SALTA, Argentina – While the primary focus of the Dakar Rally is obviously on the competitors, there is also a massive Dakar machine that operates behind the scenes looking after the competitors, vehicles, assistance crews, medical and catering staff, organizers, timekeepers, sponsors and media contingent - around 3 000 people all-in.
Each day the whole Dakar ensemble packs up and sets off for a new destination, covering anywhere between 400 and 700 km. It's literally like creating a new city each day, and the advance crews constantly leap-frog each other to set up the infrastructure at the nominated locations for the bivouac before the first crews arrive.
Covering these vast distances is no mean feat, and is strictly controlled by ASO, the organizers. Each assistance or crew vehicle goes through the same scrutineering and safety checks as the race cars. In the case of Team Ford Racing that means two massive 26-ton six-wheel MAN trucks crewed with three people each that carry all the spares, tools and tyres. The team also uses five Ford Ranger double cab pick-ups for the team management, race engineers, car chiefs, mechanics, physio and media.
ASO alone has 120 vehicles (cars, trucks and buses) on the event, including 12 helicopters and an equal number of planes.
With safety a key priority, every race and assistance vehicle is fitted with a GPS unit called a Tripy. This navigation device provides point-by-point directions to get to the bivouac each day. It is also used to monitor and control the speeds of all vehicles.
A maximum speed of 110 km/h applies for the cars and bikes throughout the event on the public roads, while the trucks are restricted to 90 km/h. A 50 km/h limit is used in the cities, towns and countless villages the event passes through over the two weeks of competition. The speed limits are strictly enforced, and the Tripy flashes and beeps as soon as the posted speed is reached.
ASO imposes fines ranging from 300 to 1 000 Euros depending on the nature and number of infractions, and the team's race car could incur significant time penalties and even exclusion from the Dakar for repeated transgressions.
Although this seems rather extreme, the Dakar and everyone participating in it has a huge responsibility to maintain the highest levels of safety for spectators and crews alike. This is particularly relevant considering that not one of the 35 Dakars held to date (this year is the 36th edition, although 2008 never actually started due to terrorist threats in North Africa) have been completed without the loss of life for competitors, organisers, assistance crew or spectators.
The situation is made all the more interesting with thousands upon thousands of enthusiastic (sometimes overly so) spectators lining the urban roads and even highways, clamouring to capture photographs of any Dakar-related vehicle and hoping to receive a reciprocal wave, score a cap or possibly even an autograph from the crew on board, even if they’re not the high-profile race drivers.
Fortunately the army and police are out in force – a staggering 24 000 along the entire route – attempting to keep matters in check. But you certainly need to remain cool, calm and alert at all times, particularly when travelling through the main cities where the crows assemble en masse to support the Dakar.
Some of the roads in Argentina are in good condition, but as the event is typically located well away from major centres it covers a large number of unpaved roads, as well as many that are well beyond their sell-by date.
Fortunately the mountain passes that lead through the South American landscape are simply breathtaking, and equally entertaining to drive. Images of America's famous Pikes Peak hillclimb and the snaking gravel Sani Pass that links South Africa with the mountain kingdom of Lesotho instantly come to mind.
On day 5 we experienced the astonishing beauty and driving exhilaration of the epic northern section of Ruta 40. The national route covers the full length of Argentina (around 5 140 km) and is described by National Geographic as one of the top 10 driving roads in the world. We deviated off Ruta 40 and onto the 307 to reach Tucuman, and what a treat it was!
The setting leading into this magical mountain pass is equally mesmerizing. You climb out of the arid desert-like valley below and as the road reaches its crest the vista opens up to reveal the stunning Tafí valley with its lush green landscape of mountains, valleys and lakes. It honestly looks like a cut-and-paste job straight out of Switzerland or Austria.
Once through the town of Tafí del Valle the road carves its way down towards Tucuman along a sinewy hairpin-riddled 30 km stretch of tarmac through the Cumbres Calchaquíes mountain range. The spectacular road scythes through dense forests, and closely mimics the iconic stages of the Monte Carlo! Judging by the maps of the area this is but one of the many amazing driving roads in the area.
If you ever have the opportunity to visit Argentina, it's worth making the effort to experience it for yourself, particularly if you are a driving enthusiast. It really is that good! Ruta 51 near Salta is equally epic due to its desolate beauty as it climbs several thousand metres – but is more challenging with a mix of tarmac and gravel.
It's not all adrenaline-fuelled fun though. Heading off the provided assistance route to access spectator or so-called "press" points comes with its own set of challenges. Although the organizers provide the media with a selection of maps and GPS waypoints to follow the stage, how this relates to the layout of the particular special stage isn't provided, and neither is the anticipated timing.
ASO seems to insist on keeping everything absolutely top secret, hence it's generally a guessing game in terms of getting to decent viewing and photographic points, and at the right time. It's certainly an adventure, even for those not fortunate enough to be driving or navigating in a competitive vehicle.
One thing you certainly need to be prepared for is inordinately long waits in the scorching sun. You journey off to your selected points and then wait patiently for the cars to come through. On day three we waited four hours for the Team Ford Racing Ranger to appear at a crowded spectator point, yet to no avail due to the suspension damage incurred earlier in the stage.
On day five we headed far off the beaten track to access a stunning press point that carved a snaking path through the landscape along a dry river bed – only to eventually hear from the team via satellite phone that the stage had been shortened due to safety reasons as the temperature soared to a staggering 47 degrees Celsius, with several cars and bikes catching fire and burning out. And that was about four hours of patient waiting later.
Later, while speaking to one of the teams, we heard the heart-breaking story of how their crew stopped to replace a punctured tyre in the middle of a stage. Once they got going again, the retained heat in the destroyed wheel loaded on the back (teams face disqualification for leaving anything on the route) combined with the high ambient temperatures and heat soak from the car caused the damaged tyre to catch fire. Although the driver and navigator managed to escape unharmed, all that was left once the flames died out was a charred, bare metal skeleton. And another shattered Dakar dream.
The cities also have their unique charm. Or make that challenges ...
Stop signs and traffic lights seem to be an exceptionally rare commodity in Argentina, even in its second-largest city, Rosario, which hosted the start of this year's Dakar.
Most of the streets are neatly laid out in grid format, but only the main thoroughfares enjoy the benefit of any form of traffic control measures. For the rest you're left to your own devices and wits. There don't appear to be any rules, other than bigger is better which gives you a greater chance of commanding right of way. As usual, the taxis are mostly a law unto themselves. There's no opportunity for taking chances, neither is there for any hesitation.
According you need to carefully check every city block before crossing, making progress exasperatingly slow. And if you're relying on a GPS device for navigation in the major cities, the towering buildings severely curtail satellite reception, so you can expect to be going around in circles on several occasions.
But one overriding impression remains: with the race cars completing over 9 300 km (including around 5 500 km of special stages), and the assistance vehicles doing well over 5 800 km over the two weeks, the Dakar Rally really is a truly amazing adventure, in so many ways!