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UAE Desert Challenge

This article was published in the Land Rover Monthly March edition and unleashed on the unsuspecting public. A big thank you goes to Richard Reavey who managed to produce this article even after he thought his creative juices had run dry...!
CORSAIRS OF THE SAND

By Richard Reavey

In the Arabia of days gone by, the desert was much like the sea elsewhere, a vast, empty home to marauding bands of brigands – hungry, stealthy, merciless. They would appear out the shimmering heat haze of the desert as a distant vision, only moments later to fall upon their victims - grown fat and comfortable in their wealthy urban ways. Only the extremely vigilant, those wealthy towns and settlements that could afford standing forces or technological deterrence, were able to hold out against these chimeric nomads on their “ships of the desert” as their camels were known…

“Buccaneers in a bread van”, was the somewhat pejorative manner in which Team Saluki was dismissed by a well funded fellow competitor prior to the start of the Marlboro UAE Desert Challenge 2002. Twenty-two hundred grueling kilometers later, the “bread van” - run by a troop of privateers on a shoestring budget - had finished in 5th place while the team that had so cavalierly dismissed them earlier had a baguette up their tailpipe. Team Saluki may have been short on money and technology, but they made up for it with skill, guts, and elbow grease.

The vaguely piratical duo that brought Team Saluki’s gutsy Defender 110 across the finish line on November 2nd were driver Mark Powell and navigator Paul Richards, amateurs in a field rife with international competition. The crew of Team Saluki that made this surprise showing possible was comprised of a cast of characters that would have done honor to any “black ship”. They included people as wide ranging as Dave Pryce, the team’s former navigator turned head of PR, to friends and family, who did everything from provide logistical support to getting up to their armpits in EP90 with the tech crew. Others took photographs, scouted logistic and service points, and ran errands. Finally, Mark’s wife Gayle not only provided moral support, she kept the troops in feed. Other friends had dragged their companies kicking and screaming to provide the only financial support the team got, while the local Land Rover dealer, Al-Tayer motors, supplied the technical support that Land Rover itself has so far failed to bring to motorsports.

The “bread van” that screamed over 2,200 km of brutal desert, ranging from the edge of the Empty Quarter to the harsh gravel plains that skirt the Hajar Mountains, was none other than a 4.5 litre V8 Defender 110. To those who so lovingly worked on it over the last year and campaigned it through the spring 2002 UAE Rally season in preparation for the Desert Challenge, it is a thing of beauty, albeit somewhat aerodynamically challenged. Team Saluki entered both the 1997 and 2000 Desert Challenges in Defender 110s. In 1997, their debut rally effort, they pulled off an impressive 14th place finish in a somewhat under-powered 3.5L V8. After various ups, and quite a few downs, the team was ready again for the 2000 Challenge but needed a new vehicle. In the end they purchased a Paul Ridgway prepared Defender 110 owned by none other than Bob Ives of Camel Trophy fame. Fitted with a 4.5L V8 from JE Engineering, it was a major step up from their 1997 vehicle. However, 2000 was not meant to be. After an astonishing early performance that saw the team in 8th place after day one of the event, day two ended in tragedy with a high speed roll that left their vehicle an almost total write-off but, luckily, nobody injured.

What transpired next speaks to the true-grit of Team Saluki. Far from losing their faith, the team looked to this tragedy as an opportunity to make significant design changes to their car – albeit on a budget. While the powerful 4.5L V8 and basic ancillaries had survived their roll, the chassis, bodywork, and suspension were history. The team’s own “Scrapheap Challenge” turned up a pristine and affordable chassis from a surprising source: a 110 that had allegedly been in Royal Service in Oman – as a palace dustbin truck! More searching located the equally lucky find of a sound rear body tub – unfortunately buried under a ton of goat droppings. With other donor vehicles offering up axles – later strengthened along with the extra lateral supports welded into the donor chassis – and other body parts, the new Saluki mobile began to take shape. Sporting the 300 litre fuel cell needed to quench that V8’s thirst across the empty quarter, HT Springs and dampers, a full FIA spec roll-cage, and an impressive electronic suite including multiple GPS and Terratrip computers, the 110 that emerged to compete in the final four rounds of the 2001/2 UAE rally season was a sleek and powerful competitor – with a somewhat chequered past!

The Marlboro UAE Desert Challenge is no trundle down the lane. It is the final round event of the FIA World Cup and an event that has been voted best on the circuit four times by the drivers themselves. In recent years it has been the deciding race in the Championship on a number of occasions. Only marginally less brutal than the famed Dakar Rally, the Challenge has grown exponentially in recent years attracting top class challengers from around the world. This year’s Challenge was held from October 29th – November 2nd and saw a field of 49 cars, 69 bikes, and 2 Kamaz trucks compete. Sadly, this year’s Challenge also saw it’s first fatality in 12 years when, on day two, the evening sweep teams found German biker Michael Seefeldt dead in the desert next to his bike. An autopsy later revealed heatstroke as the probable cause of death. Dehydration is a major concern in the desert heat and more than a few competitors spent evenings re-hydrating on an intravenous drip after a day in which they did not consume enough fluids.

Added to the conflict of man against nature is that of the stiff competition between teams. Among those present were Stephane Peterhansel and Hiroshi Masuoka of the Mitsubishi Ralliart team in debut works supported 2003 Pajero Evolutions that garnered 1st place for Peterhansel and navigator Jean-Paul Cottret. In fact, Mitsubishi works supported teams took the first three places, and Mitsubishis numbered five among the top ten. Team Saluki brought the only Land Rover to finish in the top 10 across the line. The French team of Drouet and Guerton achieved 12th in a very interesting Discovery, and the Germany based team of Matzker and Willis managed a somewhat disappointing 17th place finish in their TD5 90 despite excellent early performance that saw them in 6th place on days 2 and 3. Chronic turbo/intercooler and steering problems let down an otherwise impressive performance. While 11 of the 49 vehicles that started the Challenge were Land Rovers, including one entrant oddly named in the event documents as “227 – Land Rover Jeep”, only these three crossed the finish line 4 days later.

Given the stiff competition, including a major campaign by BMW with a fully supported X5 effort that ended in tears after repeated gearbox melt-downs, Team Saluki’s impressive results have to be chalked up to raw spirit – though perhaps not the kind you’re thinking of! Teamwork and commitment by all those involved allowed the talent and skill of Powell and Richards to shine in the blasting inferno of the Empty Quarter. John Wright drove 12 hours from Riyadh to enjoy the privilege of working on the car until 2:00 am most nights. David “Streaky” Chambers, the Barkers, Tim Ansell, and Gordon Smith, among many others, all lent a hand in the team’s impressive finish. Outclassed financially and outgunned by bigger engines and lighter vehicles, it came down to the fact that these amateurs were driving in their own backyard and in conditions that they understood better than most others. The swashbuckling cut and thrust of the driver/navigator team on the course matched up perfectly with the elan of a support team that reveled in being the under-dogs.

While Team Saluki was one of the few teams to finish each day without time penalties, the race was not without incident. Day One saw them in 15th place and 30 minutes off their target time, largely due to three unscheduled stops. Not far into the stage they stopped to assist a biker displaying his red card – indicating emergency assistance required. In the end, he was not seriously injured at all, but precious minutes had been eaten up. About half way through the stage they stopped to tow fellow competitors off a dune where they were bellied out and cross axled. In the process the shackle pin on the other team’s tow strop snapped with the strop and shackle smashing the rear window on the Saluki-mobile. With the clock ticking, Mark and Paul drove off trailing the strop behind them, only to be removed later in the day at one of the checkpoints. Finally, day one also witnessed the team’s only “stuck”. Fifteen minutes of energy sapping digging and use of sectional sand ladders exhumed the Defender. Other competitors paid dearly for getting stuck. Fellow Brits and Land Rover privateers Dave Mabbs and Andy Robinson became disastrously wedged in a gully on day two and after struggling across the finish line well down the field, Andy spent the night on a drip with heatstroke.

By the end of Day Two the problems that plague low budget private teams are looming at Team Saluki. Suspicions about the right rear hub are growing as the infra-red thermometer shows that tyre running consistently hotter than the others. Given that a hub/tyre failure caused the roll that ended Team Saluki’s 2000 Challenge, remedial action is decided on. A strip down reveals corroded caliper pistons, with only one showing any movement. With no spares, they are cleaned up and a not so silent prayer is said over the reassembled hub. News on the right front hub is even more disturbing. The legacy of a hard landing in the 1000 Dunes Rally earlier in the year, the swivel pins, bushes, and bearings are clearly worn with the wheel leaning slightly outboard. The used spare hubs on hand cannot yield much in the way of improvement, so it is repacked with grease and new parts are ordered from Dubai with the hope that they can be changed out after day three. When just after the start of day three the Saluki takes to the air in a big way and noses down hard, thoughts of the weak swivel leave members of the service crew watching in anguish and waiting for the rending sound they expect to hear. Despite the hard landing, the Saluki-mobile moves off unhindered and excels throughout the day.

The night of day three is living Hell for the service crew. A serious overhaul is undertaken after a day that saw numerous competitors drop out with mechanical failures. The news at 10:00 pm that Team Saluki has moved up to 5th place gives everyone a tremendous lift and the work goes on with renewed vigour. Changing out chassis bushes is a hated job at the best of times, doing it on a patch of sand at midnight produced some of the most foul language ever heard. The right rear tyre is still running hot and is changed out. The parts for the front right hub finally arrive near midnight, much to everyone’s relief. On inspection it turns out that the swivel pins are the wrong size. Bearings and bushes are replaced with the old swivel pins put back in. Grim looks are exchanged and the work continues until nearly 3:00 am. The service point for the next day is 300km away, and the service crew will have to set off in a mere three hours if they have any hope of reaching it. Meanwhile, some of the other teams, sporting interlock paving and hydraulic lifts at their service areas, have already sent their secondary service crews ahead to camp at the day four service point. In the end, the long night and the difficulties of desert navigation take their toll and the Team Saluki support crew lose their way. Having straight-lined the last 25km to the service point over terrain as challenging as anything faced by the competitors, and at similar speeds, they arrive in time to see Mark and Paul stop just ahead of them, only long enough to get their time card stamped. The 300km epic journey had been for naught. Nevertheless, throughout Day Four, Mark and Paul, free of maintenance problems, fought off challenges from the teams just behind them on day three and were able to hold on to their 5th position overall.

With finishes in 14th and 5th under their belts, Team Saluki now have their eyes on the podium for 2003. Options are already under discussion, but lighter and faster have to be part of the equation and rumour has it that a 100” Bowler Wildcat on sale in the UK is being seriously considered for their next effort. We certainly hope that Team Saluki will be able to keep it in the Land Rover family as they cruise the sands of the UAE in search of a top 3 finish next year.

In the mean time, for those of you that may think these desert dogs are barking mad, a warning: if you see a thundering cloud of dust hurtling across the desert, keep one eye out for the Jolly Roger, and the other on your backside!

And of course, in true Saluki fashion, Tim Ansell penned another song to celebrate:

An Ode to Off Road 2002

Ready for the race Two Thousand Two
Tim put the flags up, pdq
Gayle’s got plans for a nice big stew
We are Team Saluki

New navigator, name of Paul
He don’t read the maps at all
Praying for a miracle
We are Team Saluki

First day’s over, boys done well
Hope their bleedin’ heads don’t swell
Here comes Streaky, what’s that smell?
We are Team Saluki

Al Tayer crew boys work all night
Lito on the left side, John’s on the right
Check those wheel nuts – “nice & tight!”
We are Team Saluki

Day Two’s over, halfway there
Swivel bush, swivel bush, got no spare
Hear J.W. curse and swear
We are Team Saluki

Ian’s got his laser out
Rear wheel’s binding there’s no doubt
Stripped it, kicked it, give a clout
We are Team Saluki

Paul shouts “Slow down”, Mark says “Heck’
Airborne 10 feet off the deck
Sheila’s now a nervous wreck
We are Team Saluki

Third day’s over, back to the pit
Now JW’s covered in sh*t
Streaky makes the bushes fit
We are Team Saluki

Ian, Graham here they are
Drove so hard and drove so far
Can’t remove them from the bar
We are Team Saluki

Race is over we came 5th
Team Saluki take the pith
Who’s the best for racing with
We are Team Saluki

What’s in store Two Thousand Three
We’ll be makin’ history
First Land Rover VICTORY
We are Team Saluki

At the close of 2002, Team Saluki were in another one of those situations which put rallying on hold once again, with Mark being made redundant. The team who were on the verge of a breakthrough once again found that the proverbial brake calipers had slowly increased their hold on the runaway Team Saluki! Just what will 2003 bring, we wonder?



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