PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - The Dakar Rally is widely regarded as the toughest race in the world, and requires a high level of physical fitness, endurance and mental focus in order to succeed.
Accordingly the two Team Ford Racing crews that will be contesting Dakar 2014 are well into their preparations for this 14-day race that covers 9 300 km and races at altitudes of over 4 700 m through Argentina, Bolivia and Chile.
With three Dakar Rallies in the car category under his belt, including two top 10 finishes in 2012 and 2013, Argentinian driver Lucio Alvarez and his established co-driver Ronnie Graue know what it takes to conquer this incredibly tough test of man and machine.
“Physical training and diet are very important throughout the year in the build-up to Dakar,” Alvarez says. “We’re flat-out racing between five and six hours each day, and driving for up to 12 hours for 14 days straight, which makes it very tough on the body.
“With outside temperatures in excess of 40 degrees Celsius and cabin temperatures climbing to over 60 degrees in the car at times we have to be very fit and have the endurance to cope, and that takes a lot of preparation.”
Fortunately the crews will have the benefit of an air-conditioning system specially developed by Neil Woolridge Motorsport for the Ford Racing Rangers – a rare luxury in cross country racing, but one that will undoubtedly reduce fatigue and improve their performance, particularly in the long and hot desert stages.
Aside from the physical side, Alvarez says that maintaining concentration is the hardest part of the Dakar. “During the race we have to maintain high speeds in difficult terrain for at least five hours each day, and you need to be completely focused throughout.
“Due to the heat we lose a lot of body fluids, so it’s essential to drink a lot of water in the race. It is very important to have a balanced meal plan to sustain your energy otherwise your attention, stamina and reflexes are affected.”
South African driver Chris Visser has taken the high-tech approach towards his fitness regime and is working with a sports scientist from the University of Johannesburg to enhance his preparation for his first Dakar. He and co-driver Japie Badenhorst have rounded off the 2013 SA Cross Country Championship in second-place overall – an impressive feat considering it was the debut season for the brand new Ford Racing Ranger.
“I’m very race fit and used to long-distance driving, but I’m focusing on the physical side as we’re not used to doing such long races,” Visser says.
“My exercise programme involves training at gym in the morning and working with the sports scientist in the afternoon. The plan encompasses bodyweight-based exercises such as lunges, push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups, along with circuits and cycling.”
It will be Badenhorst’s first Dakar experience too. Although he has completed 12 Comrades Marathons, general fitness and physical strength are two key areas that he is focusing on in order to gain that special edge to last two tough weeks on the Dakar.
“Mental fitness is a big factor on the Dakar Rally, but it’s something I’ve overcome running the Comrades, which has taught me to ‘vasbyt’, or fight on till the end. The lack of sleep will also be an issue as will overall endurance, particularly if we get stuck in the dunes a lot.”
In terms of diet and supplements, Badenhorst indicates that they will be sticking with their proven formula of energy sachets, as used in running and endurance sports. “These sachets are ideal as they’re simply mixed with water, or we’ll just drink water on its own as maintaining body fluids and preventing dehydration is critical.”
The two race crews will also be looked after by the team’s own physiotherapist and paramedic, according to South Racing owner and logistics and project manager Scott Abraham, who has 10 Dakar Rallies under his belt.
“On Dakar you have to deal with extreme environments, sleep deprivation and tough physical and mental conditions, so you have to be extremely well prepared,” Abraham says. “For the drivers and co-drivers we have a physio and medic with us, who operate out of their own tent, and look after the team’s well-being throughout the 14-day race.”
It’s not just the fitness levels that are receiving attention though, as driving preparation and navigation are being fine-tuned too.
Alvarez is recognised as a dune specialist in his native Argentina, but he points out that there will be far fewer dune sections compared to previous years. “Ronnie and I are competing in the Argentinian Rally Championship this year in order to get more comfortable and improve our speeds on the rally stages, as there will be a lot of these on the 2014 Dakar Rally,” he explains.
For the South African crew, the months leading up to the start of the Dakar Rally in Rosario, Argentina, on 5 January have been used to familiarise themselves with certain aspects of the driving and, more crucially, the navigation systems.
“With the hard-surface stages I believe we will be on the pace, as it is fairly close to what we have in the local cross country championship,” says Visser. “However we don’t have much experience driving in the dunes, so we may struggle a bit there, but we learned a lot about driving the Ranger in the sand during the test session in Namibia in September, and Lucio and Ronnie gave us lots of valuable advice and guidance.”
Badenhorst admits that it’s going to be a steep learning curve for him in terms of navigation, as the road books and all of the communications used by ASO, the organisers of the Dakar Rally, are in French.
“The basic road book is similar to what we use in the SA championship, with the same kind of direction information and pictures, so it’s a matter of getting to grips with the key French words and abbreviations,” he says.
The GPS is also entirely new to the SA team, and the test session near Walvis Bay was their first experience with the system.
“Aside from learning a completely different GPS system, and figuring out how to program it and find the waypoints, we also have to understand the different types of waypoints used on the Dakar.”
Badenhorst explains that the open waypoint shows the required travel direction and distance immediately, while the security waypoints are used for important checkpoints and road crossings, for example.
“The hidden waypoints are a lot more difficult, as they only open up when you’re within a specific radius of the point, and only then does it reveal the next waypoint information, which is going to make the navigation very interesting,” he says.
“Fortunately Lucio and Ronnie were very helpful during the test in Namibia and set up a track to teach us how the system works. Their experience is invaluable and they were always keen to assist, which will certainly give us a significant advantage on our Dakar Rally debut.”