The Dakar Rally with Race2Recovery: Dakar the hard way
Today started at 4am when my tent was shaken furiously by assistant team manager Justin Birchall. “Get up, the truck’s in trouble, we’re going to RV with it.” One of the curiosities of spending life with a team of ex-military personnel is their reliance on acronyms in place of normal speech. Birchall might be forgiven, except that he’s a civilian volunteer.
I scrambled out of my tent, stuffed my sleeping bag into its minuscule sack in record time and jumped aboard my Freelander. Some of the top teams have mechanics dedicated to ensuring that the support vehicles are in pristine condition. We do not and my vehicle wears the scars of a fortnight in the desert, which makes it look more authentic.
We met the truck on the road limping back to the bivouac. To go on it needed a new leaf spring, and it needed it fast. The entire Race2Recovery team was thrown into action, grinding, welding and moulding the new parts until the truck was ready to return to the stage. The race crew grabbed their helmets and clambered aboard, still in their filthy race suits from the day before (and the week before that).
Photographer Steve and I chased them to the start line, hoping for a heroic shot of the truck in full cry. Except that that didn’t happen. We arrived to find it parked just a few hundred yards into the stage. While the repair had fixed the immediate problem, it had thrown up another. “I can’t apply full lock,” said driver Mark Cullum. “That’d be a huge problem in the dunes.”
With the team on the special stage, they were unable to receive assistance from the support crews watching from the road nearby. As a film crew, we’re allowed to approach the vehicle, but can’t lend a hand. We stood helplessly as Cullum, co-driver and Chris Ratter and Daniel ‘Baz’ Whittingham worked to find a fix.
Ratter is an ace mechanic and was soon busy with the grinder the team carry as part of their kit. Everything in the truck is super-sized and the torque wrench is six foot long. Lying in the dirt, Cullum was forced into a huge effort just to release the nuts. He won’t thank me for telling you he’s well into his fifties but after a life dedicated to outdoor pursuits he’s absurdly fit. “For a team like us, the Dakar is less about racing and more about problem solving,” he said.
After an hour’s hard labour in 35 degrees heat, the problem had duly been solved and the truck was back on its way. Now there was just the small matter of negotiating 350km of special stage and a 349km road liaison. This is Dakar the hard way.
As I prepare to send this, the team has made it back to the bivouac and they’re prepping for the final stage. They have 535km more to travel, 157km of which is on a special stage. Should they make it, they’ll have driven an official distance of 9395km. Fingers crossed…
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