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A day with the 'Dakar Machine'

2014-01-13 13:55

DAKAR RALLY 2014: The Ford team hard at work on one of its cars - getting ready for the next stage. Image: Ford

SALTA, Argentina - While the primary focus of the Dakar Rally is on the competitors there is also a huge 'Dakar machine' that operates behind the scenes looking after the competitors, vehicles, assistance crews, medical and catering staff, organisers, timekeepers, sponsors and media contingent - around 3 000 people all-in.

Each day the whole Dakar ensemble packs up and sets off for a new destination, covering anywhere between 400 and 700km. It's literally like creating a new city each day, and the advance crews constantly leap-frog each other to set up the infrastructure at the nominated locations for the bivouac before the first crews arrive.


Covering these vast distances is no mean feat, and is strictly controlled by ASO, the organisers. Each assistance or crew vehicle goes through the same scrutineering and safety checks as the race cars. In the case of Team Ford Racing that means two massive 26-ton six-wheel MAN trucks crewed by three people each that carry all the spares, tools and tyres. The team also uses five Ford Ranger double-cab pick-ups for the team management, race engineers, car chiefs, mechanics, physio therapist and media.

ASO has 120 vehicles (cars, trucks and buses) on the event, including 12 helicopters and 12 planes. With safety a key priority, every race and assistance vehicle is fitted with a GPS unit called a Tripy. This navigation device provides point-by-point directions to get to the bivouac each day. It is also used to monitor and control the speeds of all vehicles.

A maximum of 110km/h applies for the cars and bikes throughout the event on the public roads, while the trucks are restricted to 90. A 50km/h limit is used in the cities, towns and countless villages the event passes through over the two weeks of competition. The speed limits are strictly enforced and the Tripy flashes and beeps as soon as the posted speed is reached.

ASO imposes fines ranging of up to R13 000 depending on the nature and number of infractions, and the team's race car could incur significant time penalties and even exclusion from the Dakar for repeated transgressions.

Although this seems rather extreme, the Dakar and everyone participating in it has a huge responsibility to maintain the highest levels of safety for spectators and crews alike. This is particularly relevant considering that not one of the 35 Dakars held to date (this year is the 36th edition, although 2008 never actually started due to terrorist threats in North Africa) have been completed without the loss of life for competitors, organisers, assistance crew or spectators.


The situation is made all the more interesting with thousands upon thousands of enthusiastic (sometimes overly so) spectators lining the urban roads and even highways, clamouring to capture photographs of any Dakar-related vehicle and hoping to receive a reciprocal wave, score a cap or possibly even an autograph from the crew on board, even if they’re not the high-profile race drivers.

Fortunately the army and police are out in force – a staggering 24 000 along the entire route – attempting to keep matters in check. But you certainly need to remain cool, calm and alert at all times, particularly when travelling through the main cities where the crowds assemble en masse to support the Dakar.

Some of the roads in Argentina are in good condition, but as the event is typically located well away from major centres it covers a large number of unpaved roads, as well as many that are well beyond their sell-by date.

Fortunately the mountain passes that lead through the South American landscape are simply breathtaking, and equally entertaining to drive. Images of America's famous Pikes Peak hill climb and the snaking gravel Sani Pass that links South Africa with the mountain kingdom of Lesotho instantly come to mind.

On day 5 we experienced the astonishing beauty and driving exhilaration of the epic northern section of Ruta 40. The national route covers the full length of Argentina (around 5 140 km) and is described by National Geographic as one of the top 10 driving roads in the world. We deviated off Ruta 40 and onto the 307 to reach Tucuman, and what a treat it was!


The cities also have their unique charm. Or make that challenges... stop signs and traffic lights seem to be an exceptionally rare commodity in Argentina, even in its second-largest city, Rosario, which hosted the start of the 2014 Dakar.

Most of the city streets are neatly laid out in grids but only the main thoroughfares enjoy the benefit of any form of traffic control. For the rest you're left to your own devices and wits. There don't appear to be any rules, other than bigger is better which gives you a greater chance of commanding right of way. As usual, the taxis are mostly a law unto themselves. There's no opportunity for taking chances, neither is there for any hesitation.

According you need to carefully check every city block before crossing, making progress exasperatingly slow. And if you're relying on a GPS for navigation in the major cities, the towering buildings curtail satellite reception, so you can expect to be going around in circles.

But one overriding impression remains: with the race cars completing moe tham 9 300 km (including around 5500km of special stages), and the assistance vehicles doing well over 5 800km over the two weeks, the Dakar Rally really is a truly amazing adventure, in so many ways!

Bookmark Wheels24's special Dakar Rally section to keep up with event news and results.
Read more on:    argentina  |  dakar

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