Tan-Tan-a city in Morocco-is a place that has special meaning to anyone who has been on the Dakar Rally. Why? Because it's where you finally leave civilization and start traversing the Sahara Desert. "You" could be a competitor, a mechanic, a chef, a medic, or even a spectator. It really doesn't matter-whatever your "role" in the Dakar, everyone gets to experience the adventure in one way or another (see sidebar).
From a competitor's viewpoint, the Dakar can be divided into three sections. First, there are the stages in Europe where there are thousands of spectators, yet they are not representative of the stages to come. Here, being fastest might put you in the lead temporarily but will likely have little or no bearing on the final results, and it is easy to lose the event with one slip.
Just ask four-time winner Ari Vatenen, driving a VW Race Touareg in the 2007 Dakar, who lost over 90 minutes when he drowned his engine in a water crossing, essentially putting him out of contention for an overall win.
Once the race crosses the Mediterranean by ferry, the stages in Morocco gradually get more and more difficult. They consist of a mixture of smooth tracks, rough trails, and pure sand dunes. However, the transit roads and the airfields, where the bivouacs are located, are relatively civilized. It's no surprise to see plenty of European race fans in their regular vehicles following the event through Morocco.
Then you reach Tan-Tan-a forsaken town on the southern boundary of Morocco. It's where the paved road ends soon after. Arriving at the bivouac, there is a real surprise for first-timers as they are greeted by a line of hundreds of European motorhomes at the airfield on the edge of town. It's as far as most Dakar fans get-it's like a pilgrimage.
Well before daybreak the next day, everyone on the event sets off on a rough track that leads to the border with Mauritania. It's a disputed border-this means there are minefields and one needs special permission to cross. After five days, the rally is now getting really serious for the competitors.
The officials open the border crossing and everyone involved in the rally convoys across, keeping to the safe "track" marked by cairns and used tires. From there on, it's essentially a straight blast across a few hundred miles of flat and relatively smooth desert terrain to small towns such as Zouerat and Atar in the middle of the bleak and windswept Sahara Desert. Normally it's one of the driest places in the world, but this year it was wet and muddy after it rained for several hours just as the competitors were transiting across the border.
A cursory glance at the final results of the 2007 Dakar make it look like a rerun of the previous year's event. Yes, Mitsubishi won again for the seventh straight time, with Stephane Peterhansel taking the win for the third time in a Mitsubishi Pajero/Montero Evolution.
However, while the record books will show that Mitsubishi won, it was not a clear-cut victory. Volkswagen has been putting on a serious attempt to unseat Mitsubishi's record number of wins. Last year, VW lead until the dunes in Mauritania, where the Mitsubishi drivers romped ahead and held onto their lead for a relatively easy victory.
This year, two VW drivers, Carlos Sainz and Giniel de Villiers, were in strong command from the start through the middle of the event. The Mitsubishi team was starting to get very worried, as they could not seem to win any stages. But bad luck hit the VW team when both the lead cars suffered mechanical problems on the second marathon stage in the remotest part of Mauritania. They lost several hours, allowing Mitsubishi to take the lead, which they held to the finish. In the end, VW had won 11 of the 14 stages. The other three were won by Hummer, BMW, and Schlesser-Ford (a buggy). Although no Mitsubishi drivers won any stages, their consistency paid off.
Mark Miller was the leading VW driver, finishing in Fourth position, the best finish for an American since Malcolm Smith finished fourth in 1988 in a Range Rover. As an aside, it should be noted that American motorcycle riders do quite well in the Dakar-Chris Blais finished Third overall on his KTM in the bike class. Robby Gordon managed to win one special stage in his Hummer, but he had too much downtime in the early stages, so he eventually finished in Eighth position. This year his co-driver was American Andy Girder, a former bike rider.
Other Americans included Mike Petersen from Las Vegas, a regular on the Baja and American LeMans sports car circuit, who finished in 23rd place in a buggy. Ronn Bailey, a colorful amateur racer also from Las Vegas, did not finish in his buggy.
The vast majority of competitors in the Dakar are amateurs who enter for the thrill of it. Most are in fairly stock Toyota, Mitsubishi, and Nissan SUVs. There are a few trucks but the most popular race vehicles are the Bowler and Desert Warrior, which are specials made in England based on Land Rovers. There were 35 that started and 21 finished-the highest in 18th place right behind the factory cars and ahead of all but a couple of privateers in buggies. Although they are nowhere as fast as the factory SUVs, these striking-looking vehicles appear to be a great steed for privateers.
(Editor's note: Freelance writer/photographer John Rettie, based in Santa Barbara, California, has covered the Dakar Rally half a dozen times, but this year was the first time he covered the whole distance.)
The first time I saw the Dakar was in 1985 when I spent a couple of days in Paris checking out the vehicles in scrutineering, and then photographing them race on an extremely muddy and wet course on the prologue just outside the city. Naturally, I dreamed of the day when I could cover the whole event from start to finish, but it is an expensive adventure to follow the race for more than two weeks either in a plane or by car.
I came nearest to seeing the whole race in 2000, when I saw the competitors at the start in Paris and then flew to Cairo three weeks later. I was driven in a Jeep Cherokee 800 miles into the Sahara Desert near the Libyan border. There I joined the competitors and saw them compete on three stages as they neared the end of their three-week adventure. Since then, I have flown in for the rest day in the middle of the event, and seen the racers in Mauritania, Mali, and Burkina Faso.
This year, I set aside the first three weeks of the year so I could cover the whole event, and luckily there was a seat waiting for me in one of three Touaregs that Volkswagen arranged for eight media members from the U.S. and Europe to follow the whole event from start to finish. These Touaregs were set up identically to the 10 Service Touaregs that were used by the team mechanics and support crews.
Underneath the brand-new 2008 body panels, the Touaregs were almost stock except for stiffer shocks and larger BFGoodrich tires. Inside, though, the vehicles were completely gutted and fitted with a full rollcage and three Recaro race bucket seats with six-point race harnesses. The missing back seat was set up for storage, as the rear cargo compartment was filled with two spares and an auxiliary fuel tank. Spares and shovels were crammed into nooks and crannies. In order to save weight, all trim and sound-deadening materials were removed.
Amazingly, the ride and comfort was pretty good, and the torquey V-6 turbodiesel engine provided plenty of performance. Noise levels were also tolerable, except for when we were crashing and banging over roads with enormous potholes every few yards.
As we were in an official media vehicle, we were subject to the same rules and regulations as the service vehicles. We had to take the vehicle through scrutineering to make sure all the safety equipment was in order and to get navigational equipment installed. Every vehicle, including the race cars, is fitted with a two-way GPS system that monitors every movement.
An annoying buzzer warns you when you are approaching a speed zone. In cities and villages, everyone is restricted to 30 or 50 kph (19 or 31 mph), and anyone caught speeding is fined and a competitor is given a severe time penalty. While it is a bummer at being so restricted, nobody complains as safety is paramount, and there are so many hazards from animals and people, especially in sub-Sahara Africa, that it's a wise approach.
On the open highways and off-road, the service vehicles are restricted to a maximum speed of 110 kph (69 mph) while the media are allowed a 120kph limit and competitors have no speed restriction. However, they are expected to obey national speed limits on highways when they are in transit between special stages.
Service crews have to keep to a prescribed route at all times that essentially follows the best highways (wherever there are highways) from one bivouac to the next. They are free to leave before the competitors start each morning, and more often than not, many of them arrive after the competitors. Distances between bivouacs range from a couple of hundred miles to over 1,000 miles.
Media are given a copy of the competitor's route book each evening and they have the choice of following the race route or the service route. Yes, we could have driven the actual race route if we had wanted to. Naturally this would have been an unwise thing to do as it would have taken us a long time and we would certainly have gotten stuck in sand dunes. Instead, we tried to go a short distance into the beginning of some special sections to see the racers.
Each day, we had to decide whether to set off in a timely fashion and follow the service route in order to get to the next bivouac before the competitors arrived. If we watched them compete, it would mean we would be setting off several hours late and we would therefore arrive after the competitors had completed the day's racing. We had a conflict of interest in our convoy of three Touaregs, as some journalists needed to file stories each day to their newspapers while others, like myself, had no immediate deadline but wanted to see and photograph the cars in action. By the end of our adventure, we had only managed to view the racers on six out of 14 stages. It reminded me of covering Baja, where you'll only see the competitors in action once-maybe twice if you're lucky.
However it's not really a deal-breaker, as half the fun of covering an event like the Dakar is the driving. You're on the same transit roads half the time, and every now and again you'll get passed by a race car. You end up seeing many service vehicles, and the crowds treat you as if you're a competitor, waving and cheering. The donkeys and camels don't know the difference, either, so you have to slow down or swerve to avoid them. During our 15-day, 5,500-mile trek, we did not suffer a single tire puncture or get stuck. One of the three media Touaregs got high-centered once in a sand wash and the other two suffered three punctures between them. Keeping track of fuel consumption was impossible as the Volkswagen pit crew refueled us on several occasions and we used our reserve fuel a couple of times.
From my perspective, the most boring part of the trip was the drive along the auto routes in Spain and Portugal, while the most exciting was on the last day of travel in Senegal. It was my turn to drive, when we set off for the final 300 miles from Tambacounda to Dakar. On the map, it was a straight shot along a major highway. However, it was built some time ago and was full of potholes virtually the whole way. Several competitors passed us at speed, and Giniel de Villiers told us later that it was "perfectly smooth" at speed as the Race Touaregs sailed over the potholes. We could not go as fast, so it was just a case of trying to avoid the worst ones by going from one side of the road to the other as if we were on slalom course. We just had to grin and bear the ones we couldn't avoid because of oncoming trucks and donkeys.
The city of Dakar has a reputation as being one of the craziest places in Africa for traffic. I don't doubt it. On this Saturday afternoon, the traffic was almost at a standstill. No big deal-I quickly figured out that you just went around the traffic by driving off the paved parts onto the dirt shoulder all the time, avoiding the people, the donkeys, and the fruit stands. Traffic lights were just advisory and policemen waving you to stop were treated like a yellow caution light. It was an adrenaline rush-not unlike a reality video game.