It's hard not to be affected by the contagious enthusiasm of Volkswagen driver Nasser Al-Attiyah. The man from Qatar is always ready for a smile and a word for fans and fellow racers. Beneath his bubbly personality, however, lies a fierce competitor.
Last year, Nasser lost out on the Dakar Rally title by a mere two minutes as his team-mate, Carlos Sainz, took the honours. Nasser has kicked off the 2011 edition of the desert classic by once again pushing hard at the top of the leaderboard.
Nasser also has a stack of other commitments such as his work with vulnerable youths and his role as an official in the 2022 FIFA World Cup planning committee. For now, however, the ‘Prince of the Dakar’ is only focused on hitting top speed in Argentina and Chile.
We caught up with Nasser after stage four of the 2011 Dakar Rally to get his take on the early days of the race.
Stage four of the 2011 Dakar Rally saw the race hit the desert for the first time, you must have been licking your lips at the prospect of racing on the sand?
For me, the real Dakar starts now because in the last three days we were only on tarmac roads with some forest sections. Today we began in the desert. It was difficult to open the stage so I think that only losing 50 seconds to Carlos was a good result. Tomorrow it will be beneficial for us to start as the second car because it's a very long and hard stage. Now we have reached the desert there will be no easy stages for the next few days but I’m very happy about that.
Navigation becomes more of an issue in the desert because often there is no clear path to follow. How do you prepare for this?
Today my co-driver, Timo Gottschalk, did a really good job and we were really careful which cost us some pace. We lost some time, but it's more important not to lose your way. We will be studying the sand dunes in the next few days and picking out the best route. It's important to consider not just your speed but also the right path. It also helps not to be the first car out on the stage, we were in that position today and inevitably it cost us some time. Tomorrow we start behind Carlos so we hope to take full advantage of that.
This year you are behind the wheel of the brand new Volkswagen Race Touareg 3. How is the car performing for you so far?
Everything is okay, we have had no serious problems so far. With myself in second position and Carlos in first place it's clear that the car is operating well. Perhaps the problems I thought I had with the car over the last few days were actually only in my mind. I have also been impressed with the BMW of Stephane Peterhansel, today his car was faster than our car but I think that was because of the altitude in the Andes mountain range. In terms of the overall standings, the situation is extremely close. The order at the top may change any day due to small mistakes or minor problems. I think we are in for a thrilling race this year and I continue to be optimistic about my own chances of success.”
Today we crossed the Andes at 4,800 metres above sea level. Did that complicate the stage for you?
I still have a headache. When we completed the road to reach the start of the timed special stage I felt so dizzy. I felt like I could not move, I tried to do some stretching but I could not do it. Thankfully I was able to recover a little before the race by taking some deep breaths, drinking a lot of water and taking some tablets for altitude sickness but still I was feeling strange.”
What are you predicting for the coming days in the 2011 Dakar Rally?
Today was a really nice stage with lots of off-road sections, but I’m sure there are even better stages to come. We are now in the Atacama Desert so I will be expecting to see some sand dunes. For sure, everyday now the race gets more and more difficult, but the desert is what I know best so I’m confident I can enjoy some good stages. We must be clever and attack only when the time is right.”