It’s 6.30am and I’ve just woken up face down on the hot Tarmac in the pitlane of the Potrero de los Funes circuit in San Luis, Argentina. I can hear trucks moving and so scramble from my one-man tent into the blazing sunshine. Squinting towards the pitwall I see the form of Race2Recovery team founder Tony Harris. “I thought you’d f***** off already!” he grins.
Welcome to the Dakar Rally bivouac
Writer: Alex Harmer
The teams convene at these shanty towns every night to work on their cars and trucks (and hopefully sleep), but the camps have the aura of the Goodwood Festival of Speed paddock crossed with a low-budget music festival – they’re not quiet. All the teams know where they’re going but not what’s waiting for them. It’s unusual to find spectacular lakeside street circuits at the end of the day, but location means very little to the mechanics. On the Dakar there’s usually something to keep them busy.
Every year the organisers claim to have made that edition the toughest yet, but this year they might have cracked it with crews required to cover more than 600km on some days, including the first. For the three amputees on the largely ex-military Race2Recovery team – Harris, co-driver Philip ‘Barney’ Gillespie and Daniel ‘Baz’ Whittingham – problems arise that others wouldn’t have to face. The cleanliness of their wounds and maintenance of their prosthetic legs is paramount and not the easiest thing to deal with in the desert. But that’s all part of the team’s mission: ‘beyond injury, achieving the extraordinary’.
The night before, both the team’s T1-class Bowler Wildcats and its T4 race truck made it back to camp, albeit later than planned. While Harris and co-driver Quin Evans came in earlier in the evening, the second car of team director Ben Gott and Gillespie had been suffering fuel vaporisation issues all day and was lagging behind, as was the truck after stopping to help. As the drivers bedded down for a few hours, the support crew worked into the night.
In 2013 Race2Recovery made its debut with some force, entering four Wildcats in its first year on the Dakar, a T4-class Renault race truck that served a dual purpose as both a competing and support vehicle, two enormous T5-class MAN trucks and a fleet of Discoveries supplied by Land Rover. But problems hit early on, taking out all but one car – that of Matt O’Hare and Gillespie, which made it to the end despite overheating. Gillespie thus became the first amputee to cross the gruelling event’s finishing line.
“Our first week, right up until rest day, was really frustrating for me and Matt,” he says. “We were running right at the very back because of the overheating problem, so far behind that most of the support lorries were overtaking us. We were just about making the checkpoints. It was a challenge. It’s been said by others that a lesser team would’ve failed and I think a lot of that’s our military background.”
The situation became drastic on the fifth day of the two-week rally when the support truck was disqualified for not hitting the checkpoints on time. “It was a different mindset in the car after that,” Gillespie says. “Not that you want to rely on the T4, it’s just nice to know it’s there. If you’re out there and you bust the diff or blow more than two tyres you know it’s coming up behind you. The smallest thing can put you out of the rally when the support’s not there. With the overheating problem, we were trundling.”
Day five was also the day that the team made headlines for all the wrong reasons. In Peru one of the support vehicles was involved in a serious road traffic accident with two local cars.
“It was a huge emotional blow to the team,” Harris says. “Two locals lost their lives, which was terrible, and three of our team members were airlifted. It was our crew that was on hand to do the first aid at the scene and I think, with a positive head on, that was the best thing. Combat-trained medics are used to dealing with most situations in a level-headed way.
“It was awful, but we’d always maintained that there’s a mission and you’ve got to see it through to the end. Nothing’s going to bring anyone back and nothing’s going to change the situation. It’s always nice to think ‘what if?’, but there’s no point. Why put yourself through that? Barney stepped on an IED, I drove over one. ‘What if?’ doesn’t get you anywhere. What happens happens.”
After rest day, by which time the O’Hare/Gillespie Wildcat was the only one running, the situation again worsened, giving the team a massive logistical headache. “Both T5 support trucks broke down within 30 minutes of each other,” Harris says. “Whatever anyone says about preparation and maintenance, you can’t factor that in.
“We had to get stuff off the T5s, put it on the T4 race truck, spread as much as we could into the Discoveries and then come up with a plan for how we were going to get these trucks to the port in Chile – bearing in mind they broke down in Argentina – and find a direct route there so we could ship them out.”
Using local haulage companies to transport the hulking T5s across mountain passes, the team pressed on with a severely depleted support fleet. Luckily, the overheating issue had been dealt with on rest day and the Wildcat was running smoothly for the first time. With all efforts and working vehicles directed towards the one remaining car, finishing looked like a real possibility.
“There was a buzz around the whole team,” Harris says. “You could see them in the distance, the colour and shape of the car coming around the last couple of corners. When they crossed the line there were tears, hugs and absolute relief. All the stress came pouring out.”
“There were too many emotions at once,” Gillespie adds. “I couldn’t believe what we’d achieved, I just couldn’t take it in. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good feeling, but it only really sank in once we were up on that podium. All I could think was: ‘F****** hell, that’s class!’”
The team admits that a four-car entry was probably too much to take on in its first year. “We were the second-biggest single-livery team on our first outing… maybe it was a bit pretentious,” Harris says, with a chuckle. For 2014 it arrived with only two, hoping to ease the logistical burden.
“Last year I think we were slightly over-stretched,” Gillespie says before the start of the 2014 rally. “Four cars is a big challenge for a rookie team. This year it’s been easier to control and we can focus on getting both cars and the truck across the line. We’re all far better prepped. Everything should be – famous last words – easier.”
Xavier Gavory, competitor relations co-ordinator for the Amaury Sport Organisation (the Dakar’s governing body), concurs. “It was a nice set-up, but maybe too ambitious for their first year. The first time I met them they said, ‘We’re injured servicemen from the war in Afghanistan and would like to participate’. I thought, ‘What are they talking about?’ But Tony came with a very well-prepared presentation and he was convinced of everything. So we immediately knew that the project was serious.
“They had great back-up and they wanted to do things properly. They didn’t want any help because of their condition, they wanted it tough. It was a very difficult year for them, facing many troubles with sponsorship, but finally they managed to make it. And at the very last minute they got support from Land Rover.”
That connection has proved invaluable, especially in the team’s second year. Land Rover has jumped on board with a full support programme.
“It’s been phenomenal,” says team manager Andrew ‘Pav’ Taylor, “not only with the sponsorship, but with the Discoveries. We had an issue with the T5 truck where, for a period of time, a gremlin kept appearing and it lost all drive. In the centre of Rosario it had to reverse up a one-way street; the Discovery ended up towing a 28-ton truck through town, off the road and out the way, all on a four-ton rope.
“The other thing they’ve done is to include us in their support programme, which includes Red Bull and KTM. We’re part of that family now. That’s a huge benefit for a team like us, to be alongside the factory teams, within the Red Bull bivouac. Without Land Rover I don’t think those ties would be there and that’d certainly make it a lot more difficult – on an event like the Dakar you need friends and allies.
“What’s nice is that we’re not seen as just a flash in the pan. All the teams are rallying around us – it’s been fantastic.”
Roma wasn’t built in a day…
Mini duo secure first and second, but team orders play their part
After a controversial final few days, Nani Roma finally took his first Dakar victory on four wheels, 10 years after his win on two.
The opening stages produced a back-and-forth struggle between the Minis of Roma and Stéphane Peterhansel and the Red Bull-SMG buggy of Carlos Sainz. From day five, however, Roma took an overall lead he would hold almost until the finish. Peterhansel was ordered to hold station behind his team-mate, but when the latter hit trouble on the penultimate day the Frenchman retook the lead. But instead of pressing his advantage he backed off, obediently following Roma home in second as the pair finished 1-2 as prescribed.
Despite being over the moon with his win, Roma said, “It’s disappointing for Stéphane, it’s disrespectful. It’s a bad decision that has been taken.”
In the bike class, Joan Barreda (Honda) saw off a mid-event challenge from Marc Coma (KTM) to take his first Dakar win, while in the quad class Ignacio Casale (Yamaha) also won his first Dakar after fighting his team-mates the whole distance.
In the truck class, Kamaz reclaimed its crown with an 11th win since 2000. Gérard de Rooy (Iveco) put in a valiant effort, but fell to Andrey Karginov’s late surge.