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Champion Al-Attiyah shooting for his sixth Dakar title

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Nasser Al-Attiyah hopes to be shooting for a medal at his seventh Olympics later in the year but the Qatari's immediate sights are set on winning the Dakar Rally for the sixth time and third in a row.

Rallying - Dakar Rally - Alula, Saudi Arabia - January 3, 2024 Nasser Racing's Nasser Al-Attiyah at Dakar camp Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed

Nasser Al-Attiyah hopes to be shooting for a medal at his seventh Olympics later in the year but the Qatari's immediate sights are set on winning the Dakar Rally for the sixth time and third in a row.

The 53-year-old rally driver, a skeet (clay pigeon) bronze medallist at the 2012 Games, has yet to qualify for Paris but sets out on Friday as a favourite at the wheel in the Saudi desert.

Al-Attiyah and co-driver Mathieu Baumel have switched from Toyota to Prodrive in the top car category and can become the first to win the Dakar with four different constructors.

The Qatari's 'Nasser Racing' Hunter T1+ will be the same as that driven by France's nine times world rally champion Sebastien Loeb for the Bahrain Raid Xtreme team.

Loeb, who has finished runner-up for the past two years, will be both team mate and main rival.

"Over the years I have won with three different manufacturers in Rally Raid, but to win with a fourth car is a big target for us," said Al-Attiyah, who won in 2011 with Volkswagen, 2015 with Mini and in 2019, 2022 and 2023 with Toyota and will race for Renault-owned Dacia next year.

Only two others have won three car Dakars in a row -- Finland's Ari Vatanen in 1989-1991 and Frenchman Pierre Lartigue from 1994-96.

"We have a good feeling, we won the first race we competed with the Hunter in Dubai (in November)," said Al-Attiyah last month.

"We just need to learn a little bit and prepare ourselves mentally with the new teams. I think we can do it."

Young Californian Seth Quintero has joined the five car Toyota factory team in the top T1+ category alongside South Africa's 2009 winner Giniel de Villiers and Saudi Arabia's Yazeed al Rajhi.

Three times Dakar winner Carlos Sainz, the 61-year-old father of the Ferrari Formula One driver, returns with Audi as does France's record 14 times winner Stephane Peterhansel, 58.

Audi will again be bidding to become the first to win with an electric-hybrid car.

Ford will be making its Dakar debut as a constructor with Spaniard Joan 'Nani' Roma, an overall winner on two wheels in 2004 and with Mini in the car category in 2014.

Saudi Arabia's Dania Akeel joins Spaniards Cristina Gutierrez and Laia Sainz as top female entrants.

Argentina's Kevin Benavides, the defending champion in the motorcycle category with KTM, will be chasing a third title after recovering from a recent leg injury.

The 46th edition of the rally, held in Saudi Arabia for the fifth time, features a prologue and 12 stages spread out over 7,891km from Alula in the north to Yanbu on the Red Sea.

The big novelty is a 48-Hour Chrono Stage in which contenders race through the kingdom's Empty Quarter with marathon stage restrictions and eight different bivouacs.

The Empty Quarter action also features separate tracks for the cars/trucks and motorcycles/quads to put a premium on navigation skills and remove the possibility of car drivers following the bikes.

The rally began in 1978 as a race from Paris across the Sahara to the Senegalese capital but switched to South America in 2009 for security reasons. It moved to Saudi Arabia in 2020 and is now the flagship of the FIA world rally-raid championship.

Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Pritha Sarkar

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