wave of trouble hit the T1 category especially hard with three of the top five cars experiencing problems. Leader Nasser Al-Attiyah and Carlos Sainz both screeched to a halt at the 332-kilometre mark, just eleven km before the finish, at nearly identical moments. Sébastien Loeb, who was chasing down Al-Attiyah in the overall, got stuck in a crevice created by the bikes that started the stage. Fifth-placed Guerlain Chicherit was the fastest car at the halfway point before overshooting and rolling his Toyota Hilux.

“I caught Nasser very early. I think he had a puncture before, so he changed the wheel,” recapped Loeb. “I was in his dust, but he was already in the dust of (Mattias) Ekström. So I tried to catch, because I knew if I pass in front of Nasser, it’s already three minutes. I got him a few times on the Sentinel (tracking system), he didn’t let me pass, then finally he let me pass. I was driving fast, and it was a very tricky navigation point, where Ekström missed the point, he went straight. Then we passed Ekström, so I didn’t have to overtake him.

“I was first on the track, just doing my job and trying to keep the rhythm. I didn’t know if the other was following behind. I didn’t know if he was twenty metres behind or two kilometres behind, I had no idea, so I tried to keep the rhythm, and this was, again, the very tricky point for the first car. All the motorbikes went on this line. The line was not 100% correct, we were ten metres too much on the right, but the bikes jumped over the hole, and I just saw it when I was in.”

Sainz’s team-mate and Stage #3 winner Ekström had two tyre punctures that relegated him to a conservative strategy and he finished eighth. Their other Audi colleague Stéphane Peterhansel took advantage of the drama to record his first World Rally-Raid Championship stage win since the last leg of the 2022 Rallye du Maroc (as an Open Car entry) ahead of Loeb’s team-mate Orlando Terranova.

Dakar Rally bike veteran Francois Flick dies in accident

François Flick, a veteran of the Dakar Rally on a bike saddle and navigator’s seat, died Monday evening at the age of 59 in a car accident in Bizenuille, France. The accident occurred when the sports car he and his friend Brumo Lamy were driving went off the road and into a tree, killing both.

Flick raced the Dakar Rally on a Honda 400 XR from 1998 to 2005. In his debut race, he won the opening stage running from Paris to Narbonne. He scored three top-ten overall finishes with a best run of seventh in 2000, followed by a tenth in 2003 and ninth the next year.

While 2005 was his final Dakar as a bike rider, he eventually became the co-driver of a SMG buggy developed and driven by Le Mans veteran Philippe Gache that finished eighth in the 2008 Central Europe Rally, which replaced the Dakar Rally following its cancellation for that year. The Dakar was eventually moved to South America and Flick rejoined Gache for 2015, though they failed to finish.

Outside of racing, Flick ran an armoury and cutlery at the Boulevard de Courtais in Montluçon, which was founded by his father in 1948.

His son Xavier Flick has followed in his footsteps, running the Dakar Rally in 2021. After the news of his father’s death, Xavier withdrew from the ongoing Rallye du Maroc to return to France.

Vaidotas Zala returning to Dakar Rally in 2024

Vaidotas Žala lost most of his sponsors after a disappointing end to the 2023 Dakar Rally, but has found a saviour. On Tuesday, he announced Lithuanian logistics company Arijus Group has become the new title sponsor for his team—dubbing it Arijus Racing—and confirmed he will return to Dakar in 2024.

Teltonika, a telecommunications firm, ended its title sponsorship of Žala’s team in late January after two years together.

“The last eight months have been some of the most difficult in my career,” wrote Žala. “We had a bunch of technical problems in Dakar and when we came back we lost a lot of funding. I’m so glad that Arijus gave us a second chance and lowered the ladder into the pit.

“Until recently, it seemed that Dakar would be out of our reach, but we can set off again. I will do my best to take advantage of this opportunity!”

Žala has raced the Dakar Rally since 2016 as a privateer bouncing between various manufacturers including SEAT, Toyota, and Mini. In 2020, he became the first Lithuanian to win a Dakar stage. He joined up with Prodrive to drive a Hunter at the 2023 Rally under the Teltonika Racing banner with support from Bahrain Raid Xtreme.

Ryan Blaney’s Las Vegas disqualification overturned

Ryan Blaney is probably the first NASCAR Cup Series driver to be… undisqualified? Is that the term we’re using?

After his sixth in Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was relegated to a last-place finish when his #12 Ford Mustang failed post-race inspection, NASCAR announced Monday that the disqualification has been overturned.

The penalty in particular was a violation of Section of the rulebook concerning the damper on the left front shock. The rule stipulates the damper must be at least 22.55 inches (57.27 cm) long for oval tracks, with inspectors finding the part on Blaney’s car was not up to spec.

Further inspection the next day eventually found the template used in the inspection itself did not meet regulation.

“After further review of the inspection process throughout this weekend’s events at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, NASCAR has rescinded the #12 disqualification penalty,” reads a statement from the sanctioning body. “Monday morning during its race weekend debrief, NASCAR discovered an issue with the damper template used for inspection. NASCAR then conducted a detailed investigation, and has restored the #12’s stage and race finishing positions from Sunday.

TRANSCRIPT: TCF Interview with Austin Jones

On 15 October, during a break at the Rallye du Maroc, two-time reigning Dakar Rally winner Austin Jones fielded some questions from The Checkered Flag via Cross-Country Rally News about his chase for the World Rally-Raid Championship along with his opinions on the rally raid scene and 2024 season.

The full transcript of the interview is available below. Some text has been altered from the actual dialogue to improve readability.

An article on the interview can be read here.


TCF: Going into Morocco, there are about nine points separating you, Seth Quintero, and Mitch Guthrie, with you and Mitch being separated by just three points.  How difficult has the championship been for you, especially racing against your fellow American Red Bull drivers this year?

AJ: This year, it’s been really hard. I’m going up against Seth and Mitch and we’re all really fast and those guys have had really good years as well, so it’s been really hard. We’ve been lucky enough to podium every single race this year, so that’s something that I don’t think anyone has done besides for us. Really happy with that. Yeah, it’s been a hard year. Every stage matters, every day matters, every kilometre matters. It’s been hard.

W2RC Next Gen Tryouts to take place after Rallye du Maroc

The T3 class is generally the last stepping stone before reaching the top level of rally raid in T1. To this end, the World Rally-Raid Championship has organised a special test session in which five T3 drivers will get to drive T1+ vehicles.

Dubbed the W2RC Next Gen Tryouts, the test is scheduled for Thursday at the conclusion of the Rallye du Maroc and will take place on a seventeen-kilometre loop outside the bivouac in Merzouga, Morocco. Dania Akeel, Rokas Baciuška, Mitch Guthrie, Cristina Gutiérrez, and Seth Quintero will take part; all five are Red Bull-sponsored athletes.

Save for BAIC ORV, every T1+ manufacturer will provide a car for them to drive with Toyota being the lone company supplying two. Toyota Gazoo Racing and Overdrive Racing will respectively bring the #200 and #201 Hiluxes driven by Nasser Al-Attiyah and Yazeed Al-Rajhi; the former won the 2022 and 2023 driver’s and manufacturer’s championships. Sébastien Loeb‘s #203 Prodrive Hunter prepared by Bahrain Raid Xtreme will be available, as will M-Sport‘s #211 Ford Ranger piloted by Nani Roma and the #212 Mini John Cooper Works Rally Plus of X-raid Team and Krzysztof Hołowczyc. Gutiérrez’s #303 Can-Am Maverick X3 T3 is also set to take part in the test.

To make the test happen, all six vehicles were given approval by the FIA to undergo repairs shortly after the Rallye du Maroc ends before being heading out for the afternoon, on the terms that the drivers taking part have a signed waiver from the organiser and wear the proper safety equipment. The cars are also required to return to parc fermé once the tryout is complete.

“As an exceptional case and for promotional reasons (in order to improve the promotion of the FIA W2RC, it is allowed to give the opportunity for the young drivers to test T1+ cars on a 20km loop near the Merzouga bivouac,” explained the FIA stewards. “Since the promotional activity will be after the end of Stage 5 it will have no affect to all other competitors.”

2023 Rallye du Maroc: Mattias wins Stage 3 as Matthias crashes out

The Rallye du Maroc‘s RallyGP body count added another victim Monday when Matthias Walkner crashed just 400 metres after starting Stage #3. On the four-wheeled side, his similarly named peer Mattias Ekström snapped Nasser Al-Attiyah‘s stage win streak, barely beating the newly crowned World Rally-Raid Champion for the T1 victory by just six seconds.

The top three in T1 was separated by fourteen seconds with Sébastien Loeb in third. Ekström took the lead from Guerlain Chicherit after the first waypoint while Al-Attiyah and Loeb followed. Both tried to narrow the gap but ran out of time and Ekström scored Audi’s second stage win of 2023.

Despite the win, Ekström is nearly an hour and forty minutes back of Al-Attiyah in the overall due to a missed waypoint penalty in Stage #1. Al-Attiyah, who clinched his second consecutive title on Sunday, leads Loeb by 6:16. Chicherit, a new Toyota colleague of Al-Attiyah who previously raced a Prodrive like Loeb, dropped to tenth after being caught up in dust left behind by the leaders.

Ekström’s Team Audi Sport team-mate Stéphane Peterhansel finished sixth while Carlos Sainz suffered a mechanical issue after 112 kilometres that forced him to stop for two hours to make repairs.

Vehicle gremlins also attacked T3 championship leader Mitch Guthrie, which his Red Bull Off-Road Junior Team allies Seth Quintero and Austin Jones seized upon. Although both missed the stage podium, Guthrie’s exit moves Jones up to third in the general classification while Quintero’s new closest rival for the overall is Marek Goczał, who is four-and-a-half minutes back (Guthrie trailed Quintero by 1:22 after Sunday).

Pau Navarro on T1.1 vs. T1+: “We had a touch of reality when Nasser passed me”

The Rallye du Maroc marked Pau Navarro‘s first race in the top T1 category after contesting much of the calendar in the production side-by-side vehicle class of T4. Although a massive leap as drivers typically progress from T4 to T3 before making the jump to T1, it did not take long for the teenager to get adapted to unusual surroundings as he led the T1.1 subcategory following the opening stage.

It also did not take long for him to realise the sheer power that his new rivals possessed, especially in the T1+ subdivision.

His Toyota Hilux is prepared by his T4 outfit FN Speed Team for T1.1 competition. By comparison, the Hilux T1+ like those fielded by Toyota Gazoo Racing and Overdrive Racing have technical advantages such as larger wheels at 37 inches (93.98 cm) to T1.1’s 32 inches (81.28 cm), a larger tread width of 320 millimetres versus 245 mm, and 350 mm of suspension travel instead of 280 mm. While the untrained eye might not see much difference between a T1+ and T1.1, the performance disparity enables the former to outclass the other as well as the adjacent T1.2 on most days.

Navarro got to witness this firsthand during Stage #1 of the Rallye du Maroc on Saturday. He finished the leg seventeenth in T1 and beat the seven other T1.1 entries, though his time was 31-and-a-half minutes behind stage winner Nasser Al-Attiyah. Al-Attiyah, who races a T1+ for TGR and clinched the World Rally-Raid Championship on Sunday, started the stage six cars after Navarro after a mechanical problems set him back in the Prologue but quickly blasted by him once on track.

“We had a touch of reality when Nasser passed me, leaving a dust that I had never seen before,” said Navarro. “The heart tells you to accelerate to follow him but the head stops you because we would have spun or punctured the tyres. The car that Nasser and other T1+ drivers drive has more suspension travel and goes at a much faster pace, skidding even on rocky terrain. In the dunes, we lost about five minutes because we were going with (tyre) pressures that were too high for the sand. We were happy with today’s pace although we know we can go faster.”