|OiLibya Tunisia: Behind the scenes of the Desert Rally - from Robb Pritchard.|
He is the reigning world champion but Russia's Leonid Novitsky overcame old ghosts to win the 30th edition of the OiLibya Rally of Tunisia. Two years ago this was the scene of the worst accident of his career when he barrel-rolled his car for nearly 200 meters, badly hurting his arm and hand, which still weakened knocked him out of this year's Dakar. There was no weakness in his driving this year though and from 2nd place in last month's Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge he went one place better in his X-Raid BMW X3CC to win, 14 minutes clear of an equally satisfied Jean-Louis Schlesser in his Sonagol Buggy.
And that's where some reports leave it... But this is marathonrally.com and it's our passion to make the extra effort to bring you closer to the action...
The human body has an amazing ability to adapt to its environment, but the desert is and will always be one of the harshest environments there is. Everything about it is extreme; the heat, it's vastness and it's unrelenting changes of texture and surfaces. Here only heroes come to race, men trained over years to the limit of speed and endurance in machines built to withstand the roughest conditions and the OiLibya Rally is one of the toughest, designed to push both man and machine to the limit, and at 1550 kilometers.
The roadbook tells you to drive 2.1km and then turn right. 350 meters then left. 120 and right... but there is nothing to see, just undulating sand ahead and only the bright LED of the TerraTrip tells you where you are... and the more you overshoot the turn or spin the wheels it gets a little less accurate until over a dune you catch a glimpse of a checkpoint where it can be reset and you can catch a breath.
Just one though and then you are pushed back into the seat as the car accelerates hard and then it is past the few dots of photographers standing on rises with their telephoto lenses and back into the wastes of the desert again. But every single kilometre of the 285km stage has to be driven at the maximum, as fast as the vehicle and terrain will allow...
Every corner is blind, every crest of a dune hides the dip behind it and every single one requires a slpit-second reaction on how best to manage the landing; steering, braking or accelerating while at the very same moment as judging how best to approach the next rise. And all this is done in a cabin that is normally over 50 degrees, sometimes approaches 60, in three layers of overalls, the sun glaring in and the heat from the engine and transmission soaking through the floor.
All the time maintaining complete concentration as one stone catching the tyre means a puncture, a bad landing could mean the end of the rally and a misjudged crest could mean a massive accident. This is what rally-raid is, and this is just a normal stage on a normal day, so when Novitsky says that the stage was hard, what he really means is that normal people like you and me would be unconscious from fear or exhaustion before the first CP!
But despite there being six marathon stages all over 200km, some nearly 300km, the fight for the lead was incredibly close, with Novitsky and Schlesser exchanging the lead by margins of minutes and at times, even just seconds. Two masters, one a veteran legend, the other a newly ascended champion sparing together in the sand, parrying timesheet blows.
Going into the penultimate stage Schlesser was a little over a minute behind with nearly 500km to go, the slenderest of margins, but it was not driver heroics or mastery of the terrain that set the outcome, it came down to a technical issue with Schlesser's buggy. Alternator failure slowed him sufficiently to let the Russian off into an unassailable lead.
The French 2-time Dakar champion is a consummate gentleman though and his words at the end were full of praise, for the event and for his adversary... if not quite so for the current regulations. "It was a beautiful fight! A finish at the second position between Leonid's and Nani's BMWs is a good thing especially since the regulations are not in our favour comparing to big diesel engines. I just wish things change in the future. But I am extremely satisfied with this result which consolidates our position at the top of the World cup on the two wheel-drive category"
Behind the battle of the titans, quietly taking two stage wins was Novitsky's X-Raid team mate Nani Roma who was driving for the first time in a year, but a heavy landing into the trap of a sand formation known as a bowl on the 3rd stage lost him 40 minutes and any chance of victory. Still, 1st and 3rd is an excellent result and with 4 out of 5 stage wins going to the team, X-Raid's Sven Quandt was understandably jubilant. "Leonid has finally managed his first victory of 2011 and this is great," he said.
The next round of the World Cup for Cross Country Bajas will be in Spain from the 22nd to 24th of July. Round 1 winner Boris Gadasin in his G-Force Proto will be back on familiar territory and with his chances in this new mixed discipline championship looking ever more remote he will be spoiling for a fight.
2011/06/01 | 12:55 CET | ARTICLE: MR/SY/ROBB PRITCHARD/CHYTKA