We started the 2006 Desert Challenge convinced that the car and team were in the best shape they'd ever been, but on Day two we suffered a component failure, or rather Tim did, and our hopes of a great finish were once again scuttled. Bob Morrison joined us once more to cover the story, and after playing his best "Get out of jail free" card, wrote the following great summary of the goings on in Liwa.
Words © 2007 by firstname.lastname@example.org
Luck's a funny thing. A little bit of good luck can make all the difference between a good experience and a great one, but a slice of bad luck can bring disaster. I reckon you can make your own good luck, or at least help Lady Luck along a bit, through planning and preparation, but if bad luck is going to strike, there is not a lot you can do about it. Not only that, but the chances are that it will strike you in threes.
As we sat on Mark Powell's veranda in Dubai, on the eve of the UAE Desert Challenge, sipping cold drinks before turning in, the subject of preparedness and luck cropped up. Driver and owner of Team Saluki, the Land Rover borne Middle East rally team, Mark reckoned that the vehicle was the best-prepared that it ever had been, and he felt that both he and co-driver Tim Ansell were also in the best physical shape that they could be for this most gruelling of FIA World Off-Road Rally Championship races. All that was needed, we both agreed, was a little bit of luck.
For my part, I believed that the team had already got it share of bad luck out the way. A few nights earlier when Craig McAteer and wife Caroline, the other Scottish representatives on Team Saluki, flew in with the airline which likes to think of itself as Britain's national carrier, their luggage failed to arrive at the same destination. It would take the airline three days to find a couple of hundred cases that somehow had been forgotten at Heathrow. Not being a fan that particular airline, and always having had good trips over the pond with Virgin Atlantic, I decided to try them out on their Heathrow-Dubai flight, which started up just after the previous Desert Challenge. Bad luck struck here too, as the first serious fog of winter (if you can call 35 degrees Centigrade winter) shut Dubai airport for three hours the following morning, causing our flight to be diverted in Abu Dhabi for an unscheduled refuelling stop ... along with a couple of dozen other long haul jets.
I can't blame Virgin for the fog, and the service the cabin crew provided was second to none, with their comedy act over the public address system keeping spirits up when the superb seat-back entertainment system had to be shut down for the duration of the refuel. We were just victims of bad luck, and compared to out third dose, this was nothing. Guess which fool drove through a red light camera within half an hour of picking up his loan Land Rover, resulting in a £75 fine and a phone call telling him to turn his vehicle in to the police pound next morning, as it had been impounded? That, however, is another story, which will have to wait until next month.
Earlier on in our last day in Dubai before heading off for the sands of the Abu Dhabi section of the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Desert, I visited the nearest Dubai Police fines office to hand over five crisp one hundred dirham notes and receive my instructions for turning in my vehicle next morning. With this chore out the way, I raced back (within the speed limits) to the course where the Prologue of the rally was underway, making it there just in time to catch the Saluki on her first racing leg since the 2005 Desert Challenge. It was autumn this year before the team managed to secure a primary sponsor, without which it is simply not possible to take on the major works teams of Mitsubishi, Volkswagen and BMW, not to mention the World Champion rally drivers that they sign up for the event, so Mark and Tim had not raced competitively all season. Fortunately, Castrol Edge stepped in to sponsor the team, so top level racing was on the cards again. However, not only was the Prologue to be the shakedown for the Rally Land Rover, but it would also be the first serious outing for the drivers since the 2005 Challenge.
The Saluki was seeded sixteenth for the 2006 Desert Challenge, bearing the door number 216 as a result. The Prologue, which takes place on a man-made course in Dubai to let the general public see the participating cars and bikes in action before they head off to the desert, is run in reverse order. On such a short course, where everything can be seen from the temporary grandstand and which the fastest vehicles complete in under three minutes, the Land Rover does not have the same acceleration and cannot reach such high speeds as some of the lighter and more aerodynamic cars, so Mark and Tim always expect to drop quite a few places. When the timings were announced, the Saluki had slipped to position 26, and this would be their start number next day, when the first Special Stage (SS1) commenced in the Desert of Dubai.
Next morning Lady Luck smiled on me, and the very nice senior police officer I met to hand over the keys to my on-loan LR3, as the Discovery 3 is known in the Middle East, took pity on me and gave me seven days' grace to allow me to cover the rally. I might have missed the official start at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, but due to the officer's understanding and my clean UK licence, though my brand new UAE licence had already a black mark against it, I made it down to the SS1 start before the Saluki. The guys started in 26th position (P26), but by the end of the 285 kilometre long stage, they had clawed their way up to cross the line in fourteenth position. The dog was well and truly out of the kennel. That evening, Mark and Tim were brimming with quiet confidence in their vehicle which, other than a niggling little electrical problem, seemed to be on superb form.
Day Two saw the guys start in P14, based on their performance on the previous leg, though a contested fifteen minute time penalty put them in nineteenth position overall. As they powered away from the start, up a horrendously soft steep incline beside the Humeem Road, known for catching out even the most experienced drivers, they passed the 2006 championship leader Sergey Shmakov and his co-driver Konstantin Meshcheryakov, whose vehicle had just expired with terminal drive train problems. The arduous UAE Desert Challenge had just claimed its first big name victims, but the twenty year old former British Army One-Ten was still racing in good form. The same, however, could not be said for co-driver Tim.
Well before the first Passage Control of the day, Tim had emptied the contents of his stomach. He does this a couple of times each year, as reading navigation notes in a Land Rover capable of peaking in excess of 180km/hr on the flat, but which throws the occupants around like a ping pong ball in a tumble driver when going over the dunes, can be a little tricky. The problem this day, however, was that Tim had not eaten a proper breakfast, so after his first barf there was nothing else for him to get rid of … though his stomach had not cottoned on to this. Fearing that his co-driver and close friend, who by now could not focus on his race notes, might be suffering from dehydration in the confines of the baking cab - outside shade temperature was heading for a peak of 43C that day - Tim hit the emergency button on the satellite tracking system and put in a voice message for assistance from Race Control. An Abu Dhabi Police Air Wing medevac helicopter was despatched to their location immediately, as a now near-delirious Tim was laid out on the vehicle's sand mats with a space blanket over his shaking body.
Tim's flight back to the medical centre at the bivouac area in the lea of Moreeb Hill was fast, and well within the 'golden hour' he was in the capable hands of Doctor Ricardo. As he had been one of the volunteer guinea pigs participating in the doctor's researches into the effects of desert dehydration on race drivers, Tim had given a blood sample only the previous evening, so it was possible to instantly compare his current blood state with a base sample. The results showed that Tim was not a dehydration victim, but that he had been afflicted by a serious bout of motion sickness. After a period of observation and the prescription of suitable tablets to see him through the rest of the week, Dr. Ricardo pronounced him fit to race again on Day 3. Unfortunately though, as Mark had been unable to complete the course single-handed due to the Land Rover being set up for two-man operation and all the necessary equipment for navigation being on Tim's side, he had to withdraw for the day and accept a massive fifteen hour time penalty if Team Saluki were to continue.
Next morning saw Tim doped-up, back to full fitness and raring to go. The guys knew they could never hope to be in the top ten with such an onerous time penalty against them, but being in thirtieth position overall, they once again had loads of other cars to chase and pass over the next three days. As someone who has suffered from motion sickness since childhood, I know that the only way to combat the affliction is through a full stomach, so for the rest of the race I bullied Tim into eating plenty of fresh bananas each morning. It worked, as although they started off in P30, the guys were the twelfth fastest over the 262 kilometre long SS3.
It takes remarkable driving and navigating skills to recover eighteen places over a single day's racing, but it must not be forgotten that without a superb service crew the vehicle would not last such a punishing course. The Team Saluki pit crew is primarily a volunteer one, consisting of Craig McAteer and Mark O'Leary from the UK and Ard 'Dutchgit' Lampers from the Netherlands, who give up two weeks of their annual holidays to keep the Land Rover running, assisted by Ricardo 'Rick' Galman from the Philippines. The Saluki wives and girlfriends, known for some reason as SWAGs, also play a major part in keeping the show on the road, as without their culinary and organisational skills, the guys would forget to eat, drink and put on fresh Castrol Edge shirts each day. Incidentally, this year Dutchgit got all soppy and romantic, proposing to girlfriend Tessa atop a sand dune as they piloted the service vehicle to a remote desert service area. This little bit of madness earned the couple front page headlines in the regional English language newspaper.
Back to the racing. On the fourth day the Special Stage was an incredible 380 kilometres long, which meant that a refuelling stop would be necessary 150 kilometres in. Unfortunately, that was where the gremlins struck, as after a successful refuel the electrical problem resurfaced and the Saluki just would not start. As nobody but the vehicle crew are allowed to work on the vehicle outside of the official service area, which was just a stone's throw away, Tim had to bump start the Land Rover on his own and on soft stand. Incredibly, he eventually managed it, but precious minutes had been lost. The lads immediately headed for the service area, where more minutes were lost as attempts were made to cure the problem, but eventually they got going again. The delay, however, saw them finish the day in a still credible seventeenth place.
Day 5 was the long drive back up to Dubai, with the team completing two Special Stages that involved nearly three hundred kilometres of desert driving, plus another 150 kilometres of Road Liaison stages. The Saluki crossed the line in 17th and 19th places respectively on SS5 and SS6, giving it 19th position overall for the day's racing. Final position for the race was 21st, but with a fifteen hour time penalty caused by Tim's casevac on Day 2 to contend with, this was understandable. Lady Luck may not have smiled too much on Team Saluki this year, but at least she was not as unkind as she was to fellow Castrol-sponsored racers Ari Vatanen and Fabrizia Pons, who had to withdraw on Day 3 when their works supported Touareg 2 suffered terminal mechanical failure. Just completing the arduous UAE Desert Challenge is an achievement, and it is easy to see why some of the world's top rally teams and drivers regard it as the perfect work-up for the Dakar.
For the 2007 season, the Welsh Baja joins the FIA World Off-Road Rally Championship circuit. As Mark's family residence in the UK is less than half an hour away and he regards the area as home ground, Team Saluki are hoping to enter this rally as well as the Desert Challenge. All that is needed now is a willing sponsor … and a Land Rover load of luck.
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