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.

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