So, what's it like to actually ride in one of those Dakar trucks? I tried to get ahold of Robby Gordon's race team to see if I could take a few shotgun laps in his Touareg, but was told he was otherwise occupied for the week-slumming in some burg called Daytona. As luck would have it, on a recent trip overseas I got a chance to catch some seat time in one of those manly-looking forward-control pickups you see running at Dakar every year. And a manly ride it is-literally, a 17,200-pound English MAN LE 4x4 that competes at Dakar (technically, the Telefonica Rally) in Group 3-1 (4x4 trucks above 7,000 pounds).
The Man's owner/driver, Pep Vila, was a fixture on the European enduro circuit for many years before taking up off-road rallying a few years ago; a five-time Spanish cycling champion, he still keeps his first competition bikes, an early-'70s Montesa two-stroke and a Bultaco of like vintage, in the basement of his estate at Les Comes, Spain. ("Spanish bikes," he reminds gently, "for racing, the best.") Pep, who owns his own outdoor training and motorsports company-PRO-Motor-is a rarity among Dakar racers: a privateer in a world of mega-funded race teams. Even with the limitations of corporate non-sponsorship, Pep's managed to build one tough rally truck-he finished 12th in class at the '05 Dakar, tops among privateers and the top Spanish finisher.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the MAN is largely stock; when your 7.5L turbodiesel Six is rated for 676 lb-ft of torque from the factory, you don't need many aftermarket hop-up goodies for it, even for a four-by as massive as Pep's. The six-speed manual gearbox (with a 6.72 First) drives twin full-time two-speed transfer cases, which give the MAN an effective eight forward gears and eight half-gears from which to choose in normal operation. Air-locked, leaf-sprung, and airbag-assisted solid axles spin 4.58 gears. Forty-six-inch Pirelli Pistas on 20x10 rims comprise rolling stock. Crawl ratio (as if it mattered) is 192.4:1, and top speed for the MAN is a hair over 80 mph.
So how long did it take Pep to learn how to drive this brute after so many years of racing motorcycles?
"Still learning," he smiles, stuffing the truck into a 60mph corner.
Truth be known, the sight of Pep's behemoth careening around his private off-road race course is a lot scarier than actually riding in it. While engine, drivetrain, and wind noise are near-deafening, and cab and body lean are noticeable in corners (the MAN is almost 10 feet tall), overall ride quality is surprisingly stable. You can launch this monster over some steep berms at high speeds, but with gravity exerting its influence on 8 1/2 tons of vehicle, Pep's ride is never venturing too far from terra firma. And when it does, the pillowy Pirellis, four-wheel air-assist, and long-travel King remote-reservoir shocks-duals in front, singles out back-do an amazing job of softening the landings and controlling the ride. Still, this is not quite a Lexus on graded dirt, and after spending a little time in this rig, you realize why off-road racers wear kidney belts. All told, I had a high-compression blast riding in Pep's truck, and I'd gladly do it again ... but I'm keeping my day job all the same.
Owner: Pep Vila, Les Comes, Espana
Vehicle: MAN LE 18.224 LAC
Engine: 7.5L turbodiesel I-6
Horsepower/torque (lb-ft): 443/676
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Transfer case: Twin full-time two-speed with locking center diff
Suspension, f/r: Leaf springs, air helper springs; King shocks
Axles/differentials: MAN solid axles/pneumatic lockers
Ring and pinion: 4.58:1
Wheels: 20x10 steel
Tires: 395/85R20 Pirelli Pistas
Wheelbase (in.): 152.3
Length, chassis/cab (in.): 263.8
Height (in.): 119.7
Base weight (lb.): 17,270
Minimum ground clearance (in.): 16.9
Fuel capacity (gal.): 240