Nasser Al Attiyah heads in to the 2012 Dakar Rally as the reigning champion and favorite, but with lack of works entries from Volkswagen and Mitsubishi he knows this year's rally could be one of the closest in its history.
Moreover the former works VW driver has switched machinery himself for this year's campaign and is set to drive a Hummer developed by Robbie Gordon's off-road team. He spoke prior to the event, which begins in earnest on Jan. 1 at Mar del Plata in the south of Argentina.
Q. The Hummer's going to be quite a different car to the VW, isn't it?
Nasser Al Attiyah: It is, I know. Very different. The whole thing will be a different challenge for me. One of the main things is that the car is two-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive. It's not four-wheel drive like the Touareg was, but I think this can be an advantage at times.
Q. What's the hardest thing about Dakar?
Al Attiyah: It's staying clever all of the time and all of the time remembering that this is the Dakar - a very long race. The Hummer's not going to be a difficult car to drive, but we have to find the places which will suit that car and then really push.
Q. Have you identified some sections which will suit the car?
Al Attiyah: Absolutely, yes. The route is new, but we have an idea of what is coming with the event and we know which places will suit the car the best. When the road is fast, we believe we will be able to push the Hummer harder and make some time out of the four-wheel drive cars there. Also, where the road is very bumpy and rocky, we should also be able to make the best use of the Hummer's bigger suspension travel. This car is based on something more like a buggy, whereas the VW was more based around a normal car; the Hummer should be able to go anywhere.
Q. Is it better or worse without the enormous build-up of a VW Dakar program?
Al Attiyah: I think it's giving me less headaches. For the last three years, everything has been very intensive, but this time I feel more relaxed about things. Maybe this is partly because I won the event last year as well.
Q. Has the win given you more confidence?
Al Attiyah: I feel good confidence from the inside. I have plenty of experience of the race and I have a good idea of what is coming from Dakar.
Q. But the route has changed?
Al Attiyah: Yes, we won't start from Buenos Aires, which is a shame - the crowds there were just incredible. But the organiser knows the good road and going up into Peru is very good as well. It will be a new adventure this time.
Q. What's the aim?
Al Attiyah: To win, of course! I want to be the first driver to win two Dakars in succession since Ari Vatanen. Ari Vatanen did this in 1990 and 1991 and he did it in different cars, first in the Peugeot and then in the Citroen. This is my chance to do the same thing in different cars.
Q. You have great experience of Dakar and now you're obviously a Citroen factory driver in the WRC as well. How does Dakar compare with WRC?
Al Attiyah: You can't really compare the two. But with the way some of the rallies are changing now, with more rallies going back to an endurance-style of event, I think my Dakar experience can help me more and more in the WRC. Look at rallies like Monte Carlo, this is quite different and a lot longer now. Okay, we won't be there because we're on the Dakar, but with other events like Argentina moving in the same direction, my experience of long competition will help me. It's about being able to concentrate for really long periods of time and to maintain competitive speeds for that time as well, it's not easy, but Dakar helps.
Q. It's going to be a busy year for you now...
Al Attiyah: It really is. Dakar is fantastic, but, with the support of the Qatar government, I am competing in the whole WRC from Sweden onward with the same car as Sebastien Loeb and Mikko Hirvonen, which is a dream for me. And, of course, I will be in London in the summer for the Olympics where I form part of the Qatar shooting team.