Tuareg Rally, Day 5: Dune Race, Repairs And A Ride In The MAN Race Truck

A special stage, known as the dune race, took place on the fifth day of the Rally. As Rainer put it at the briefing the evening before, “Tomorrow, navigation is not important.”

The racers would have to complete several rounds of the same circuit in as short a time as possible. The amateur cars and motorcycles would race for two rounds and the “Profi” cars and bikes for four. The Finish Line for the cars was at the base of a very steep dune, while the motorbike finish was at the top. If the riders weren’t able climb to the top on their bikes, they would have to do it on foot.

That sounded like something worth seeing. Since Stéphane and Edouard were going to spend most of the day working on the Protruck, cleaning and repairing the wheel bearings and fashioning an inner seal to keep the sand out, we had planned to get an extra hour of sleep and then head up to the Finish Line on foot to get some photos.

We never made it.

We needed to repair the tire that had blown out on the way to Merzouga; it wouldn’t be prudent to start back without a ready spare. We went with Caro to Risani for some supplies, including talc to sprinkle inside the tire so that the air chamber would move freely inside without rubbing or sticking. By the time we got back it was late. Everyone at camp wanted lunch, and we needed to go over to see the RR Belgica team.

We had gotten a spare air chamber to fit our tire from the MAN KAT on the Orga team, and the RR Belgica guys were willing help us inflate and mount it on the rim. This is a tricky procedure because the rims are special and consist of several pieces. If they aren’t put together correctly, inflating the tire can be dangerous, since the different parts of the rim can fly apart because of the air pressure. The RR Belgica guys had experience with the procedure, and we were happy to have their help. There wouldn’t be any time to see the end of the day’s race. We’d have to settle for watching the video at the briefing later that evening.

By the time we got over to see our new friends on the service team for RR Belgica, their MAN had already finished the day’s race. Kris helped us mount our spare tire, and then Wouter, the pilot, asked us if we’d like to take a quick ride over the dunes with him to a photo shoot. Of course we said yes!

The MAN TGA 480 was prepared by MAN Racing. When you accelerate directly toward the dunes, the 750+ hp of its 6 inline cylinder 13L engine make its 10 tons seem light and agile. It’s not quite as loud as the Tatra, there’s a little more room in the cabin since there’s no couchette, and the instruments are a little less rustic (they even have a sound system).

The sensation of going over the dunes is like being on a roller coaster. Awesome. Imagine doing that all day!

By the time we took the repaired spare tire back to camp, our other drivers had returned from the race. Without having to to worry about navigation, they had had a fantastic day driving over the dunes in their little roller-coaster cars and were back relatively early.

Florian and Yvan were checking the steering. A Polaris had run into them during the race and had bent the tie rod. They’d made a repair in the dunes but were checking it over to make sure everything was ok.

Sylvain/Pascal and Raoul/Cécile had driven well and since they were in early, there was plenty of time to complete the maintenance needed before the return to Missor the next day.

After the briefing we decided to go out to eat together in one of the local restaurants instead of at the hotel. It wasn’t often we had an evening relaxed enough to enjoy such a luxury.

Tuareg Rally, Day 4: Kingstage Over 200 Kilometers Of Dunes

The start of the fourth day of the rally was spectacular. The cars started simultaneously, lined up side-by-side, a face-off with the desert. The motorcycle start was Le Mans-style, each rider running to mount and start his bike on the signal.

The view from Stéphane and Caro’s Protruck emphasized just how small the Rally was on the immense scale of the desert.

Ahead lay four stages and 16 checkpoints over 200-250km of dunes in the Erg Chebi, the exact distance depending on how the drivers chose to navigate the dunes. At the briefing the evening before, Rainer had said that very few of the participants would master all the stages, and that some drivers might get stuck and have to sleep overnight in the dunes if they couldn’t be helped out in time. “You should prepare for this,” he said. Florian and Yvan seemed worried when we recounted this advice at the dinner table, but they looked relaxed and confident at the starting line.

Sylvain and Cécile checked over the GPS positions one last time while waiting.

The photographers were also waiting at the top of a dune to film the race as it got underway.

When Rainer gave the starting signal, it was chaos for a few minutes; cars were everywhere as the drivers looked for the quickest way over the short line of dunes and onto the fast dirt track that led to the first checkpoint.

One of the Wildcats came over the first dune with a burst of power, only to hit the bottom hard on the other side, breaking both axles. The day was over for them, but they took the car back to camp where the mechanics replaced the rear axle. They’d start again tomorrow, finishing the race as a two-wheel drive instead of four.

Florian and Yvan had also gotten off to a slow start after having been squeezed into a difficult trajectory by two cars who closed in on either side. As a result, they were stuck in the sand out of sight behind a dune, and we didn’t realize it until several minutes later when they’d dug out the car and got back on the way. Suddenly, they were coming out from behind a dune and then heading off surely into the horizon where the others had disappeared a short time ago.

We stayed to watch the motorcycles start Le Mans-style, with each rider running to his bike on the signal. Once they were gone, we got into the car and drove over to the first CheckPoint to wait for our drivers to come in after the fast stage on the dirt track.

Sylvain arrived first of our group, followed by Raoul/Cécile and Stéphane/Caro.

The day had started out fast, so we didn’t hang around too long at the first CheckPoint, hoping to get some good pictures of the cars coming out of the big dunes at CheckPoint 2.

We watched one motorcycle rider winding his way down from the top of the dunes, slipping on a flat gravel area at the bottom about 100 meters from the CheckPoint. He called out to us that he’d done all of the Stage without a single fall, only to wipe out meters from the end.

Sylvain and Pascal were the fourth car to pass CheckPoint 2, and they took a minute to go over the roadbook together before heading off in the direction of CheckPoint 3.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to stay to see any of our other racers; Stéphane and Caro were on the way down the dunes but were having trouble with the wheel bearings again and needed assistance. We had to go back to camp and get the MAN KAT. We’d drive it at close as possible to their position, and then go to meet them with the JK Rubicon.

On the way, we stopped to fill up the tank, and while we were paying for the gas and a quick snack that would have to serve as lunch, we were approached by a young man who heard us speaking French and was curious about the rally. He turned out to be a stunt driver on location with the crew who was filming Intersection, a new film directed by David Marconi and produced by Luc Besson in which a car crash on a remote Moroccan road leads to a strange turn of events. We would have liked to have been able to talk with him longer, but we didn’t have time to linger.

Back at the camp, we set out with the MAN KAT and the Rubicon toward the GPS coordinates Stéphane had sent. He wasn’t far from the second CheckPoint, so we lost time as we had to go all the way to camp and then back. At the bottom of the dunes, a local man on a moped gave us some tips on how to reach Stéphane’s location without getting stuck. He said it would be more difficult to go straight up the dune, advising us instead to head up east of Stéphane’s position and then change course to meet him. We followed his advice and didn’t have any trouble.

A few minutes after we arrived, we were surprised to hear the sound of a motor. Looking around we saw it was the local man on the moped. He parked his bike in the sand, dismounted and said “The Jeep climbs well.” Since he seemed surprised, we asked if we had not followed his instructions, and he said “Well, not exactly!”

Stéphane had already started to do what he could while waiting for us. Today it was the wheel bearings on the other wheel, and Edouard got to work with him right away.

Within a few hours, they had the Protruck ready to drive out of the dunes, but it wouldn’t be possible to resume the race again until the cause of the problem had been addressed. Without a way to keep sand and gravel from getting into the bearings in the first place, Stéphane and Caro would have the same problem every day. Since they didn’t have the original part, Stéphane and Edouard didn’t have much choice except to make a cover to seal the bearing. If the work wasn’t finished in time to start the race tomorrow, the team would take a penalty for missing the day.

Tuareg Rally, Day 3: Hell’s Garden, Labyrinth And Dunes Around Merzouga

The mechanics had worked until late in the night to prepare the cars for the Start of Day 3. Since everything was ready, we ate a relaxed breakfast before heading over to the camp. We had a bad surprise; the Protruck’s left rear tire was flat.

As if someone had flipped a power switch, everyone was suddenly full of energy. The crew opened the truck to take out the tools and had the tire changed in 5 minutes flat. In another five minutes, the tire had been inspected, inflated, and remounted on the Protruck in place of the spare. Five minutes more, and Stéphane and Caro were on their way to the Start.

Since we had to pack up the equipment we had used, we’d never have time to make it to the Start before most of our cars were on the way, so we set off for the first photo point at Check Point 2, near the end of the second Special in the dunes. We were among the first to arrive and surveyed the landscape for the best place from which to watch the competitors arrive. It wasn’t long after that the official photographers decided to join us, “You should trust the amateurs,” one of them said. He even asked us to record some video with his camera while he was shooting stills.

The first to arrive were the motorcycles, but not long after we saw the first car coming over the top of the dune. Sylvain was among the first of the cars to arrive.

Not long after a few unsuspecting dromedaries showed up and the contestants had to navigate around them as well as the dunes. When the RR Belgica Team’s MAN came over the dune, the photo opportunity couldn’t have been better if it had been staged.

Florian and Yvan arrived soon after. They had made good time on the first stages in their Jeep Cherokee.

It was interesting to share the dune with the official photographers, to watch them work and learn by observation.

We got lots of great photos from this checkpoint, but we weren’t able to stay longer to photograph the other cars in the team, because Stéphane and Caro called for assistance. They were having trouble with the wheel hubs; the wheels wouldn’t turn, and we had to go help them in the dunes.

Stéphane found the problem: a cover was missing on the side of the hub toward the interior of the car, so dirt and sand had gotten into the bearing and locked it up.

There was nothing to do but replace it. Stéphane would make a quick repair to get the car back on the road, and then head back to camp where it was easier to work to finish the job right.

The day before, the Protruck had a minor scrape with the Cherokee and the rear fender had been damaged. While Stéphane finished replacing the hub, we had a few minutes to admire the repairs Edouard had made during the night.

Before we were finished, someone from the Orga came by looking for another car that needed assistance in the dunes. We thought we had seen in when we arrived in the JK Rubicon, so we went along to see if we could help locate it.

The car didn’t have a GPS, so we didn’t have any coordinates and it took a while to locate it. The pilot had been caught by surprise by a difficult passage when coming over a dune and the car had turned over. He had a badly broken hand and had already been evacuated to the hospital, while the copilot stayed with the car waiting for assistance to come tow it out of the dunes.

Once help was on the way, we went back to join Stéphane, who had finished repairing the hub enough to get back to camp.

When we got in, he immediately set to work to make sure that everything was cleanly mounted.

Later we had some time to relax and share stories with the other drivers by the pool.

It was a long day for everyone, but those who didn’t have work to do could take a well-deserved rest, like this pilot we saw sleeping by the pool.

News From Erfoud

It’s now Day 6 of the Tuareg Rallye, and we’re on the way back to Missor from Merzouga on the service route. We got as far north as Erfoud when Edouard got a call from Stéphane and Caro. They need assistance in the dunes, so he and Pascal have headed back in the JK Rubicon, while we wait here and change a worn tire on the trailer.

Across the street is the Hotel Riad Salam, which has a nice lobby where we can try to catch up with some posts and photos. We’ve gotten behind because of the slow Internet connection in Merzouga, which simply dies when 400 people all try to upload photos and video, send emails and instant messages from the hotel at the same time.

The connection at the hotel here is much faster. With luck, we’ll get a post or two published before we’re on the way again, but it will be a full day since we have over 350 km yet ahead of us to reach Missor. Once there, we won’t be able to stay long, since the service team must leave by 3 am for Nador to catch the ferry, which leaves at noon on Sunday. We’ll stay as long as needed to service the cars, but we may not have time to post much via Internet at the hotel. There’s no Wifi on the ferry, so we probably won’t be able to post again before we reach Mojácar, Spain.

Check our Spot location and the Twitter feed for the latest messages.

Tuareg Rally, Day 2: Missor, Flat Tire and Dunes in Merzouga

The second day of the rally started well. The coldest part of the night was from 3-5am, and it was hard to crawl out from under the warmth of the thick wool blankets when the alarm sounded. The racers were restless though, so when the alarm went off, they didn’t waste any time getting up, and we followed soon after.

After breakfast, we went to see the drivers off, and then headed to the start several kilometers away through a small village. The route was longer and rougher than we expected, so we didn’t get there as soon as planned, and we missed seeing some of our cars start. After taking a few pictures and video, we set off to pick up the service route that would take us to Merzouga.

There were again four stages for the cars competing in the race. The track of the second special over the Pass of Bercalem was only passable for 4×4 vehicles, so the service route took us south in parallel to the race, with several photo and service points along the way. Since we’d be driving over paved roads, instead of the dirt tracks the race drivers were taking, we’d planned to stop at both of the two photo points to get photos before the finish.

It wasn’t meant to be.

Heading south from Midelt, we had a tire blow out on the road to Er Rachidia. We’d become used to the truck’s inertia, which tends to pull it from side to side on winding roads and when passing trucks, because of the change in air pressure. There’s no sway bar on the rear of the truck, so this phenomena can be quite important due to the high center of gravity. When the road is rough, the reaction can be dramatic, so at first we didn’t realize what had happened. We were on a curvy road, going downhill toward a bridge, when the truck pulled suddenly to the left side, and Christophe had to react quickly to keep control. He managed to countersteer to keep us from veering off the road (or tipping over), but it was close! Soon we heard Edouard’s voice on the radio letting us know that our left rear tire had blown out, and we’d have to pull over to change it. He later told us that the right wheel had been lifted completely off the ground when the truck lurched to the side.

We shortly found a wide, relatively flat shoulder where we could pull off safely, lowered the spare tire and located the hydraulic jack. We started to raise the left rear axle with the jack and realized we had another problem. The jack would not extend completely, and even using several blocks of wood as wedges, we were not able to raise it high enough to remove the wheel. There was nothing else to do except try to flag down a passing truck in the hopes they would have a jack we could use.

Just at that moment, we received a call from Caro. She and Stéphane had run off the track, and the steering had been damaged. They needed assistance between the first and second stages of the Special. The timing couldn’t have been worse. We were just at the place where the race and service routes were the farthest apart and wouldn’t be able to get to the service point before over an hour, even if we hadn’t been immobilized. Edouard couldn’t go alone in the JK, because he needed the tools and equipment from the workshop on the MAN, so we had no choice. Stéphane and Caroline would have to wait. Fortunately, it was still possible for them to continue the race with the Protruck, so Stéphane kept going and would advise us when they reached the next service point.

On our side, there was lots of traffic on the road, but very few heavy trucks likely to have a hydraulic jack that could lift enough to help us. After about 15-20 minutes, a Moroccan truck driver passed and then stopped 100m down the road, made a U-turn and parked on the other side of the road. We ran over to meet him and asked if he had a jack. He did, and he was happy to help us. He and his co-driver had more experience than we did with this situation, and we appreciated their assistance. Once they arrived, we quickly got the tire changed and could get back on our way. It’s a shame that not everyone here is as nice as these guys were. We offered them something for stopping to help us, but they didn’t want to take it, they were just happy that we were able to get back on the road to the Rally. These are the kind of people that make the world a better place.

Meanwhile, Stéphane was able to continue the race after adding some steering fluid, which was enough to get him past the start of the fourth Special and on the way to the Finish. We stopped at the third service/photo point along the race track, but most of the cars had passed, so we continued on to the camp at the Finish Line in Merzouga. The race drivers would be much slower in the last Special, which crossed into the dunes of the Erg Chebi. We had time to arrive and set up camp before most of the cars reached the Finish and hopefully take some pictures.

By the time we arrived, Sylvain, who was in second position for the day, had already arrived at the camp, but Stéphane, Raoul and Florian were still in the dunes.

At dusk, we watched Raoul and Cécile winding their way through the dune field in their Nissan Patrol. At first a dark speck on the horizon, we strained our eyes as the Patrol appeared and disappeared as he drove up, over and behind dune after dune. He crossed the finish line around 8:00 pm.

The others were still in the dunes as night began to fall. Florian arrived two hours behind Raoul, and Stéphane almost an hour later. The hydraulic cylinder of the steering had been damaged when he ran off the track, and it had not been easy to cross the dunes with the steering only partially assisted.

The drivers were tired and hungry, but the mechanics needed to get to work to repair the cars for the next day’s start. It was well after 10pm, and dinner had been waiting for over two hours. We shuttled the drivers to the hotel for food and rest, and then took some plates of Tajine back to camp so those who had to work until the wee hours of the morning would have something to keep them going.

It was a long night for the service teams, since the final stage through the dunes had put the cars to the first real test. At the briefing earlier in the evening, Rainer had said that the hardest days were yet to come, so the time spent on repairs and maintenance was essential.

Tuareg Rally: Day 1, South From Nador To Missor

The first day of the rally didn’t go as planned. The service team was on the ferry from Alméria to Melilla, which arrived about two and a half hours later than the ferry from Alméria to Nador that drivers who were entered in the competition had taken. We had hoped to stop at the designated photo points to get some pictures of our cars, but when the rally officially started, we were still stuck at the border, getting our passports stamped and clearing our vehicles with customs.

It took over three hours to finish all the formalities, and then another hour to change money and fill up the tanks.

Although the service route was easy driving compared to the specials, our race drivers passed all the photo points ahead of us, beating us by at least two hours to the finish.

It was raining lightly when we arrived, and the team had already set up camp and was waiting for us (and the tools in the truck) to service the cars. It had been a warmup day. There were four specials, but the course had been fast and not too demanding, so nothing was broken and most of the maintenance was routine.

We didn’t get any onboard video from the Protruck, because we accidentally left the camera on after we transferred the video from the SD card while we were waiting in Alméria, and the battery was dead.

The briefing for day 2 started at 8 pm and was followed by a buffet dinner in the hotel. It was well after 9:30 pm before the team had finished work and could get something to eat, and it was after midnight before everyone crawled into their tents, either on the roof of the MAN KAT or in the Berber tent set up beside the hotel. We slept lightly because of the cold and the unfamiliar sounds nearby; it seemed like the dogs barked all night. When we heard the muezzin begin the call to prayer around 5 am, we knew it meant the end of a short night’s sleep.

The Profi Cars would be the first to start 8:15 am, and we wanted to get up early to make the final checks and make it to the starting line in time to take some pictures of the team. The cars from our team were well placed after the first day, and since the starting position was determined by the order of the day’s results, they would start soon after the first car of the day.

Photo Album: On The Way To The Tuareg Rally 2012

On Friday March, 18th the team left Switzerland for the two day trip South To Alméria and the ferry to Morocco. By 7:15 am, everyone had arrived and loaded their bags and we were soon on the way.

A few hours after crossing the border into Spain, we arrived at Lloret de Mar, where we spent the night before continuing on to Alméria the next day. It was another early start.

The hours were long but as we got farther and farther south, the air was warmer and we were able to enjoy the sun roof of the MAN KAT.

On Saturday evening, we joined the French team, Bande de Zèbres at the campground near Alméria. After dinner, we had an advance preview of the rally briefing from one of the team members who was in contact with the organizers.

Sunday morning after breakfast, we drove the last few kilometers to rally point in the port of Alméria.

We spent the day making last minute checks and adjustments at the port, waiting for the ferry

There’s no heavy truck category in the Tuareg Rally, but the Organization agreed to let the Belgian team of Gregory Vangheluwe, Tom Deleersnyder, and Wouter Leenknegt participate in the Rally with their MAN TGA 480 with the understanding that the Organization is not equipped to provide support for the truck. In case they get stuck in the desert, they’ll have to arrange their own towing and service truck

Boarding for the service teams’ ferry to Melilla was scheduled for 11:00pm, but was late. It was well after midnight before our ferry left port for Morocco.

At The Port, Waiting For The Ferry

This post was written yesterday, but we didn’t have time (or Wifi access) to post it, so we’re publishing from the hotel at the finish in Missor after the first day. It’s been non-stop since we boarded the ferry, and importing all our video and photos drained the battery on the Mac, so we haven’t been able to prepare any posts. Posts will be delayed by at least 24 hours.

Sunday was a day spent waiting at the port in Alméria. We arrived in mid-morning and the parking lot was already filled with motorcycles, cars, trailers and heavy trucks. Each little group seemed to be speaking a different language. In an area not much larger than 50m wide there were participants from Germany, Austria, The Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy, Great Britain, and Sweden, but also Austria, the Czech Republic, and Lithuania.

We didn’t get to the registration desk early enough so the line was long, and for the first 30 minutes it moved quite slowly. When it was our turn, we had to notify the organization of some changes in the teams. Olivier and Philippe were not able to come, and Edouard is taking their place, so he had to complete all the registration on site. Florian and Yvan are driving a Jeep Cherokee in the race, not a Tomcat, and Pascal accompanied them to provide assistance. Sylvain has a new co-pilot, also named Pascal; Cécile will take the role of co-pilot in the rapid assistance car that Raoul is driving.

After registration, Sylvain asked for help configuring his ToughBook GPS and navigation software to correctly display the position on the map. It took over thirty minutes to find the parameters that worked. It’s not enough just to have a mechanic anymore, with all the technology onboard these cars, someone with computer experience can always come in handy. Someday soon it’ll be mandatory to have Tech Support to take care of the car too.

Later in the afternoon, the organization came by for the scrutineering (a check of the vehicles to make sure they comply with all the rules and safety regulations).

It was after 2pm before we had a chance to eat something for lunch. Since we had a little time to wait before the briefing, we dumped all the video from the onboard cameras and the photos we had taken on the way to Alméria onto our 500 Gb external hard drive and wiped the memory so the cards would be ready for tomorrow. As soon as we have a good Wifi connection, we’ll try publish some of them.

The briefing didn’t start until around 5:30pm. We split the group since everyone needed help getting the GPS points into their onboard navigation systems. A few people went to the briefing while the rest worked on the GPS problem. At the briefing the organizers went over the general rules and procedures in addition to providing more detailed information about the ferries. The Tuareg Rally has so many participants this year that the organizers had to arrange for two ferries. The competitors will take the ferry to Nador, while the service vehicles will arrive in the Spanish enclave of Meililla.

The Rally starts directly after disembarkment from the ferry. We’ll drive almost 400km south to Missor where we’ll spend the night before continuing on to Merzouga. We won’t see our racing teams until everyone is at the finish, that is, unless someone needs assistance along the way, but we hope that won’t happen! There are two assistance/photo points along the course where we’ll try to get some pictures from the race.

Update: We’ve added two photos from the photo album on the iPhone.



South To Alméria


As everyone who drives a truck knows, when your top speed is 90 km/hour, the hours on the highway pass slowly. With only short stops for refueling the vehicles and their occupants, the 1,600 km to Alméria seems to stretch on and on. No radio or reclining seats for us. The cabin is loud and because we’re wearing earplugs, it’s not easy to have a conversation, so watching the highway through the windshield is like being alone in a theatre watching a film set to a soundtrack of muffled engines and the high-frequency white noise known as silence.

Even most of the toll booths are automated. Sometimes the machine doesn’t give us a ticket, and we have to call the attendant. That passes for excitement.

The passenger’s job of fighting boredom isn’t that hard, but the driver must stay focused, to keep these 14 tons on the road and in our lane when the route is winding through the mountains, in construction zones and in spots of heavy traffic.

The truck is over 4m in height, and with 6 tires and 2 tents on the roof, the center of gravity is high. You drive calmly and with anticipation. High wind gusts in southern France rock the hold. You’re always making minor corrections to the steering. It’s not difficult to turn the wheel, but the hours of constant adjustments are tiring and build up resistance in the muscles in your shoulders. The cabin sways from side to side as if it were a ferry being rocked by waves on the ocean. You wonder if you could get seasick.

When you stop for fuel, it’s a mad race for everyone to fill up the tanks, get to the WC, grab a snack and then get back on the road again as soon as possible. We can’t loose time on stops. We’re expected in Alméria on Saturday evening.

How To Follow Us At The Tuareg Rallye 2012

This is a sticky post that we’ll leave up on the home page for the duration of the race as a speed dial to the different sites where you can follow us at the rally. If you’re looking for our latest report, just scroll down to the next post.

We have a GPS Spot messenger with us in the truck. Check our current location here.
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