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  • Man Versus Nature - 2010 Dakar Rally

Man Versus Nature - 2010 Dakar Rally

4,500 Miles In 17 Days: Part 1

Harry Wagner
Jul 1, 2010
Photographers: Harry Wagner
For off-road enthusiasts, there are few races that hold the mystique and allure of the Dakar Rally. Editor David Kennedy covered the rally last year, when Volkswagen made history by being the first team to win the Dakar using a fuel-efficient, high-torque diesel engine. Diesel Power returned to cover this amazing race again in 2010, only this time instead of piloting a Volkswagen Touareg press vehicle, we were riding in Darren Skilton's huge MAN-each letter is pronounced individually (M-A-N) like you pronounce GMC-support truck with other American journalists on a 17-day, 4,500-mile road trip across South America. Diesel support trucks like Skilton's are the backbone of the Dakar Rally, operating as mobile service trucks filled with every part imaginable-and they still run through the same treacherous course as the race vehicles.
Photo 2/11   |   dakar Rally Support Vehicle support Truck
Before The Rally
Before the race begins, all the vehicles in the race-whether motorcycles, race cars, or support trucks-are subject to a tech inspection known as scrutineering. The Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) that organizes the Dakar thoroughly inspects all vehicles for safety and ensures race vehicles meet class requirements. Scrutineering also allowed us to check out all of the cool diesel cars and trucks in the race before they got dirty.
Of the hundreds of vehicles we saw during scrutineering, Robby Gordon's Freightliner support trucks created the biggest stir. These six-wheel-drive semitrucks are a dramatic departure from traditional support trucks. While longer and lower than the typical MAN or Tatra truck, the Freightliners were rolling fabrication shops complete with a lathe, mill, and all the supplies you would need to fix just about any problem.
How The Dakar Rally Works
Two courses are generally set out from each bivouac. The racecourse consists of untimed liaison sections that are generally on paved roads, and timed specials that take place in the dirt, gravel, and dunes. Competitors navigate through these two types of courses each day using a road book and a trip meter-GPS is not permitted in the competition. Press and some support vehicles take an assistance route directly from one bivouac (the nightly campsite and pit stop) to the next and are allowed to use GPS to navigate. This presented a problem for us. We wanted to catch the action on the racecourse, however, we did not want to beat up the MAN truck and take too long to travel from one stage to the next. As a result, we relied on good old-fashioned maps and followed the assistance route until it converged or came close to the racecourse, at which point we intersected the course to watch the race and shoot photos.
Day 1, Buenos Aires to Colon (197 Miles Today, 197 Total)
The race began late on New Year's Day, after a wild night in Buenos Aires. All of the competitors came across the podium at the start in front of a crowd of thousands before taking the freeway to Colon, Argentina, 200 miles away. There was no timed (called a "special") stage on this day, only the "liaison" to Colon, but the scene was still overwhelming. The freeway was lined with people five deep nearly all the way from Buenos Aires to Colon. It quickly became apparent to us that Argentines take their motorsports seriously. As we drove along, Darren set the ground rules for the trip. "I don't want to break anything, and I don't want to have to change a 300-pound tire."
Photo 3/11   |   All vehicles that are part of the Dakar Rally have to go through scrutineering to be evaluated for safety and conformance with class rules prior to the race. Robby Gordon's Freightliner support trucks caused the biggest stir, as they are a dramatic departure from the traditional Dakar support truck.
Day 2, Colon to Cordoba (341 Miles Today, 538 Total)
The first special stage was held on a fast gravel road that is used for World Rally Championship (WRC) racing. The motorcycles left the bivouac at 4:25 a.m. and were long gone by the time we awoke. The grim reality set in that if we wanted to see action during the Dakar Rally, we weren't going to be getting much sleep during the next two weeks.
Day 3, Cordoba to La Rioja (281 Miles Today, 819 Total)
We awoke to rain in Cordoba and felt sorry for the motorcycle riders that had to start their day soaking wet. The assistance road was 280 miles through a series of small towns, and it took us so long to travel that we did not have an opportunity to see any of the race. We did, however, see Robby Gordon at a Shell station along the way, where his HUMMER H3 race vehicle was surrounded by a mob of people. Darren attempted to stop at Shell stations whenever possible, since they seem to have the most reliable fuel in South America.
Photo 4/11   |   The crowds that lined the freeways, overpasses, and tollbooths in Argentina were unreal. Families, little kids, elderly couples-it was like nothing we have ever seen at an event in the United States.
At this point we were getting less than five hours of sleep a night before continuing our trek westward across South America. As a result, we resorted to sleeping in the spacious cab of the MAN truck while on the road. Of course, that didn't help Darren, who did all the driving. The best sleeping setup consisted of a jacket over the window, the five-point harness loosely attached, ear plugs, and a neck pillow. We slept like that for the next two weeks.
Day 4, La Rioja to Fiambala (249 Miles Today, 1,068 Total)
In an attempt to get ahead of the race action, we drove straight through to Fiambala to the end of the special stage. We arrived just as the first motorcycles were completing the stage-at least two hours ahead of the cars and trucks. This gave us plenty of time to find a great spot to shoot photos of the racers as they came through. First through was Stephane Peterhansel in his diesel BMW X-Raid, followed by Carlos Sainz and Nasser Al-Attiyah in their diesel-powered Volkswagen Touaregs. It was a long time before any other vehicles passed, and some drivers didn't emerge from the 20 miles of dunes until well into the night.
Photo 5/11   |   This would be our home for the next two weeks. The MAN truck cabin was plenty big, but organizing and storing our maps, jackets, water, and other items was still a challenge.
The bivouac in Fiambala was quite windy and dusty, so we continued 50 miles up the road and slept in the foothills of the Andes, at 10,000 feet. Not only was it considerably quieter than the bivouac, the stars were absolutely amazing with no light pollution around.
Day 5, Fiambala to Copiapo (295 Miles Today, 1,363 Total)
A spectacular sunrise greeted us in the morning, which bode well for the day in which we had to cross the Andes, not to mention the border into Chile. Argentina and Chile are not the friendliest of neighbors, and the food items we were allowed to bring across the border were limited. Fortunately, the only problem we had as we crossed through the 15,600-foot mountain pass was staying awake due to lack of oxygen. It was hard to believe that we were traveling through a pass higher than any peak in the continental United States, still looking up at mountains another 5,000 feet above us. We were all thankful for the turbocharged diesel in the MAN truck as we passed many naturally aspirated gasoline-powered vehicles wheezing their way through the Andes
Photo 6/11   |   The bikes started ahead of the cars every day, and these guys were the true studs of the rally. In addition to riding over brutal terrain, they have to navigate as well. We think the torque and fuel mileage of a diesel bike would be a huge advantage, but gasoline engines currently dominate the class.
On the descent down into Copiapo, we stopped to take photos of the stunning landscape when a decrepit-looking motorhome rolled up behind us. The low-slung RV had punctured its fuel tank and was running the diesel engine off of a jerry can strapped next to the engine! Darren managed to patch the tank back together with some brake cleaner, JB Weld, and duct tape-and we gave them enough fuel to coast to the next town. On a trip this long, we could use all the good karma we could get.
Day 6, Copiapo to Antofagasta (373 Miles Today, 1,736 Total)
As we drove north along the coast from Copiapo to Antofagasta, the vegetation continued to grow sparser. Soon, there was no vegetation at all, despite the fact that we were right next to the Pacific Ocean. The Atacama Desert is the driest place in the world; 40 times drier than Death Valley. We stopped at a graveyard that was as brown as the scorched earth that it occupied. The crosses were made from the wood of old furniture and the flowers were tissue paper. Death was just as unforgiving as life was there.
Photo 7/11   |   On the fourth night, we slept outside the bivouac in the foothills of the Andes. The solitude was a welcome change, and the stars were like nothing we had ever seen.
Fortunately, our map skills continued to improve, and Darren managed to pilot the MAN truck down a graded road that connected the freeway to the racecourse. We arrived just in time to see Cyril Depres come past as the lead motorcycle. In fact, he blew past a turn and nearly collided with us! We parked the truck at a safe location and watched as the other bikes, cars, and trucks came through. Nearly all the motorcycles missed the turn, as it was not well marked. The line was burned in by the time the cars and trucks arrived, though, and with the addition of a dedicated navigator, few of them had any issues finding the turn. By the end of the race, the lead car had completed all the special stages in two hours less than the lead bike, and navigation was the main reason why.
Photo 8/11   |   Does this look safe to you? These guys give a new meaning to the term direct injection. Note the jerry can fuel tank (arrow).
Day 7, Antofagasta to Iquique (235 Miles Today, 1,971 Total)
Chileans didn't seem nearly as interested in the race as the Argentines were. This was regrettable, since the terrain in the Atacama Desert is the best we encountered on the rally. Unlike the frenzy we experienced along the roads of Argentina, there was hardly anyone showing up for the rally in Chile. Instead, Chileans appeared to be hard at work. Copper and wine are its biggest exports, and mines dot the hillsides, while vineyards occupy most of the lowlands
Photo 9/11   |   This cemetery in the Atacama desert was eerie and monochromatic. Even the flowers were made from tissue paper, since nothing grows here.
It's a shame that there were not more people at the end of the special stage in Iquique, because the scene is nearly impossible to explain with words. Picture the biggest sand dunes you can imagine plunging more than a mile straight into the sea. Once again, the diesel Volkswagens and BMWs were out front. The most exciting moment happened when Robby Gordon's vehicle passed a huge Kamaz T4 truck in midair at the end of the stage (look for "USA vs. Russia" on YouTube). Robby was traveling at more than 100 mph, but with a truck that weighs four times as much as Robby's Hummer, Vladimir Chagin didn't give him any room.
Photo 10/11   |   By the sixth day of the Dakar, fatigue was starting to set in with the motorcycle riders, and that led to mistakes and injuries.
Day 8, Rest Day in Iquique (0 Miles Today! 1,971 Total)
After a seafood dinner in Iquique, we slept on the racecourse-5 miles into the dunes-so we could watch all the vehicles come by in the morning. Since we were already on the course, we could be certain that we wouldn't miss the action. The drivers did not disappoint, and it was mechanized mayhem as the soft sand got churned up and the back markers and T5 support trucks started to look for different lines.
Photo 11/11   |   Volkswagen fielded five diesel Touaregs in an effort to repeat its 2009 Dakar victory. Carlos Sainz jumped out to an early lead in the rally with fast, consistent driving.
Instead of following the race to Antofagasta, where the ASO would take an official rest day, we decide to stay at the Terrado Suites on the beach in Iquique. After taking our first hot shower in a week, we relaxed at the hotel and enjoyed incredibly fresh seafood before sampling the Iquique nightlife. Did Iquique mesmerize us to the point that we abandoned the race? Did we end up in a grubby Chilean jail cell? Check back next month to find out.