Looking at the long lines of shiny new race cars gleaming in the Argentinean sun for the start of the 2015 Dakar, every single one looked to have months of preparation and time spent on it. I am always on the lookout for the one that stands out from the crowd and the odd one out in this well-polished line up was Chilean driver Antonio Hasbun in his No. 430 buggy. With a huge 6.2l V8 hanging out the back, it’s an 11 year old Class 1 car that is slightly bruised and a bit rusty that should be enjoying its retirement somewhere. Yet here it was, an open cab car lined up in Buenos Aires with all the air-conditioned cars, ready for the most brutal test of man and machine on the planet; the two week long Dakar. And American co-driver Bryan Garvey, one of only a handful of US citizens on the rally, had absolutely no idea what he’d signed himself up for.
“I’ve done the Mexican 1000 a couple of times before but I don’t think that can prepare you for the Dakar. Actually, I am not sure anything can.”
The first stage was nothing special, especially seeing as the 30 second start times for the lower seeded cars meant that they were immediately lost in the huge cloud of dust kicked up by the cars ahead, so it was the second day that brought it home that they were really in the Dakar. A staggeringly long 518km (322 mi) stage in temperatures pushing 50°C (122°F) to be exact! After battling through some 470km (292 mi) of blistering terrain with the roadbook counting down towards the end of the stage, they were confronted with a scene of devastation. A 30km (19 mi) long stretch of soft sand, the dreaded fesh-fesh, had trapped dozens of vehicles. “The problem was that it wasn’t open,” Bryan explains. “The cars were all stuck in the little trails that went through these big, prickly bushes and veering off to go through them was a tyre killer. We had six tires in total and we punctured them all, so we were trying to fix them with duct tape and the inside of bungee cords and eventually just left the compressor for the central tire inflation system constantly pumping air into them… until that burned out. But we were determined to just keep moving forward. We could drive for about 10 minutes before they were all flat again and we needed to get out and fill them up.
It actually got a little bit better when the sun went down and got a little cooler but then around one corner we found four cars all stuck. The people had just given up and were sleeping on the sand… but that wasn’t an option for us, it was only Stage 2 and it was the first tough part we’d found. At this point, Antonio was just too exhausted so I carried on driving and we managed to get out of the stage at 6:45am. Another car drove to 60km (37 mi) to the bivouac, collected four new tires, and drove them back for us so we managed to get into the camp at about 9am. But, for some reason the officials had taken the start positions for Stage 3 from the first part of that crazy stage and at that point we were doing quite well, so our start time was 7am. It was a bit bizarre… but in the Dakar many things are.
We had an hour of rushing around, mechanics trying to fix things, me trying to eat and get the roadbook ready and then we drove off to the start not even noticing that one of the new tires we’d put on had gone flat. We got 4 hours of penalties for starting late and it wasn’t an easy stage either. The belt tensioner pulley broke, but it hangs off the back and is quite exposed on the buggy so we were carrying two spares, which is good because we broke two of them that day. Also, the power steering pulley bracket snapped so we had to get some wire and wind it around the chassis to keep it tight. But this is the Dakar, the challenge of challenges, you only look at what’s in front of you, what needs dealing with at that moment. You don’t get to think of the bigger picture, you just continue on no matter what. Before the race, we’d made a commitment to each other to never give up unless it was physically impossible to carry on. On Day 2 with the heat and the fesh fesh, I did actually think about that but never again. One problem sorted out. Drive. Fix the next problem. Drive. Repeat.”
The hardest part in the first days was just being crazy tired and not being able to catch up with sleep and knowing the huge marathon stage into Bolivia and back was coming didn’t really help with that. That stage turned into a extreme one too. On the road section before the stage, the clutch went so we had to do two full days with out it. It’s a synchro gearbox though so you can straight change it, although it would have been much easier for us if that was the only problem we had. The power steering pulley was playing up again so when we needed to stop, we made sure that it was on an incline so we could put the car in gear and bump start it to get going. Once we didn’t have that option and I had to get out and push it and then when it started I had to run really fast to catch up with it. Funny? Not at 3,800m (12,467 ft) above sea-level. Also, it was very wet and in an open car we were freezing cold. We were so rough looking and disoriented at dinner that someone asked us if we needed to go to the medical tent but the food and hot shower made a big difference.
The second day of the marathon stage started on the salt flat, a 100km (62 mi) flat out run which was quite amazing but the dodgiest part of the whole event was going through the dunes above Iquequi without the clutch. It is a big compliment to Antonio that he didn’t hit anything or stop anywhere, because if we did the race would have been over right there. Oh, and the bodywork blew off there too. That night in the hotel was good, I didn’t catch up with sleep or rest but at least we were in a rhythm now now and had a full day to work on the car which it was really in need of.
After the marathon stages, some people said that the hardest was over, but the Dakar doesn’t really work like that. The next day the car was going well, but had to slow quickly to avoid a car that was stuck just over a dune. We were still moving but another car came from behind and hit us and we had to spend an hour and a half digging him out first and then sort our car out. That day we were also sparring with the trucks. You don’t want to be in the dust of a Kamaz!
After the deserts up in the Andes, the stages became more WRC-like back in Argentina but with no sway bar the body rolled a lot and it was quite hard to drive and on the penultimate stage we slipped off the track and rolled into a ditch. To get out of the car normally you open the hatch on the roof but upside down we had to dig our way out and I had a bad feeling wondering if the whole experience was over just for such a simple thing. Fortunately a MAZ truck stopped, put the tow rope on and pulled us out. I am really grateful for the Belarusian team. We crashed because the road book was really bad at that point. It should have been written as a Caution 3, 90 left but in the roadbook there was absolutely nothing, and in the dust you couldn’t see. I expect many people had problems at the same corner.
And then the last stage. It was raining hard and the mud was so slippery that we were just sitting in a line of really slow going cars. So slow that the red MAZ that had helped us the day before overtook everybody by driving through a field. He came back on the track through a gate but nobody would let him in, but because he’d helped us we did. However in trying to slow down we slid into another ditch. It took a long time to pull out but at that point we didn’t care so much as we knew that absolutely nothing was going to stop us getting back to Buenos Aires.
When we first got back to the city it seemed surreal. I couldn’t believe that we’d really done it. So much had happened in the last two weeks that I couldn’t get it in my head that it was all over but standing up on the finish podium and looking out at the people it finally dawned on us that we’d really done it. It’s hard to describe the feeling. There was a podium in Bolivia and they greeted us by congratulating us on getting half way, a tear came then because those eight days were just so enormous. On the finish podium they told us that we weren’t just getting a medal like every other finisher, we got an award as we were 2nd in class. The class fight never even crossed our minds as we were just driving to get to the finish, all those times we were stuck or broken and Antonio and I looked at each other and said OK just fix this and go, just get through each day. Our class was for SCORE cars. First in class was Robby Gordon. My first Dakar and finishing 2nd to Gordon, I’ll take that! And I am ready to sign up again for next year!