Out of Africa

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Jacky Ickx calls it Formula 1 for the desert. But how has the Dakar Rally fared since its continental shiftfrom Africa to South America?
By Adam Hay-Nicholls

A truck is bearing down on me. A hulking great Kamaz truck, it’s slaloming down a valley between cappuccinocoloured 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.

The driver is Vladimir Chagin, and he’s on his way to becoming the most successful driver in Dakar history — seven wins 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 tonnes 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 world’s most arid desert. Were Ito 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-driver’s 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 stop to ask us for directions. It feels as though we’re a part of this adventure. On the drive 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’d spent the night out here, lost or broken down, and were headed to the start of the next stage where they’d 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 watch 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 there 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 9618km route — which brushes the Andes — evoke the Saharan landscape, particularly the sand and shale waves of the Atacama.

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 per cent of French viewers, 75 per cent of Japanese and 88 per cent 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 people this year — others worry about its impact on fragile high-altitude ecosystems, as well as on un-excavated pre-Colombian ruins and un-exhumed 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. But the killing of four French citizens on Christmas Eve 2007 in Mauritania, and subsequent negative travel advice from the French government which is still in place and means French travellers there are uninsured, put paid to the rally on that continent for the foreseeable future. Seventy-five per cent of the rally’s organising 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, describes the squad as a “Formula 1 team for the desert”. They bring 72 team members, the same as a top F1 team. Their 310bhp Touareg is the class of the field, and they spend €26 million on this event alone — roundabout a quarter of the annual budget of a mid-ranking F1 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 way of life,” beams Ickx. One senses that when Jacky left F1 and Le Mans for the Dakar (having won eight GPs and six Le Mans — a record at the time), it was primarily to have fun and try something different.

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

That evening we take a military plane to Calama, where we are 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 is 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 huddle around a fire pit that evening enjoying our restorative.

The next day we head to the startline of Stage 4, the first Chilean stage, where we find 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 large Hummer. The bike riders were up at 4am 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 pan-pipe music.

Other riders study the ‘road book’ they received that morning — bike riders have no codriver 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”, says 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,” says Dakar legend Stephane Peterhansel, a Frenchman who has won the motorcycle category six times and has taken a trio 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 F1 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 other supporting racers are no match for the lightweight and single-minded Kamaz trucks — like the VWs, covered in Red Bull logos — which 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 €45m. Which I guess you can afford when you’re manufacturing 93,600 trucks a year.

The next day, Thursday, we awake at 4.30am and drive out to the El Tatio geyser field. We were told, at 4000m, we’d have to wrap up warm. It’s 5deg C below zero, and it feels a lot colder. We try to get as close to the geysers as we dare. 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 does a sterling job putting cartons of hot chocolate into the mouth of one geyser to heat up our breakfast beverages.

Following a relaxed afternoon lounging in the thermal baths of Puritama, we catch a military plane to Iquique to visit the Bivouac for the first time. The finish line of that day’s stage — Stage 5 — is at the bottom of a 2.3km dune, with a 32-degree gradient, upon which the cars will crack 220kph (137mph). Absolutely terrifying. Sainz jokes, “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 trips or loses its brakes the Bivouac will be taken out like a row of skittles. Strike!

The finish line is where the crews stay each evening. Like in 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 barbecue anything they can get 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 unloading hours of film to satellite and a H gives physiotherapy to 50 competitors every and is inundated with fractured bones and muscles. Most of the bike riders are hobbling, plastered up with shoulder injuries. The who goes on to win the quad category, Patronelli, does so with a broken hand.

While, tragically, four deaths resulted this year’s raid — one driver from a collision, two mechanics in separate electrical 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 as ever with entrants: 200 bike and ATV riders, 140 cars and 60 trucks — a total of 51 different nationalities. Only half the crews reach 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 November 23, arriving in midDecember and reunited with their owners, who celebrated New Year’s Eve in the Argentinian capital before setting off on the rally the next day. Add a hangover to the list of things which make the Dakar a lesson in masochism.

Some of the entrants — 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 nestles in the Peruvian border, I am introduced to Yves Tatarin, a charismatic and heavily-bearded Frenchman who achieved fame in his homeland by driving the Dakar with a large stuffed rabbit in the passenger seat. Nowadays, he has a professional navigator by his side. Maybe the Dakar is getting too serious. But, from what I’ve seen, it’s still completely and utterly nuts.

The great thing about the Dakar is that it really is an adventure: the far-flung location, the _constantiv changing_scenerv. th_e_cultural aspecte 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 knockout 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. The F1 of the desert? It’s more like Mad Max.