Michel Périn, Nani Roma's co-driver at the Rally Dakar from 1st January, explains the importance of the roadbook and the key stages on the 2012 Dakar.
Nowadays almost every car on the road seems to be equipped with a navigation system, so it seems a rather stone age concept for the driving crews at the Rally Dakar to still rely predominantly on a route manual. To put it simply: satnav is not much help where there are no roads. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, as the 8300-kilometre plus route of the Dakar is not purely cross-country. However, the proportion of desert passages at the 2012 Dakar has increased significantly as a result of extensive changes to the route and the inclusion of Peru.
"More of this Dakar will take place off-road than at previous events in South America," confirms Michel Périn, who will play a crucial role as Nani Roma's co-driver in the X-raid team when the Rally Dakar gets underway on 1st January. "We may know where we are going to stop overnight, but we don't really have much of an idea what kind of terrain to expect between the bivouacs." For this reason, once the organisers have announced the locations of the start and finish, most teams head straight to their computer to begin their preparations.
Route planning by man and machine.
"We use Google Earth to check out the terrain between the start and finish. This gives us a first impression," says Périn. He then turns to his notes from previous Dakar outings and checks whether he can reuse anything if the route has not been altered. "Ultimately, however, it is the roadbook that provides us with detailed information regarding the route and what awaits us out there," says Périn. The organisers of the Dakar provide the teams with the roadbook on the afternoon of each day of the rally. It contains detailed route information for the coming stage. Because the teams at the Dakar rely so heavily on this information, it is tellingly known by teams and drivers as "the Bible".
In order to provide the teams with reliable information, the organisers have spent about a hundred days working out every minute detail of the route. Man and machine work in harmony to inspect the terrain on the so-called "Reconnaissance" ("Recce" for short). A GPS device specifies the route between the start and finish. As it departs on this route, the Recce team marks distinctive points, such as where the teams must turn off, pass bridges, or avoid dips. A second, on-site Recce team verifies the resulting route without computer information, before a third team checks the route description again without having seen the terrain on site.
Perfection is impossible.
It takes a good one hundred days to put the route together before the roadbook goes for printing. The roadbook uses GPS coordinates, arrows and sometimes small sketches to describe the sections of the route, which are all of differing length. It also includes information on the length, and graded notes on the difficulty of the section. One exclamation mark means "look out", while three means "extreme danger". While the driver need barely take his foot off the pedal in the first case, disregarding the three exclamation marks can have disastrous consequences, as Périn knows only too well. In 2009 he and his driver at the time crashed into a ravine on a difficult section of the route, resulting in a broken shoulder and the end of the Dakar for Périn.
"Preparation is everything. However, it is impossible to be perfectly prepared. You will always make mistakes at the Dakar," says Périn. "We try to be the team that makes the fewest mistakes by the end of the rally." That is why the crews immediately set to work preparing for the coming day as soon as they get their hands on the "Bible". "It is usually about 17:00, then you sit up until about one in the morning working on the roadbook," says Périn. The rule of thumb at the Dakar says it takes about an hour to prepare one hundred kilometres of route.
Difficult stages every other day.
So, what awaits the teams at the 2012 Dakar? "The organisers seem to have tried to incorporate a really difficult stage every two or three days," says Périn. Following the opening stages on solid ground and with routes that are easily found, Périn views the fifth stage as the first critical phase of the rally. "The stage is very short, at just 177 kilometres, but the dunes in Fiambalá are difficult to cross. You can get thrown off course there and easily get lost in the vast sandy plains," says Périn.
After that the route takes the drivers to an altitude of over 4700 metres, over the border to Chile and the Atacama Desert. "Here you come across sharp stones and big boulders," says Périn. There is a risk of punctures, which result in the loss of valuable time, or even retirement following a collision with the boulders. The teams are then faced with another vast expanse of dunes, including the spectacular "Monster Dune" on the outskirts of Iquiquide at the end of the tenth stage, which is almost two kilometres high. The teams must first find the right angle to approach the dune so as not to get stuck. Then they must avoid rolling the vehicle as they cross the ridge of the dune, before keeping it under control on the fast descent towards the Pacific, in order to avoid overshooting the finish.
"Stages eleven and twelve then offer the final opportunity to make up positions in the field," says Périn. "After that, the final three stages in Peru herald another struggle through the sand, where something could happen at any minute, resulting in the Dakar suddenly being over for someone." Experience, driving ability and a good portion of caution are necessary here. And, last but not least, a meticulously prepared roadbook. Périn and the rest of the X-raid Team in the five MINI ALL4 Racing will be sure to do their best.