Saudi Dakar Rally race director on steering the shift to sustainable tech in motor sports

David Castera, the race director of the Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia. (Supplied)
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Updated 03 January 2024

Saudi Dakar Rally race director on steering the shift to sustainable tech in motor sports

  • In an exclusive interview with Arab news, David Castera also details the intensive preparations for the annual event and how the Kingdom compares with previous hosts

RIYADH: Thanks to his sweeping journey from motor sports competitor to event mastermind, David Castera, the race director of the Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia, surely embodies the spirit of one of the world’s most grueling motor sports events like no one else.

He spent his competitive career as a professional Enduro and Rally Raid driver and was crowned National Enduro Champion in France in 1992. In 2019, he was appointed director of the Dakar Rally, overseeing the event’s move from South America to Saudi Arabia.

Since then, he has been in charge of the route planning and overall organization of the annual rally raid, which this month the Kingdom will host for the fifth time.

In an exclusive interview with Arab News, Castera spoke about the evolving technological landscape of the Dakar Rally under his stewardship, the rigors of race planning, and the unique challenges that come with holding the race in Saudi Arabia.

How does the addition of new technology, including hydrogen-powered and electric vehicles, affect the Dakar Rally?

The Dakar needs to embrace new technology. It’s related to what’s happening in the world and climate issues. The Dakar must be part of and contribute to a mobility revolution. We are fortunate to have a sport that is highly demanding. If we can succeed in this sport, we can apply it to many others.

So it’s not the effects of vehicle technology on the Dakar, it’s more about the Dakar wanting to introduce these vehicles and new technologies to the rally, to the tracks. Why? Because the Dakar must align with today’s global issues, listen to them and, most importantly, serve as a laboratory.

Today, this is also the great strength of motor sport. It has always been a driver, an accelerator for technologies, including safety, performance and more.

The Dakar has begun its energy transformation and pushed new technologies so that they become part of the rally. We have the introduction of hydrogen and electric technologies but it doesn’t always progress as quickly as we want due to logistical challenges.

Today, we use them for demonstrations alongside our events to work on and develop the future of the rally so that one day we can make a complete transition. Right now, we’re in the experimentation phase but we’re working hard on the topic.

What keeps you going and what do you enjoy most about being on-site during the Dakar Rally?

First and foremost, I’m simply passionate about motor sports. I used to ride motorcycles before I got into rally raid. I became interested in the Dakar Rally at a very young age and was captivated by those vast expanses, deserts, and the idea of crossing them on motorcycles and in cars, facing the risks.

I also need that adrenaline rush. I can’t imagine living without it and I cultivate it in various ways on different levels. But being in the desert, setting up camps, as I’ve done numerous times in Saudi Arabia, those are extraordinary moments for me.

However, the 15 days of the rally itself don’t bring me the same pleasure. They are the least enjoyable because of the pressure and the many things to manage; it’s not the most pleasant part.

But things like reconnaissance missions, for example, traversing the country at a relaxed pace with smaller teams, that’s what motivates me, that’s what I enjoy. At that time, the passion I feel makes me want to share my experiences with the drivers afterward; obviously in a different way, because they are racing against the clock, while we are following and overlooking the racing action.

However, it is about conveying what I have experienced, the atmosphere, the people I have met, and I want to share that. When people are happy, I’m happy. But for me, the pleasure lies before the rally itself.

How much preparation time goes into organizing a Dakar Rally?

The Dakar Rally requires one year of preparation. We have several teams involved. There are the teams at the ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation) office in Paris, who mainly work on the sporting aspects and the specifications. And then there are also all the Saudi teams associated with us, who are more focused on logistics.

Together, we work for over a year to prepare for this rally. So, we need to make about four to five inspection trips of around two weeks each to arrive at a more or less complete Dakar. Additionally, there are roadbook (a series of instructions for navigating the rally route, including turn-by-turn information) checks. So, we end up doing five or six complete passes of the Dakar in a year to prepare for it.

So we essentially do four Dakar rallies with our vehicles to prepare for one. But to give you an idea, we cover a lot of kilometers. Some routes get approved, others don’t. Some routes are prohibited, so we need to come back. There is a lot of work to ensure that everything is validated and well-organized by all the institutions so that we can launch the rally.

The 2024 Dakar Rally will be the fifth time the event has been staged in Saudi Arabia. What changes have you noticed in the past five years?

Indeed, the rally has evolved because, first and foremost, we have learned to understand the country, we have experienced the desert and learned to read, and work with, respective terrain. Initially, we barely touched the Empty Quarter. Today, we are fully immersed in it. We explore the dunes even more. So, we discover new territories, new tracks. And we adapt the Dakar accordingly.

It becomes more challenging with time because we get better at measuring the level of difficulty of the tracks. The difficulty of the sand, rocky tracks, and the weather has presented many challenges, forcing us to be cautious, because there can be heavy rain. We’ve experienced a lot of rain and had to change stages accordingly.

It’s a constant evolution but it also has a significant impact. The nights are much shorter, so the competitors drive more at night than when we were in South America. It’s much colder, which has changed habits, and competitors face different challenges. In South America, it was summer and too hot. Here, it’s rather cold. So it has brought about many changes and has made the race tougher, if anything.

What sets the Dakar in Saudi Arabia apart from previous hosts?

I believe that all the Dakar rallies are special. Each Dakar has its own uniqueness. But as I mentioned earlier, the weather has a significant impact on the Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia, making it more challenging. The multitude of deserts, very different and vast deserts. The landscapes, too.

It’s true that this is a rally that evolves with time. Still, it remains the Dakar, with all its ingredients: the desert, the difficulty, solitude at times, the weather, night, cold, heat, dunes — everything exists.

Navigation has become more challenging in Saudi Arabia and that is one of the primary characteristics that makes it very special. It runs on relatively fast tracks, often less dangerous than what we have experienced elsewhere.

Nonetheless, the Dakar Rally must remain a special event and we always work to keep it special. That’s why we reinvent ourselves and create new concepts. This year, there’s the “48 Hours Chrono,” a two-day special in the desert, in the Empty Quarter, which will be absolutely incredible.

We constantly try to bring in something new. It’s important to maintain this attraction and keep reinventing ourselves. The desert helps us do that but we also need to be imaginative and offer new things to always remain attractive and make this rally the greatest rally in the world. We manage to do so also thanks to Saudi Arabia.

The Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia runs from Jan. 5 to 19.

Mitch Evans targets another Italian triumph as Formula E makes Rimini bow

Updated 11 April 2024

Mitch Evans targets another Italian triumph as Formula E makes Rimini bow

  • The Misano World Circuit in Italy hosts rounds 6 and 7 of the 2024 world championship

MISANO: All eyes will be on Mitch Evans, arguably the most successful Formula E driver in Italy, when the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship returns this weekend.

New Zealander Evans, with four previous wins in Rome, and teammate Nick Cassidy, will be feeling the pressure of maintaining their “ones to beat” record after securing a 1-2 finish for the Jaguar powertrain last year at the Rome E-Prix.

The championship’s 22 drivers face a new location for the Misano E-Prix, comprising rounds 6 and 7, on April 13-14.

The double-header at the Misano World Circuit is a return to Italy for the next chapter in the battle for the championship in front of an established motorsport fanbase. The adapted circuit is expected to deliver exciting racing to fans in the grandstands and around the world.

For Mahindra Racing’s Edoardo Mortara, the race holds special significance, with the Italian-Swiss-French driver eager to perform well in front of a home crowd after his promising performance in Tokyo.

Max Gunther will arrive at Misano fresh off a win in Japan, aiming to capitalize on his momentum and thrill fans with another stellar performance for Maserati MSG Racing on home soil. Oliver Rowland, meanwhile, will hope to extend his impressive streak of podium places, seeking a fourth consecutive top-three finish. With his consistent form, Rowland will be a force to be reckoned with at the weekend.

With the title race wide open, Pascal Wehrlein will also be pushing the limits to sustain his momentum and secure a more comfortable lead in the standings.

For its debut on the Formula E calendar, the track layout will be 3.381 km in length with 14 turns. 

Nestled in the picturesque Rimini province of Italy, the Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli, also known as Misano Circuit Sic 58, has been a staple on the motorsport scene since 1972. Renowned for its rapid, flowing track and wealth of overtaking opportunities, Misano has been a favorite with MotoGP and WorldSBK enthusiasts for decades. 

With its rich history and reputation as a hot spot for motorsport events — the venue also hosts endurance racing, the Ferrari Challenge, DTM (a sports car racing series), and FIA Formula 3 — the venue will be more familiar to some drivers than others.

FIA chief Ben Sulayem backed by American bodies over grand prix controversies

Updated 05 April 2024

FIA chief Ben Sulayem backed by American bodies over grand prix controversies

  • Report absolves president after accusations of race interference in Saudi Arabia, Las Vegas

The President of the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile Mohammed Ben Sulayem has received an official letter signed by 34 heads of the FIA Member Clubs and Sport Federations of America, expressing their full support following accusations he interfered with proceedings related to the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix and the Las Vegas Grand Prix last year.

After a thorough internal investigation led by external and independent members and a series of interviews with over 10 witnesses, the FIA Ethics Committee published a report absolving Ben Sulayem of any wrongdoing.

“Allegations against the FIA President were unsubstantiated and strong evidence beyond any reasonable doubt was presented to support the determination of the FIA Ethics Committee,” the report stated.

Committee members also commended Ben Sulayem’s transparency and compliance during the investigation, leading to his exoneration after no evidence was found to substantiate the allegations. 

In a previous statement to member clubs, Ben Sulayem highlighted that the unfounded allegations were meant as an attack against the FIA’s leadership.

Theodora 34 heads of the FIA Member Clubs and Sport Federations of America declared unwavering support for Ben Sulayem, who “acted honorably” according to their letter, published on the FIA website.

The letter’s signatories also accused biased media of spreading incorrect information to taint the president’s reputation. They also asked relevant authorities to take necessary legal action against the parties who made the allegations, accusing them of slander.

“We endorse and ratify our vote of confidence in support of Mr. Mohammed Ben Sulayem, for his stewardship of the FIA and his progress to fulfilling his commitment to transform the FIA in an ethical and transparent manner in order to better serve its members,” the statement said.

Vettel hints at Formula One return after talks with Mercedes boss

Updated 03 April 2024

Vettel hints at Formula One return after talks with Mercedes boss

  • Vettel won his four world championship titles with Red Bull from 2010-13
  • “I am speaking to Toto. I don’t know if that qualifies as Mercedes, but about other things,” Vettel told Sky Sports News on Wednesday

LONDON: Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel has suggested he could return to Formula One following talks with Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff.
Mercedes are in search of a new driver after Lewis Hamilton announced in February he was leaving the team for Ferrari following 11 years with the Silver Arrows.
Vettel won his four world championship titles with Red Bull from 2010-13. He retired from Formula One at the end of the 2022 season after six years at Ferrari and two with Aston Martin.
But he has now hinted at a return to Grand Prix racing following talks with Wolff and several other team bosses.
“I am speaking to Toto. I don’t know if that qualifies as Mercedes, but about other things,” Vettel told Sky Sports News on Wednesday.
“I’m talking to a lot of people because I know them, but not very specific. I mean obviously it does cross my mind, I do think about it, but it’s not the main thought,” the 36-year-old German added.
“I have three kids at home, it’s busy every day, so there’s a lot of other thoughts I have. There’s ideas that I have.
“Events that I’m planning going forward, so I did speak to a lot of other team principals as well, and not only about racing. There’s thoughts, but nothing concrete at the minute.”
Vettel said he was taken aback by Hamilton’s decision to leave Mercedes for Ferrari after winning six world championships with the German giants.
“I was surprised, like I guess most of us were,” he said.
“But it is exciting. Obviously he’s looking for a new challenge and it will be different to see him in red, in a different color.”
Vettel, meanwhile, has been test-driving the Porsche car scheduled to compete in this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours.
“Maybe, I don’t know yet,” he replied when asked if he could make his first appearance in the celebrated endurance race this year.
“I’ve been testing. I was curious, so I wanted to see how it feels. It’s obviously a different discipline. It’s still racing, but it’s a different car, different discipline.
“I am (tempted) and I’m not. I am obviously also looking for lots of other things and there’s lots of other things that do interest me outside of racing.”

Formula E launches ‘Asphalt 9: Legends’ events ahead of Tokyo E-Prix

Updated 27 March 2024

Formula E launches ‘Asphalt 9: Legends’ events ahead of Tokyo E-Prix

  • In an expansion of their partnership with Gameloft, Formula E is integrating the globally renowned racing game

RIYADH: Formula E and Gameloft have announced the continuation of their partnership through the integration of the race series into “Asphalt 9: Legends.”

This collaboration is set to launch ahead of the Tokyo E-Prix on Saturday, March 30, with time-limited events, or TLEs, for the game’s 9.5 million monthly active users.

Starting on March 28 and running to April 6 on “Asphalt 9: Legends” Osaka track, players will have the chance to race the Formula E GEN2 car on existing game tracks. The integration will also feature at the Tokyo E-Prix Gaming Arena in the Allianz Fan Village on March 29 and 30, where fans on-site will be among the first to engage with Formula E in this new way.

The Formula E TLEs are scheduled to run in conjunction with race weekends, with further in-game events scheduled for the Portland and London races. Players who successfully complete the GEN2 challenges across the three Formula E TLEs will unlock the GEN2 car permanently, adding a unique piece of electric racing to their in-game garage.

Gameloft’s “Asphalt 9: Legends,” launched in 2018 as the 15th game in the celebrated “Asphalt” series, continues to be a leader in the genre. Whilst available on all mainstream platforms, its fantasy arcade style, realistic cars, exaggerated tracks, and engaging gameplay has made it one of the largest mobile racing games on the planet.

Sanjay Shivaram, strategy and media program director for Formula E, said: “This is a thrilling continuation of our partnership with Gameloft’s ‘Asphalt’ series. By introducing Formula E into “Asphalt 9: Legends,” we’re not only launching into one of the largest mobile racing games globally, and reaching an engaged audience, but also offering fans new, authentic ways to experience the excitement of electric racing, building a vibrant community. We’re especially excited for the first event over the Tokyo E-Prix and look forward to further engaging with fans at events in Portland and London later this season.”

Ignacio Marin, “Asphalt 9: Legends” game manager at Gameloft, said: “This is such a natural collaboration as both ‘Asphalt’ and Formula E share the same mindset of pushing the limits and striving to always be at the forefront. We’re very excited to bring an experience to our fans that goes beyond the game, and to continue the real-life thrill at home for the race-goers. We’re looking forward to seeing how our players handle the car once the first event start.”

Carlos Sainz Jr. wins Australian GP in Ferrari 1-2 as Verstappen fails to finish

Updated 24 March 2024

Carlos Sainz Jr. wins Australian GP in Ferrari 1-2 as Verstappen fails to finish

  • Spaniard missed the last race in Saudi Arabia and went through surgery two weeks ago

MELBOURNE: Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jr. surged to victory at the Australian Grand Prix Sunday to snap Red Bull’s winning start to the season after three-time world champion Max Verstappen sensationally failed to finish.

The Spaniard, who had appendicitis surgery two weeks ago, took the chequered flag 2.3 seconds ahead of teammate Charles Leclerc, with McLaren’s Lando Norris a bold third.

It was his third grand prix win and first since Singapore last year.

“I’m happy to be in a one-two with Charles here. It shows that hard work pays off,” said Sainz, who missed the last race in Saudi Arabia and was bed-ridden for a week afterwards.

“Life sometimes is crazy ... the podium in Bahrain, then the appendix, the comeback, the win. It’s a rollercoaster but I loved it and I’m extremely happy.”

While he celebrated, it was a disastrous day for pole-sitter Verstappen, who limped out with smoke billowing from his car after being passed by front-row partner Sainz on lap two.

The Dutchman blamed a brake issue for his first retirement in two years.

“What we can see so far from the data is that as soon as the lights went off the right-rear brake just stuck on,” he said.

“It just caused the damage and it kept on increasing so it was also basically driving with the handbrake on.” 

Carlos Sainz Jr.

It was also a horror race for Lewis Hamilton in his inconsistent Mercedes, with the British seven-time world champion suffering engine failure on lap 17.

To add to Mercedes’ woes, teammate George Russell crashed heavily on the last lap with the car ending on its side.

Russell climbed out unscathed, with Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso faulted for “potentially dangerous” driving over the incident and slapped with a 20-second penalty.

Verstappen emphatically won the opening two grands prix of the season in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, with both a Red Bull 1-2, and was hot favorite to make it three from three.

He had been aiming to match his own record set last year of 10 consecutive wins — one more than Sebastian Vettel in 2013 — and was unbeaten in his last 18 starts from pole position.

But while Verstappen was favored to win, the Ferraris had proved highly competitive in practice and qualifying on the fast and flowing Albert Park track.

Despite not being fully fit, Sainz, whose seat at Ferrari is to be taken by Hamilton next year, topped Q1 and Q2 to fire a warning shot.

Oscar Piastri in the other McLaren was fourth ahead of Red Bull’s Sergio Perez. Alonso dropped to eighth after his penalty with teammate Lance Stroll elevated to sixth and RB’s Yuki Tsunoda to seventh.

Haas pair Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen rounded out the top 10.

“It feels good mostly for the team of course, first and second didn’t happen since Bahrain 2022,” said Leclerc. “Carlos has had an incredible weekend to come back from his surgery, he’s done an amazing race.”

Verstappen made a clean start and pulled clear of Sainz when the lights went out, with Norris holding onto third as they jostled for position.

But his lead didn’t last with Sainz opening his DRS on lap two to slice past before smoke started pouring out of the Red Bull and the Dutchman retired.

Sainz led from Norris and Leclerc before the first pit stops.

Sainz put on fresh rubber on lap 17 and had a 2.6sec lead from Leclerc at the halfway mark, closely followed by Piastri and Norris.

With no Verstappen to contend with, the Spaniard gradually built the gap as Norris passed Piastri to move into third.

Leclerc pitted again and he came back out in fifth on hards, but quickly surged back to second.

Sainz also pitted for a second time and retained his narrow lead to cruise home in front of 130,000 fans.