Sand blast

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The Dakar Rally offers the toughest of challenges, but prior to 2013 there had never been an entry quite like Race2Recovery. These are remarkable people, who refuse to allow life-changing injuries deflect their ambition

By Ed Foster

Here we go again. We’re in a sand bowl in the northern tip of the Sahara desert and the only way out is to reverse up one side until our Land Rover Defender comes to a halt, then put it in first and launch ourselves towards the ridge of one of the huge sand dunes known as razorbacks, upchanging frantically en route.

You have no idea what might be over the other side. An unsuspecting Bedouin, perhaps? They’re too wise for that, and in any case the Defender’s engine rips through the desert calm like a police siren on a misty morning in London. What we do know is that there will be a massive, 80-degree drop. We have to take it straight and need to be going fast enough to get up the dune, which in the heat of the afternoon offers less traction than usual.

Motor Sport is in the rear of the 4×4, one foot on the back of each front seat and one hand on the top of each doorframe. Sod the camera that occasionally hits me in the face, and sod the sand ladder, perched on all the equipment in the boot, that keeps clouting the back of my head.

First, second, third, bang. The Defender hits the bottom of the dune and we’re momentarily staring at a wall of sand. We’re now climbing, engine screaming, and all we can see is deep blue sky above the desert. More sky, sky, sky… and then we’re on the top; the front drops and below us is a sandy precipice. Your stomach is still over the other side of the dune, but the driver, British Cross Country Championship competitor Justin Birchall, already has his foot on the power. Any delay and the Defender might not want to come down the slope in a straight line. A quick glance lets us know that we’re in another sand bowl. Reposition hands and feet. Here we go again. Fla

Justin is sitting next to Corporal Tom Neathway, his co-driver, and by the time you read this one of the four Wildcats will hopefully have completed the 8500km Dakar Rally as part of the Race2Recovery Team. As we closed for press only one of the fleet remained in the rally, Matt O’Hare and Philip Gillespie still going strong in their Wildcat ‘Joy’.

Tackling the Dakar is a mammoth undertaking for any team, with long days and differing terrain that jumps from sand dunes to boulder fields, wadis [shallow river valleys] to gravel tracks. Race2Recovery is no ordinary team, though. It’s a group of injured servicemen from the US and the UK, bolstered by ablebodied members to help them with one of the toughest tasks they have faced.

*

This Sahara trip in early December is their final training session, a chance to learn to drive in sand dunes and an opportunity to get used to working in difficult environments. For most of us that would involve dealing with the dust, the daytime heat and freezing overnight temperatures. For some of the Race2Recovery team it also means seeing which prosthetics work best on sand, and finding out how they’re going to recover a vehicle buried in a dune. No easy task, even with four working limbs.

We’re in Defenders because their 4-litre, 283bhp Dakar Wildcats are already en route to South America. Not only do they have many parts in common, but as off-road specialist and tutor Mark Cullum points out, “If you can do razorbacks in Defenders, you’ll be all over them like a cheap suit once you get your Gucci Wildcats.” He’s referring to the smart spec of the Wildcats rather than any sponsorship deal with the Italian fashion house, but that’s not to say that the amazing story of Race2Recovery hasn’t attracted some big names — Land Rover, Google, The Royal Foundation, Bosch and many others are partners in the epic adventure.

One of the main protagonists on this trip is Neathway, a member of the Parachute Regiment since 2001, who triggered a booby trap on his last tour of Afghanistan in 2008. “I looked down,” he says, “and just saw bones poking from the ends of my legs. My feet had turned to what they called pink mist. They’d just disappeared.” The resulting infection meant that both his legs were taken off above the knee and his left arm had to be amputated above the elbow. His outlook on life remains amazingly bright and the only time his smile faded a little was when we were perched precariously on our side, stuck on a dune. Tom couldn’t move in case we went all the way over, the whole cabin was covered in sand and the pistons in his prosthetic legs had long given up the ghost. “Thanks Justin,” is all he said, smiling while we awaited help from the following car.

Race2Recovery, which for the Dakar consisted of four Wildcats, a race truck and five support vehicles, was set up by Captain Tony Harris and Neathway to prove just how much injured servicemen could do and to raise money for worthwhile causes. Harris drove one of the Wildcats and is also an injured serviceman — he stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device) in Afghanistan in 2009 and has since had his left leg amputated below the knee. “Like a lot of team members I really wanted to compete and challenge myself again,” he says in a break from the 10-hour drive from Marrakech, over the Atlas Mountains and down into the northern tip of the Sahara where the training began in earnest. “We’ve all had long and at times difficult recovery processes. For instance I had my left leg amputated after nine long months of surgery. We wanted to challenge ourselves and motor sport was one option that gave us the freedom to compete on the same playing field as everyone else in the hardest race in the world. We didn’t want to aim at anything less.

“We’re not only very keen to inspire others, but also look to the future in terms of what’s going to happen to us injured servicemen. It’s vital that we raised money for Help for Heroes as well, because you’ve got to remember that the mental scars are often worse than the physical ones. Not all injured servicemen are like the team here. Many will need a lot of help for the rest of their lives.”

Within two hours of Harris explaining his reasons for starting up Race2Recovery, we’re over the snowy Atlas Mountains and have dropped into Utah-like tundra. We’re still on a road, of sorts, but come nightfall we have made our last fuel stop in Foum Zguid, near the Algerian frontier, before cutting off-road towards the desert. Cullum gives us a point to go for on the navigation and we’re told that we’ll be the lead vehicle. The music that has been playing in the background for the last eight and a half hours is turned off and, despite the gradual onset of tiredness, Neathway and Birchall focus on the job in hand. We’re going about three times more slowly than they will on the Dakar, but the directions from Neathway are short and delivered with military precision: “Just over a kilometre and we’re turning left. 800 metres. There’ll be a track to the left-hand side of a building. 500 metres. Through this barrier, we coming up to it. There it is.” Which brings us to what can only be described as the worst ‘road’ in the world. It’s the only track through the boulder field, though, and we can’t complain because it was used on the Dakar in 2006 — when the raid still took place in Africa. That’s why we’re training in this part of Morocco — it was notorious Dakar terrain and is similar to what the team will face in South America, the new home for an event synonymous with a country no longer deemed safe enough to host it. An hour and a half and 35km later we’re spat out onto the salt flats, which sit on the edge of the desert. Camp is made and, after a surprisingly comfortable night in a tent, we’re woken at 6am in order to get into the dunes as early as possible.

Cullum starts his morning briefing as soon as the camp is packed away. “We had to change a shock on that one,” he says pointing at our Defender, “and it should have been changed when we were having scoff this morning. Reason being is that we’ve wasted 20 minutes of time that could have been spent on the road. It’s also a lesson in mechanical sympathy — the track we took last night is a notorious route. It’s pretty painful, particularly in these vehicles, because they aren’t designed for high speed on this terrain. You’ve got to protect your vehicle; you’ve got to protect your asset. On the Dakar if you drive like an idiot during the first five days, you’ll trash your Wildcat and you won’t complete the route. Stephane Peterhansel [the most successful competitor in Dakar history, with six motorbike and four car victories at the time of writing] had to nurse his MINI all the way through the 2012 event. He has mechanical sympathy and you need it, too.

“We’re about to head into the sand dunes but, looking at the map, if you were doing this for real, you’d notice the big sand sea and you’d box around it if you didn’t have to go in there for a check point. The direct route is not always the fastest way. However, sand dunes are the hardest terrain you can drive in — if you can handle these you’ll be fine in everything else.”

Soft sand and a heavy vehicle mean you need to follow strict rules and always bear in mind your traction, ground clearance and stability. With the Race2Recovery team working in pairs, so that one vehicle can help out another, it also means that they need to stay out of each other’s dust. Air filters and breathers will be filled with sand and if you suddenly have to start climbing to where the air is thinner, you’ll come to a grinding halt. A header tank with blocked breathers won’t be happy at 4975m above sea level, a record altitude the 2013 Dakar was due to reach.

There’s plenty more. You need to realise very quickly if you break a half-shaft, because the torque-biting diffs on the Defenders and Wildcats will start working overtime and weld themselves together in no time. Temperature sensors on some of the cars will help, but they’re not infallible. All coolants need to be kept at maximum levels, because of surge when cars are negotiating steep ascents or descents, and then there are the tyres: 15psi is perfect for driving on sand dunes thanks to the bigger footprint, but leave them at that pressure when you hit a boulder field and you’ll be mending punctures in a matter of minutes. Any tight turns will also risk popping the tyres off the rims. And, of course, your ground clearance is lower.

*

The tips keep coming: the sand’s early-morning and late-evening moisture content will help give you traction, but don’t follow in the tracks of another car because disturbed sand will lack grip. And look out for which way the wind is blowing. The windward side of the dunes is always grippier, fine dust having been blown over to the leeward side. If you have to drive into the wind, don’t be surprised if you’re doing one kilometre forward and five sideways in order to find an easier route.

“You always need to make sure you have equal pressure on each wheel, or each side, so that you’ve got equal grip,” says Cullum. To do that you need to head straight at a dune, straight up and straight down. The idea of approaching at an angle will mean more weight on the lower tyre, unequal pressure and a higher chance of getting stuck. More importantly if you drop off a razorback at an angle you’ll be tumbling down to the bottom before you can straighten the vehicle. “If you’re square on you can also decelerate quicker, which is pretty important if you’re heading for a great big wadi.”

“Carlos Sainz [who won the Dakar in 20101 is a bit of a hero of mine and I used to watch him when he was doing British rallies. I went out to Mauritania and saw him get stuck on a really low intensity dune because, back then, he didn’t have an understanding about ground pressure. It’s absolutely key.”

Ramp clearance (that between each axle) is obviously affected by taking things straight on, but thankfully sand is quite forgiving and as long as you have enough momentum you can break the top of the dunes. It all sounds relatively straightforward thanks to Cullum’s expert coaching, but five minutes into the sand sea we’re stuck because we ignored his advice and tried to drive across the face of a reasonably small dune. An hour of digging in the midday sun and we’re off again. The next dune stops us in our tracks — too little momentum and we’re beached on the top. It’s painful progress, even with five cars full of people to help recover us.

“We’ve established that Tom’s quite capable of digging us out if we do get stuck,” says Birchall. “We’ve talked about the fact that we’re going to get frustrated, we’re going to get tired because we’ll potentially be working on less than four hours of sleep. We’ll be open and frank, not take it personally and move on. His attitude is amazing, though. He doesn’t want his situation to put him behind and he doesn’t like being aided. You watch him in action and he just works around problems. He’s got a lot of tenacity, a lot of strength. It takes him three times as much effort as an able bodied person to do some things…. You’ve always got to remember that. You know, he used to do marathons in under three hours. He’s seriously fit.”

Even though each Wildcat has one able-bodied person and one injured ex-serviceman, the task that the team set itself by competing in the Dakar is surely one of the greatest motor sport undertakings of the past decade. Whatever happened in the actual event, it will no doubt do much to underline their capabilities. But what next?

Birchall will return to the British Cross Country Championship, but for many of the team their futures also lie in motor sport. Neathway already does PR for his girlfriend’s rally team and has done plenty of co-driving. “It started off as a charity thing,” he says about motor sport. “Then it overtook everything else. I haven’t been able to do anything on the side for the last two years!” That he didn’t even mention its contribution to his rehabilitation is testament to the man he is, to how the Race2Recovery team views itself and why its Dakar mission will have succeeded before the crews even reached the startline in Lima.

If you would like to help Race2Recovery raise money for Tedworth House and injured soldiers please visit www.race2recovery.com.

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