Dakar 2016Featured

Getting There Is Half The Work – Dakar Rally 2016- The Odyssey

Getting There Is Half The Work
Dakar Rally 2016- The Odyssey

In desert racing the co-driver’s responsibilities include calling out turns from the GPS, checking mirrors, monitoring gauges, and changing a flat tire or working on a broken race car. While a few top tier teams have dedicated co-drivers, the job more often is an afterthought given to friends or family. Short course “spotters” are even more removed from the situation, calling out turns and traffic from outside of the vehicle. By contrast, top rally raid navigators are paid professionals who are courted by rival teams and drivers. When you look closely you start seeing the same navigators at the top of the rankings each year.

Even the fastest driver in the best car doesn’t have a chance at the Dakar Rally if they crash or are lost. No pre-running or GPS is allowed at Dakar, so all of the course information comes directly from the navigator. At the end of the day, each team is given a road book for the next day with waypoints, directions, and details. The exhausted navigator then examines the road book, getting a feel for the course and highlighting any dangers. The road book is used in conjunction with two ERTF UNIK II devices that display headings to waypoints and overall distance, which can be compared against the road book. The UNIK II lets navigators know when their team is in close proximity to a virtual checkpoint and when they have come within 90 meters of that checkpoint, triggering an alarm that the checkpoint has been reached. The most pressure is on the navigator of the lead car, who doesn’t have the luxury of another vehicle to follow. Bike riders are even more extreme, doing their own navigation while racing at speed.

One of biggest changes in navigators this year was Nani Roma’s loss of longtime teammate Michel Périn to WRC driver and fellow Mini teammate Mikko Hirvonen. The French Périn will be replaced in Roma’s car by fellow Catalonian Alex Haro. One of the craziest things with rally raid is that often times the driver and navigator don’t even have the same native language, instead they typically correspond in English while using road books with French symbols. Imagine communicating all day long under extreme conditions while speaking to someone in a foreign language when your directions make the difference between winning and losing a stage.

For this reason, Robby Gordon’s approach has been to recruit American motorcycle riders who are familiar with the Dakar Rally. “Think about how hard it is to ride a bike and navigate,” Robby Gordon explained. “If they can do that, they can ride with us.” Previous Gordon navigators Andy Grider and Johnny Campbell both have experience in Dakar on a bike. And this year’s navigator Kellon Walch was a factory rider for KTM at the 2005 Dakar Rally. “There is a lot of pressure on me,” Walsh admits. “If I make a mistake it can cost us a lot of time… or worse. Our car can soak up bigger terrain than most though, so the waypoints are my main priority.”

“After riding a bike at Dakar riding in the right seat is a lot less stressful in some ways, but more stressful in other ways. It is hard not being in control, but we are gaining more trust in each other every minute,” confessed Sheldon Creed’s navigator Jonah Street. Street has competed in the Dakar six times behind the handlebars, finishing 7th in 2010. “I am of the opinion that you are better off being well rested than spending hours marking up your roadbook,” Street shared. “I just note the dangers and waypoints and get a general feel for the course.”

Yazeed Al Rajhi recognizes the importance of a good navigator and has returned with German Timo Gottschalk. Gottschalk navigated for Al-Attiyah as part of the Volkswagen teams in 2010 and 2011, when the duo won. He then teamed up with Carlos Sainz in 2013 and 2014 when Sainz longtime navigator Lucas Cruz teamed up with Nasser. Since Sainz joined the Peugeot camp last year Lucas Cruz has returned to his side. Not to be left out in the cold, Al-Attiyah recruited Frenchman Matthieu Baumel. Baumel helped Nasser get on the top step last year, and his resume includes past navigator duties for Guerlain Chicherit, Bernhard Ten Brinke, and Carlos Sousa.

Many teams do have consistent, longtime navigators though, several of which share their native language. Frenchmen Stephane Peterhansel and Jean-Paul Cottret have been teammates since Peterhansel made the transition from motorcycles. Mini or Peugeot, Red Bull or Monster, the two have been teammates for the past fifteen years. Similarly, Moroccan Daniel Elena has guided Frenchman Sebastian Loeb to nine WRC championships and the two are together for their first Dakar Rally. German Dirk Von Zitzewitz has navigated for Robby Gordon and Mark Miller as part of the Volkswagen team prior to teaming up with Giniel de Villiers in 2007. The two won the Dakar Rally together the following year and have been teammates ever since.

The odds are that one of the navigators mentioned here will win the 2016 Dakar Rally. History also suggests that the will not be showered with the same attention and affection as the driver and vehicle they help get to the podium. Like desert racing co-drivers, Dakar navigators don’t get the credit they deserve.