Earlier this year, 51-year-old Qatari Nasser Al-Attiyah won his fourth Dakar Rally. In an interview with auto motor und sport, the Toyota works driver talks about the current boom in the off-road scene, the future of electric drives and the fascination of the Nordschleife.
We caught you just after testing for your home event in Qatar. As a local hero, do you still need to practice?
Al-Attiyah: Sure, every test is important for us! (laughs) Compared to previous events this year, the surface here is not that sandy, so we had to adjust our Toyota GR DKR Hilux T1+ for that.
The off-road scene is currently experiencing a real boom. One reason for this is the newly created World Rally Raid Championship with the highlight of the Dakar Rally. Is the scene set up better than ever?
Al-Attiyah: You could say that. With the new championship, the enthusiasm remains high even after the Dakar Rally, the large number of participants in the second round in Abu Dhabi recently confirmed the upward trend. That also drives us to become even better, because our car is still young and needs further development. This way we can prepare early for the next Dakar Rally.
With two events, the Middle East is the backbone of the new championship. Does this help with the development of motorsport in your home country?
Al-Attiyah: This region has ideal landscapes for our sport, so the timing for the new championship is perfect. Thanks to the Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia and other non-series events, there is plenty on offer throughout the year.
Some time has passed since your fourth Dakar victory. Have you been able to think about the events in peace?
Al-Attiyah: After two second places in 2020 and 2021 it was a relief. I've now won the Dakar Rally twice with Toyota, before that twice with different manufacturers. It makes me particularly happy to have clinched victory with the new Hilux. That shows how comfortable I feel in the Toyota family.
Keyword manufacturer: With Audi, a great new rival has entered the stage. How do you rate the performance of the Germans so far?
Al-Attiyah: Audi put a lot of weight into the new project and chose a bold concept for the cars. By winning the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, they have already proven that they still have a lot of potential.
In recent years, criticism has increased that the modern Dakar Rally has lost some of its marathon character. This year, navigation again played a bigger, more challenging role. Is the "old" Dakar back?
Al-Attiyah: When I first competed, the gaps in the top 10 were pretty big.With the new technology of recent years, however, the sport has become ever faster and narrower. Most recently, minute intervals decided on top results. Of course, slower, more demanding routes also have their appeal, but that makes life more difficult, especially for the private riders, since they are on the road longer and cannot gain as much previous experience as the big factory teams. In my opinion, the organizers are doing a good job in terms of balance.
Do you sometimes miss the Dakar in its original form?
Al-Attiyah: The earlier version in Africa was great, and I also liked the editions in South America. But to be honest: Nowadays we drive on a completely different level and benefit from the professional environment. In addition, I have a short journey. (laughs)
With Frenchman Mathieu Baumel, you have been using the same navigator for many years. How important is such a long relationship in off-road sport?
Al-Attiyah: Mathieu and I drive together a lot - not only cross-country, but also rally events. This close cooperation brings with it a great deal of experience and provides the basis for success. We enjoy what we do and would never fight. If something goes wrong, we both immediately do everything we can to solve the problems. This turned into a real friendship - otherwise we couldn't stand it with each other 300 days a year. (laughs)
As a member of the Toyota motorsport family, you must be following the new WRC season with great interest. Your impression so far?
Al-Attiyah: I'm very excited about the new cars and everyone in our scene dreams of driving them. Toyota has proven once again that they have a knack for good new developments.
Can you imagine chasing through the desert with a hybrid system soon?
Al Attiyah: Why not! Motor sports should stay close to developments on the road and be open to environmentally friendly technology.
As part of the Extreme E series, you were able to gain initial experience with all-electric off-road racers.
Al-Attiyah: It's exciting to get a feel for it and to gain experience with this drive. In the future, however, the series has to develop further on the technical side, the focus is currently still on entertainment.
Your colleague Sébastien Ogier is currently preparing for an appearance at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Would more circuit races also be of interest to you?
Al-Attiyah: I love all kinds of motorsports, so absolutely. I am currently evaluating a possible appearance with a Toyota GR Supra GT4 at the 24 hours on the Nürburgring. I love this race and it would be a gift for me to take part in it for the third time.
Where does the passion for motorsport come from?
Al-Attiyah: When I was 19, a friend asked me to help him as a co-driver at a local rally. Immediately afterwards I wanted to get behind the wheel myself and was immediately enthusiastic. Our discipline is so challenging and demands so much from you. I am very grateful to have turned my passion into my profession.
At the age of 51 you are now one of the elder statesmen of rallying. But as you can see from Sébastien Loeb or Carlos Sainz Sr., that's by no means a disadvantage, is it?
Al-Attiyah: Of course I agree. In my early years I was still the typical youngster with a lot of mistakes, but over time I became more experienced and calmer. That is precisely the winning formula for events like the Dakar Rally. While you can benefit from youthful carelessness in short rallies, experience clearly outweighs ours. That's why there are almost never winners who are younger than 30.
You are a part-time sports shooter and won a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Do you already have plans for Paris?
Al-Attiyah: In preparation for Tokyo, I didn't feel good enough and decided not to take part. But after six participations with four final appearances, the fire still burns in me and I currently feel strengthened again. As in motorsport, I want to use the experience on the way to Paris to my advantage.
Are there intersections between marksmen and motorsport enthusiasts?
Al-Attiyah: Both sports are all about precision. The alternating training gives me more strength and endurance, maybe that's the secret of my success.