Some people, like VIPs for example, stay in a 5* hotel down the road, some who feel like they’re on an expedition sleep in tents huddled around a service truck and others like homeless in a railway station doss on the press centre floor… But for those with a real desert spirit there’s only one place to sleep and that’s under the stars… more specifically for me in the flatbed of Saeed’s Dually. The southern wind whistled and whined all night and had a breath of loneliness about it… as though the desert wind knows nothing but emptiness…
Still with the warnings of the severity of today’s routes in their minds I watched the drivers and riders stagger over the uneven floor trying not to drop their breakfast plates. No one knew exactly what was coming… in rally raid there are no days of preparing pace notes beforehand, everything is driven blind… but by the sombre atmosphere it was obvious that most were pensive about the coming stage.
Just after dawn we drove a few km over the flat stony landscape from the start and waited for the first cars. Vladimir Vasiliev was first into the stage doing the job that even Grand-Master Schlesser called hard, and he was obviously taking it easy. He feathered the throttle before the small jumps and didn’t get sideways in the corners. Jean Louis Schlesser started 2 minutes behind and also took the corners steadily but was more aggressive on the throttle, his engine note sounding predatory… he was hunting Vasiliev… and thought that the Russian was easy prey…
Gadasin stormed by with a full compliment of 8 cylinders after the G-Force mechanics changed the plugs and leads but noticeably fastest of all was Jun Mitsuhashi in the T2 Land Cruiser. He was the only one out of the whole field who got airborne.
Now, put me next to a rally driver in a bucket seat, a 5-point harness, helmet and inside a roll cage and I am more than happy… looking out of the side window at the road ahead because Saeed is powersliding on a sandy road at 140km/h in a 4.5 ton, 6 meter long truck with a 20kg fridge next to me and a Danish cookie tin sliding menacingly across the dashboard was enough to terrify me! But Enshallah we made it to CP2 and drove off into the desert to a stunningly beautiful valley where the folds and creases of small dunes were dusted with white sand… It was the blue buggy that came over the far, high ridge first, appearing on top of one dune and then dipping out of sight as he crested one after another, like a small boat in a storm… and it was a long half an hour before any one else came into sight… Back in camp Schlesser had some minutes (and a glass of Perrier) for me and explained his day. “Rule number one is that you never go first in the dunes if you can help it. So at first I followed Vasiliev but he went too slow, so then I overtook him and went like hell to try and loose him, but he stayed right with me… out of course it’s easier to follow, you can just watch the car in front and see how it goes over the top of a dune… you don’t need to be so cautious. It was like playing cat and mouse. And then he broke something and after that we took our own speed… although the last 90km were hard on the car.”
A few people didn’t expect to see G-Force’s Vasiliev at the top of the leaderboard today.. and he’s not… but not for the reasons some expected because even though he’s self-confessed novice, he didn’t get lost, or stuck in the tricky dunes… to his credit he drove exceptionally well to keep up with a determined Schlesser, but after a hard landing a driveshaft failed and the time lost limping out to the service crew and waiting for them to fix it cost over an hour. Team leader Boris Gadasin shadowed his team mate until he got to the mechanics and dropped 15 minutes because of it… and was only 30 minutes behind Schlesser at the end… and 3 minutes behind the amazing Jun Mitsuhashi… who now takes 2nd overall in his T2 Toyota.
If it was bad news for G-Force, today was a disaster for X-Raid. Miroslav Zapletal was supposed to be taking it easy… but instead his beautiful BMW X3 is a bent mess parked up in a corner of the camp, the mechanic, lying despondently under the garden-centre gazebo. Zapletal landed badly over one dune, got stuck and were immediately hit by a flying Costel Casuneanu in his Mitsibushi. Fortunately no one was hurt, but the BMW, which Zapletal was trying to drive carefully, is now a banana-shaped write-off…
The good natured Romanians have a different story for the insurance company though. “We’ll say that we were driving normally and then we found Zapetal going fast backwards at us!” Costel smiled. The front of the Mitsibushi doesn’t look so bad and they’ll continue tomorrow. “But at CP1 we were 4th, but after this we lost 2 ½ hours. The idea was to go behind Zapletal as he has more experience than us in the dunes… we’d just watch him… But not so closely…”
Also doing very well to come in 4th today and move up to 5th overall were the Sixt Ukraine Team in their bright orange Mitsibushi L200. “No big secret,” said one of the mechanics with a smile. “They just drove fast and drove the right way. We don’t understand why everyone can’t do that!” There are many people in the camp wondering the same thing. Lots of bent metal and a few people still out in the dark… and the organisers have started their warnings for tomorrow’s stage…
So the usurper has been denied and the king is back on his throne at the top of the leaderboard… but what will tomorrow bring?
1.Jean-Louis Schlesser Schlesser Original Buggy 9.17.46
2.Jun Mitsuhashi Toyota Land Cruiser 10.05.07
3.Boris Gadasin G-Force Proto 10.16.08
4.Vladimir Vasiliev G-Force Proto 10.26.04
5.Vadym Nesterchuk Mitssibishi L200 10.52.14