Motor Sport: Out of Africa

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A truck is bearing down on me. A hulking great Kamaz truck, it’s slaloming down a valley between cappuccino-coloured dunes like an obese skier who’s barely in control. The driver wrestles the wheel to get some traction. He’s caught me by surprise. The bikes, quads and cars that have already passed through on this stage of the Dakar Rally took a different, tighter line to the trucks.


The driver is Vladimir Chagin, and he’s on his way to becoming the most successful driver in Dakar history – seven victories in the truck division. There’s something almost taboo about seeing a truck drifting, sometimes completely airborne. It’s as though one is watching a cartoon.


Predictably, Chagin’s is the first truck to appear this morning. As multiple tones of Russian steel rattle towards me, an atomic dust cloud snaking behind it, I drop my camera and run for my life.


We’re in the Atacama, the most arid desert in the world. Were I to stand on the track at a grand prix I’d be rugby tackled by a marshal within seconds. At a WRC event, too, there might not be barriers and fences, but you know where to stand. Not here. The track is dictated by the co-drivers notes and that’s it. No barriers, no marshals, no ambulances, no burger vans, just the occasional camera-rigged helicopter in hot pursuit.


A few spectators are on stakeout atop the dune opposite, and a bird of prey circles overhead, but otherwise we are alone with the rally. On two or three occasions competitors will stop to ask us for directions. It feels as though we’re a part of this adventure. On the drive out here from Iquique, a pretty Pacific coastal town where the teams stayed, across the high dunes dimly lit by dawn light we happened upon several racers who had spent the night out here, lost or broken down, and were headed to the start of the next stage where they would slam back a few energy drinks and push on for another 12 hours. It’s not only the bone-shaking terrain that makes this endurance race the toughest in the world.


In contrast, our party is seeing the Dakar from a position of relative luxury. Like an Abercrombie & Kent safari, tents have been erected for us on a plateau from where we can see breathtaking views of Carlos Sainz and Co roar past as we lunch. Today, this is the local wildlife. That, and the odd llama.


The ‘raid’, which starts in Buenos Aires and ends in the same city 16 days later, chases through the San Francisco Pass, crosses the Chilean Atacama, and arrives among the white dunes of Fiambala, before returning to the Argentine capital.


The Dakar moved to South America three years ago after the threat of terrorism saw the 2008 race, traditionally run in the African Sahara, cancelled. Not only are Argentina and Chile a lot safer politically, sections of the 9,618km route, which brushes the Andes, evoke the Saharan landscape, particularly the sand and shale waves of the Atacama in which we find ourselves in this morning.


I’m told that four million spectators turned out along the stages of the route, even though only a few are to be found here. The Dakar is great news for this part of the world, worth over 70 million tourist dollars each year. Argentine Minister of Tourism, Enrique Meyer, described it as “the best opportunity of all time”. A reputation survey held after last year’s race claimed that images of the Dakar made 80% of French viewers, 75% of Japanese and 88% of North Americans want to visit these countries.


Nevertheless, the event has its critics. Some point to safety – the event claimed the lives of four this year – others worry about the race’s impact on fragile high-altitude ecosystems, as well as on unexcavated pre-Colombian ruins and unexhumed dinosaur fossils.


Africa, meanwhile, is left sobbing. Some of the villages the Dakar used to pass through earned enough in a day to survive a year. And it may have been their one chance so to do. The killing of four French citizens on Christmas Eve 2007 in Mauritania, and the subsequent negative travel advice from the French government, which is still in place and means French travelers there are uninsured, put paid to the rally on that continent for the foreseeable future. Seventy five percent of the rally’s organizing team is French.


I joined the Volkswagen team for a few days on their Chilean assault. Since the race sailed across the Atlantic, the German marque has dominated with a hat-trick of victories. Jacky Ickx, who won the event back in 1983, described the team to me as a “Formula One team for the desert”. They bring 72 team members, so the same as a top F1 team. Their 310bhp Touareg is the class of the field, and they spend 26 million Euros on this event alone – roundabout a quarter of the annual budget of a mid-ranking grand prix outfit. This is for a single event, however, and while the TV coverage isn’t to be dismissed (reports are aired in 190 countries) you could argue how much brand impact it has given it’s on the news agenda for only a fortnight. VW sources say they will continue in 2012, but that it’s likely to be their last year.


What no one will argue with is the spirit of the event, and the rich opportunity to explore parts of a beautiful, culturally exciting continent that few get to visit. “It’s a view on another continent and another way of life,” beamed Ickx. One senses when Jacky left F1 and Le Mans for this event (before Dakar, he won eight grands prix and six Le Mans, which was a record at the time), it was primarily to have fun and try something a bit different.


The cultural side of the trip is something we’ve come to absorb, and while the rally machines ate up the Argentinean turf Volkswagen’s marketing team met a group of us in Santiago de Chile to go wine tasting. It was the end point of a very long journey for me, having inexplicably flown New York-London-Paris-Madrid-Santiago, so wine ‘tasting’ – absolutely no spitting – and a dip in the sun-drenched pool beside the Tarapaca vineyard’s Italianate chateau was just the ticket.


That evening we took a military plane to Calama, where we were met by a fleet of pick-up trucks and driven a couple of hours to St Pedro de Atacama, a picture-postcard town of narrow dirt streets, one storey adobe huts, pokey bars, and with stray dogs everywhere.


The first Pisco Sour of the night was very welcome. This is to Chile what the caipirinha is to Brazil: Pisco (grape brandy), lime juice, egg white, bitters, straight up. At this altitude – 3500 metres – you don’t need more than two. The days are 30 degrees, the nights are chilly, and we huddled around a fire pit that evening enjoying our restorative.


The next day we headed to the start line of Stage 4, the first Chilean stage, where we found a barren, almost lunar, scree landscape overlooked by active volcanoes. A small crowd has gathered to cheer on local hero Eliseo Salazar (best known to most of us as the driver Nelson Piquet once tried to fly kick), who’s piloting a very large Hummer. The bike riders were up at 04:00 to ride from last night’s Bivouac, the nightly camp the teams form in the desert where they sleep, eat and rebuild their machines, to today’s start. When they get here, many grab some kip on the stony ground, zipped up in their leathers, and wait for their time. One onlooker, wearing a poncho and sombrero, walks around with a ghetto-blaster softly playing traditional pan-pipe music.


Other riders study the ‘road book’ they received that morning – bike riders have no co-driver to interpret the all-important navigation. They customize the notes, which are fed into rollers on the dash, with coloured highlights to mark crucial information that can be understood at a quick, urgent glance. GPS is used as a checking device as they ride past ‘way points’, markers with which competitors must come within 200 metres.


Essentially Dakar is “an amateur race where the professionals have their place”, said Ickx. Others I spoke to in the Bivouac said that it is now changing and becoming a lot more professional. “It used to be an adventure, but now it’s a race,” said Dakar legend Stephane Peterhansel, a Frenchman who won the motorcycle category six times and has taken a trilogy of overall wins in Mitsubishi Pajeros. He’s risen to the task again this year, establishing himself and his BMW X3 as the only real threat to Volkswagen. But he acknowledges the shift in culture with some disdain.


It used to be that, if a driver or rider came across a stricken competitor, they would stop and help. Now they won’t so long as they’re in the running for a prize. Which is a bit of a shame really, but Formula One and Le Mans have, of course, gone the same way. The rewards are sometimes too great to remain a gentleman.


Instead, the top crews rely on their support vehicles. Volkswagen fields two MAN trucks, nicknamed ‘the Blue Angels’, which are crammed full of enough spares to build an all-new Touareg and actually compete in the truck category race. Crews are prohibited from receiving outside assistance, unless it comes from a fellow entrant, you see.


But the Blue Angels and the other supporting racers are no match for the lightweight and single-minded Kamaz trucks – like the VWs, covered in Red Bull logos – who will do whatever it takes, and spend whatever it takes, to win the truckers prize and take it back to Tatarstan. This year, to seize their record tenth crown, they splurged 45 million Euros. Which I guess you can afford to do when you’re manufacturing 93,600 trucks a year.


The next day, Thursday, we awoke at 04:30 and drove out to the El Tatio geyser field. We were told, at 4000 metres, we’d have to wrap up warm. It was minus 5 degrees, and it felt a lot colder. We tried to get as close to the geysers as we dared. The water here is literally boiling. But geysers are a bit like Grace Jones – likely to flare up without warning. Therefore you want to stand back, but someone braver than me did a sterling job putting cartons of hot chocolate into the mouth of one of the geysers to heat up our breakfast beverages.


After a relaxed afternoon spent lounging in the thermal baths of Puritama, basking in the sun with a de rigueur glass of Pisco in hand, we caught a military plane to Iquique to visit the Bivouac for the first time. The finish line of that day’s stage – Stage 5 – was at the bottom of a 2.3km dune, with a 32 degree gradient, upon which the cars would crack 220km/h. Absolutely terrifying. Sainz joked “If you roll the car on this stage you’ll end up in the Bivouac!” Looking up at the giant slope you cannot argue with him. If a car tripped or lost its brakes the Bivouac would have been taken out like a row of skittles. Strike!
The finish line is where the crews stay each evening. Like a military camp, mechanics work, eat and sleep in close quarters, fenced in, among their own vehicles. The Bivouac is a sprawling paddock where teams mark out their workshops with their open-sided trucks, and barbeque anything they can get a hold of – including alpacas and llamas. Hundreds of tents pepper the gaps between the tank-like lorries that service the competitors. There’s a broadcast centre editing and uploading hours of film to satellite, and a medical centre straight out of M*A*S*H which gives physiotherapy to 50 competitors every day and is inundated with fractured bones and torn muscles. Most of the bike riders are hobbling, plastered up with shoulder injuries. The man who went on to win the quad category, Alejandro Patronelli, did so with a broken hand.


While, tragically, four deaths resulted from the raid this year – one driver from a collision, two mechanics in separate electrical incidents, and a female spectator – the hospitals in South America are far better and more accessible than they were in Africa.


The road infrastructure in the Sahara was non-existent, whereas here in Chile support crews can race ahead of the rally route and set up the Bivouac quickly. Each morning the whole camp is packed up and driven 400km, where it’s built again from scratch.


The rally is as popular with entrants as ever: 200 bike and ATV riders; 140 cars and 60 trucks; a total of 51 different nationalities between them. Only half the crews reached the finish.


It’s a mighty logistical operation. Equipment, support trucks, and the cars and bikes of most competitors were sailed to Buenos Aires by cargo ship from Le Havre on the 23rd November, arriving in mid-December and reunited with their owners, who celebrated New Years Eve in the Argentinean capital before setting off on the rally the next day. Add a hangover to the list of things which makes the Dakar a lesson in masochism.


Some teams – manufacturer teams like Volkswagen and Kamaz – send their vehicles out by air so that they can be worked on until the last minute.


In Arica, in the Bivouac which nestled the Peruvian border, I was introduced to Yves Tatarin, a charismatic and heavily-bearded Frenchman who achieved fame in his homeland when he used to drive the Dakar with a large, stuffed bunny rabbit in the passenger seat. Nowadays, though, he has a professional navigator by his side. Maybe the Dakar is getting too serious these days.


But from what I’ve seen, it’s still completely and utterly nuts.


The great thing about the Dakar is it really is – still is – an adventure: The far flung location, the constantly changing scenery, the cultural aspects, the sheer distance and challenge. Its heart may be in Africa, but South America is a worthy adversary.


Serrated Andean plains, steep coastal dunes, rock-gorged gullies, and an endless stream of fearless truckers, riders, and celebrated pilots trying to dodge a knock-out punch and be feted with champagne and confetti in the carnival atmosphere of Buenos Aires.


It’s motor racing, but not as we know it. Formula One of the desert? It’s more like Mad Max.

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