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2004 1,000 Dunes Challenge - 12th-13th February

Working title - 'Co-drive until you hurl!' Words by Tim Ansell

1000 Dunes - 14 stages of offroad sections, total distance 750 kms, of which 350 kms are special stages. Eight of the stages are run at night and is by far the toughest of the Emirates Motor Sports Federation Rally Championship.



“Preparation is everything” is a pretty good motto when it comes to rallying. If you’ve had a chance to practice the stages, make good pace notes and prepare yourself in plenty of time for the race, then you are likely to do well. Unfortunately Mark and I had achieved NONE of those objectives ahead of the 1000 Dunes Rally, and since it is the hardest of the 6 local rallies in the UAE, perhaps we should have known we’d be in for a long race.

I was only due to return from a business trip two days before the race, so Mark arranged to borrow the pace notes made by fellow competitors Dave Mabbs and Bryan Lightford, which I was to copy when I returned. Mark practiced some of the stages, but his own work commitments (don’t you hate it when work gets in the way of the really important stuff!) meant that his time spent on those stages was limited. Whilst I was away, at least I managed to read the operating manual for our GPS several times (well there’s not much else to do in Tehran in the evenings) because I knew there would be numerous references to GPS coordinates throughout Bryan’s notes, and I had never used the GPS fitted in the racer.

When I first had a chance to look at the notes I was taken by surprise - where I was expecting to see sharp right turns (a “Right 6” to Mark and I), Bryan was showing a “Right 3”, which to me meant a turn we could take almost at full speed. A quick phone call to Bryan clarified the situation but filled me with dread. It seems Bryan and Dave use a completely different numbering system to Mark and I, so their R3 was an R6 to me, their R4 was at least a R4, their R5 was a R3, and their R6 was an R2 to me. Now I had a day and a half to rewrite 35 pages of excellent pace notes, and on each page there were an average of about 30 turns recorded. So just 900 alterations to be made then, and if I made a single mistake, we could end up driving full throttle into a 90 degree bend at night. The pressure was on!

Ian and Mark had arranged with a local garage, Carwise, to “borrow” two of their engineers, Rick and Orlando, to act as service crew for the event. Our usual engineer Streaky was on holiday in the UK at the time so we had to make other arrangements. Obviously using different people than usual just added to the “unknown” factor in the build up to the race, but Rick and Orlando turned out to be an excellent team. Another welcome addition to the 1000 Dunes team was chef Alen Thong. Alen heads the U.A.E. Culinary Guild and is a keen off-roader and had offered to take care of the catering during the event – an offer we gratefully accepted.

The prologue was held on Wednesday afternoon – this determines the starting positions the next day, but the times are also added to the overall race times so it is an important part of the event. Mark and I had not seen the stage and had just one chance to drive round and familiarise ourselves with it before the racing started. In the event we did OK, finishing 14th of 38 starters, but in doing so we managed to shred one of the almost new Michelins on some half buried bricks. The 1000 Dunes has a reputation for being a rally which is tough on cars, and the first withdrawal came just 1 km into the prologue when a Nissan Patrol rolled on the approach to a left hairpin. What a start!

I picked up Bryan’s final set of notes, for the two long night stages, so I knew that Wednesday night would be a late one for me as I would have no other chance to finish my own notes. In the end I finished typing and altering the pace notes at 3am on Thursday, a process that had taken 2 hours longer than necessary after I accidentally deleted everything I’d done in the first two hours. I was already tired and making mistakes, and the race hadn’t even started…

Thursday morning and a very pleasant but time-consuming duty had to be performed. Mark, Ian and I met at the offices of Land Rover Middle East to sign a sponsorship deal for Team Saluki – the result of nearly 4 years of effort on Mark’s part. No time to pat ourselves on the back though – it was straight back to The Kennel to load the service truck, fix the new LightForce spot lights onto the racer and head off for the official start. I was still checking my notes as I was sure I must have made mistakes, and sure enough I found a couple, so I was praying I’d spotted them all and that there would be no unexpected surprises out in the desert.

Fadi Melki from Al Tayer (Land Rovers dealer for Dubai and the Northern Emirates) arrived with Tracie Mitchell at the start and she began to film us as she is making a documentary about the team, but I was really feeling tense and I know I didn’t say much to the camera. Too many things were running through my mind - it was a long race, I was already tired, it was my first night race, I was using someone else’s notes, Land Rover would be carefully watching how we did, I’d never used the GPS on race stages, etc. etc. etc. I still don’t know how Mark stays so calm during the build up to the events – having your co-driver on edge must be quite un-nerving for a driver so I must learn to relax in future.

Gordon “Sharky” Smith who was taking photos for the team had joined us at the start of stage one, which went well, and it was still daylight when we finished and headed out to the second stage. As we set off, what I hadn’t realised was that I had set the GPS only to “go to” the second waypoint, and once we had passed it, the GPS was insisting we should turn around! I started trying to re-select the route, at the same time keeping my place on the pace notes, and watch the track ahead. It proved impossible to do all three and I lost my place on the notes, but I knew that within 2 kms I had to count us down to an important right turn. Mark was yelling at me to watch the road ahead and forget the GPS, so all I could do was set the GPS to “Go to” the important waypoint. It wouldn’t be any help after that, but at least we wouldn’t miss the turn. Once we’d made the turn I was able to regain my place on the notes and the rest of the stage passed uneventfully.

Afterwards Mark told me that once we were “off notes” or “off GPS” it was important that I simply watch the road ahead for the next turn or crest, so I could warn him in advance whilst he was dealing with the next immediate 30 metres or so of the route. With two more co-driving lessons learned in the space of about 1 minute, I vowed not to set the GPS up incorrectly again, and to try not to lose track of the pace notes again. I managed the former, but failing to do the latter cost us dearly….

By now the sun had set, so stage three was to be my first night stage ever. The LightForce spots really are incredibly effective at illuminating the path ahead for a good 150 metres or more, but despite their help, I still managed to lose my place once again in the notes after about 5kms. Unfortunately this left Mark with no idea if each crest ahead was flat or dropped sharply, and before I could regain our position, we had dropped heavily over one crest and we were suddenly left without drive to the rear wheels. We had lost drive to the rear wheels and suspected the differential was damaged, so we started to disconnect the rear prop shaft and called the support team in to come and help us. The 1000 Dunes is unusual in that it is a “free service” race so we were able to accept assistance during the stage. With help from the whole support crew we were able to get moving again about 50 minutes after we had stopped, but now we had only 2 wheel drive and Mark did well to battle his way through the rest of the stage. When we finally made it to the finish, we were told that we had exceeded the maximum time allowed, so we made the decision to go straight back to the camp and fix the car, in order to re-join the race from leg two.

Sharky had raced back to “The Kennel” in Dubai to collect a spare differential and pulled up next to us at the camp just 30 seconds after we arrived. Chef Thong was asked to bring the dinner forward a couple of hours and whilst Rick and Orlando dismantled the diff and drive shafts at incredible speed, we grabbed the chance to sort out our camp. The first cars would start out on the second leg, stages 8 and 9, at around 12.30am, but due to our time penalties we wouldn’t leave the camp until about 2.30am.

I was feeling really miserable and wound up inside. I couldn’t look Mark in the eye as I was blaming myself for the break-down, and we knew that one of the key decision makers from Land Rover would be visiting us later, hoping to see how well we were doing. Then we realised that the problem was not the diff. but a broken half shaft, and we didn’t have any of the special Quaife half shafts available. Disaster. But only for a few minutes.

One of the great things about motor sport at a local level is the camaraderie amongst competitors and once again Dave and Bryan came to our aid, this time lending us a complete diff and a pair of half shafts. Thanks again 2B Racing. Rick and Orlando started rebuilding the axle, and by now Wouter from Land Rover had joined us and we all tucked into Alen’s culinary masterpieces. We may have been out in the desert at a rally bivouac but Team Saluki dined in style!! And if you ever need a clean container suitable to catch your differential oil in, you’ll find, as we did, that Chef Thong’s disposable aluminium trays are JUST the job.

Team spirits were high again as we made the re-start, and while the guys from Carwise tucked into a well earned but very late dinner, Mark and I headed off into the night toward stage 8. The one thing I couldn’t afford to do was to let Mark down again by losing my way, and yet incredibly, now the GPS would not function – just what I needed to make my growing anxiety even worse. For twenty five minutes I tried everything to make it work but there was no response, and as we lined up in the time control for the longest stage of the night, I was resigned to the fact that I’d be navigating without assistance. Less than 2 minutes to go and I switched it on for one last try. YES! – it suddenly sprang into life and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. And not a moment too soon.

By the time I’d selected our route on the screen we were off, and this time my calls were much, much better. I was getting a feel for Bryan’s notes and now realised that not every turn had been recorded. Anything that could be taken at full speed, whether a curve in the road or a flat crest, was usually NOT noted, and I was now able to follow the notes pretty well. We did go “off notes” once or twice, but I recovered again each time. It was a fast paced section with lots of changes in terrain and over 100 lines of notes, many of which involved complex combinations of crests, multiple turns in quick succession, and navigating by GPS calls to the driver. As we accelerated hard to the flying finish, and I had made my last call to Mark, the relief of tension must have hit me and I suddenly had a strong urge to throw up! I grabbed the time card from the official and told Mark to pull over, and as he did so I leapt from the car and started retching at the side of the track – probably much to the amusement of the officials but I was feeling too rotten to care.

After a few minutes I felt a little better and we drove round to start the 9th stage at 4.10am. I never really felt 100% until the moment we were flagged away, but for the next 37 minutes I forgot all about it, and concentrated on the notes. Again it went well, yet incredibly with just 1 km to go, once again I felt my stomach churning. This time I was ready for it and by the time we pulled up, I had unplugged the helmet intercom and undone my harness. I was out of the car in a shot and down on my hands and knees in the sand within seconds, oblivious to those around me. If anyone ever tells you rallying is glamorous, ignore them!

At least I knew we had finished the night stages now, and after regaining my composure, I eventually rode back to the bivouac in the comfort and air conditioning of Ian’s car while Mark drove the racer back. Mark and I were too exhausted to even get out of our race suits and we collapsed into the tent at 5am, where I dreamt of sleeping for 18 hours. Instead I was awake again just 90 minutes later, too cold to sleep and anyway light was streaming into the tent. Mark managed another hour’s sleep but I was resigned to feeling, and no doubt looking, like a Zombie for the rest of the day. We learned that there were now less than 20 starters, so if we could keep going we still had a chance of finishing within the first half of the original field of 36 cars.

Disaster struck Dave and Bryan of 2B Racing just one km into the 10th stage, when they rolled their car on a tight right hand bend – they had been in 2nd place at the time but all their efforts had been in vain. As we sat looking at their heavily damaged car at the start of the stage, I reminded Mark that we were a long way behind due to time penalties and there was no point in wrecking our car too. Stages 10 to 13 went well, and we saw a couple more cars which appeared to be out of the race, so we were still gaining places. As we lined up for the start of the final stage, our spirits were high again, as there were just a few kms of sand between us and a “finish” – my first one as co-driver.

Incredibly the drama wasn’t over for us though, as after only a couple of kms, the gearbox started making the most awful noises, and Mark had to nurse the car around the stage. I was counting down the distance to the end of the stage, and it was a huge relief for us both to see the last time control approaching. Our crew and supporters were all there to cheer us over the line, but they were blissfully unaware of just how much of a nerve wracking effort it had been to get that far!!

In the end we finished in 15th place, and with two other cars behind us, the field had been reduced in size by 50% in just 10 hours of racing by the infamous “1000 Dunes”. It felt great to finish, and although the result was in some ways disappointing, we had learned some valuable lessons about the preparation of the car, found three more excellent team members in Alen, Rick and Orlando, and provided Tracie with some great footage for her documentary…

Thanks to our whole support crew for what was truly a team effort.







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