Day 12, Copiapo to Chilecito
Mid afternoon on the 12th day of the 2011 Dakar, about 100 km into the special, we felt that our race has come to an end. We were stuck 2/3 up a steep sand dune, and our engine won’t start. An air-sucking noise from the fuel pumps indicated that for some reason diesel was not getting to the engine. It was weird because we were supposed to have at least 50 more liters in the tank, but the noise from the fuel pump wasn’t lying, and the engine just won’t start.
We tied a tow rope to the front of the car, hoping we could convince another competitor to stop by and give us a short tow, just to point the car downhill and allow for better fuel flow. We dismantled our safety water tank and emptied it, hoping to use the empty tank as a container for diesel if a truck or a car would stop by and give us some diesel.
But no one wanted to risk getting stuck up that dune. One by one the competitors went by us, accelerating up the dune and leaving us in the dust, literally.
It was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the wind picked up and sand blew into our eyes, mouths, and ears. We were sweating and getting dehydrated.
Two hours or more went by. Fewer and fewer cars and trucks went by us. We started to fear we will be left to fend for ourselves, no way to get off that dune without help, and therefore that our race was over. After fighting tooth and nail every hour of the race and making it so far, it really sucked.
But then one of the very last cars to go by couldn’t get over the dune the first try, and so on their way down to try again, they stopped by and gave us the short tow we needed. The support truck of team Hamburger Software stopped at the top of the dune and gave us a whole Jerry can of diesel, and we got some more diesel from BMW support truck as well.
We were back in business! Another 80 KM of very soft sand, and with more air than diesel in our fuel system, we somehow made it to the finish just a few minutes past sundown. We lived to see another day, and felt that nothing could stop us now, only three, much easier, days to go until the finish in Buenos Aires.
The Start in Buenos Aires, New Year’s eve 2011
The race started in Buenos Aires with the same fantastic celebration as we experienced in our prior attempt in 2009. There were several hundred thousands people in the streets, cheering and celebrating as about 600 motorcycles, cars, and trucks, all new and shiny, started their 15 days, 10,000 KM race from Buenos Aires, over the Andes to Chile, up the Atacama desert to the Peruvian border, and all the way back to Buenos Aires.
Race statistics say that only 1/3 of the competitors will actually make it all the way to the finish line. But at the start, everyone thinks they will be within the lucky 1/3.
This year the Rally Raid Intl’ team has three cars in the race: Paul and Henk (who as a team competed and finished the 2010 Dakar), an Australian team, and Aviv and me. Also, we have a T4 race-support truck with Pali, Jon, and Joris, and a T5 support truck with Henky (who has been our mechanic in all our races so far), Arjan, and Ivan.
So we all went out to celebrate New Year’s eve in Buenos Aires. Only one vehicle of the 5 will make it to the finish line in 15 days from now, but we do not know that yet…
Day 3, Cordoba to Tucuman
First couple of days we race in a lush, green and rainy mountain range. The track is very slippery, and indeed dozens of vehicles roll over, crash into rocks, and drop off very early in the race. We have some mud tires on, and Aviv drives very well, so we make it through the first couple of days without a hitch.
As we are about to start on day 3, a spectator points to the bottom of the engine, where, to our horror, we see a steady stream of engine oil. We have no time so we take the start, and a few kilometers after stop by the roadside to examine. By now we have ran almost completely out of oil. This is serious. We notice that one of two pressurized hoses that takes oil from the engine to the oil radiator is leaking, more like gushing, oil. We have no spare part like this. What to do? I try to call the truck on the satellite phone to see if they have one, but no one answers. We cannot continue without fixing the leak.
Then Aviv has a strike of genius, and realizes he can cutoff the oil radiator and run the oil in a closed loop using just one of the pressurized hose. The engine will run hotter than normally, but at least we will be able to finish the stage. Aviv switches the hoses, I refill the engine with all the spare oil we’ve got, and off we go, we’re back in business!
Day 5, Jujuy to Calama
Yesterday we’ve done well, but late in the day started to have fuel problems, the engine just cut off and it seems that something is wrong with the fuel pumps, or the fuel filter, or maybe the fuel tank itself. Hard to tell, and overnight the mechanics think they found a problem with the filter, fix it, and declare the car good as new.
But as we climb the mountains, crossing the Andes on our way to Chile at 4,500 meters, not only Aviv gets headaches from the altitude, so does the car: every once in a while, in a pattern we do not fully recognize yet, it loses power, stutters, and sometimes the engine shuts itself off as if it is not getting enough diesel. Weird.
The stage starts very high in the Atacama desert at 3,500 meters. Fast and somewhat rocky terrain. We are making excellent time and overtake many competitors, despite a flat tire and a couple of small navigation errors.
But then, again, the engine starts stuttering and shuts down, it seems that it is not getting enough fuel. In frustration we watch all the cars we overtook earlier go by, we cannot do much about it.
Later Paul and Henk stop by, and we take as much diesel from them as they feel comfortable giving us. We also seem to have an electrical problem with the car’s main computer (ECU). We fix it, and one of those things helps and we get the car driving again. We are not sure we know what the problem is, and therefore are concerned we haven’t really solved it and that it might (better yet, will) come back to bite us. But for now we are moving, and finish the stage driving very fast in a beautiful narrow and winding Rio that takes us all the way straight to the bivouac.
Day 6, Calama to Iquique
The day starts great. Aviv is in his elements, and so is the car. Driving a couple of hundreds kilometers in deep Fesh-Fesh, which is a very fine, nasty dry powder. The cars sink in it to their bottom and have to push through the stuff like mud or snow; the Fesh Fesh gets into air filters and clogs them in minutes; so most cars heat up real fast and you have no choice but to stop, tap the air filter to clean it as much as possible, and let the engine cool down. Our car is lighter and has higher ground clearance than most so it does well in this terrain, and we find ourselves overtaking dozens of competitors.
400 kilometers into the day, and there is still ~200 KM to go, we hear a squeaking noise from the back and we smell something burning. Turns out a rear-left wheel bearing cracked, and the heat from the friction melted the brake system. We have to stop and wait for the T4 truck for a new bearing. We do what we can in terms of pulling all the parts apart, but have to wait for the part. We wait and wait, as the sun quickly drops to the west and we realize that for the rest of this day, a day that started so well, we’ll have to drive in darkness.
A couple of hours later the truck appears and the guys help us fix the bearing and get going. I am pretty anxious about navigating at night, but with the help of some tail-lights of competitors ahead of us we make good time and at round midnight get to the last dunes of the days, just 20 KMs or so from the finish.
However, that last part of dunes turns out to be pretty nasty, and in the darkness we cannot find the right path through the dunes. All around us there are many, many cars and trucks driving aimlessly around looking for the way out of the dune. After a couple of hours we realize it is probably better to stop and rest, and try to finish the last few kilometers during the day.
Stepping out of the cabin we feel the freezing temperature of the clear, cloudless desert night. We put on every smelly and dirty piece of cloths we have and cover ourselves with tent sheets, but it is just too cold to sleep. We shiver for what seems like eternity until first light.
At first light we take off and make good time, getting very close to the camp, only 5 KM or so, and then, again, the same wheel bearing fails, this time the whole wheel drops, and a small fire starts where the bearing and the brake used to be… it is just not our day!
We are near the road so we stop a cab, take a quick ride to the camp, and get back with some spare parts. The mechanics do whatever they can in a the short time available, and we are back in the car, racing to make it to the start time of Day 7, no time for food, shower or sleep.
Day 7, Iquique to Arica.
The 7th day, that for us is a continuation of the 6th day following the cold night in the desert, starts great. By now Aviv and I work well as a team, the navigation is more precise, we communicate better, and as a result make great progress over two pretty tough dune sections. Again we overtake many cars and trucks and making great time.
But this is the Dakar… after some 300 KM, with still 200 KM to go and just before the last dune section of the day, we hear a bang from underneath the car. Turns out of prop shaft, the part that transfers power from the central differential to the front axle, broke into two. No specific cause, maybe just fatigue. Also we identify a small but alarming water leak from the engine, which we need to fix. Aviv is doing his best with some super glue and fasteners to reduce the water leakage, and I dismantle the prop shaft. But we have to wait for the T4 to get a new prop shaft. And the T4 is hours and hours behind us.
Again, like so many times in this race, I start to lose faith and a depressing feeling starts creeping on me that this may be our last stand. After some time Paul and Henk stop by. They suggest that we continue anyway because the T4 may not be able to get there as it has its own problems with broken springs. After all we still have rear wheel drive so it is worth a try.
At last light we get into the dunes together with Paul and Henk. However, it was a bit of a wishful thinking to hope we could pass through the dunes without front wheel drive. As soon as we hit the first difficult dune, the stress on the rear axle is too much without front wheel drive and with a big BANG the rear differential breaks.
Now we have no front wheel drive, no rear wheel drive, and cannot move. Paul turns around to pulls us out of the dunes to the flats, says good bye, and continues. He and Henk will end up spending a difficult and long night in the dunes, but will manage to finish the stage by sun raise.
We, on the other hand, have no choice but to lay down, try to get some sleep, and wait for the T4. We are in a bad spot, a deep ravine that is hard to get to and it will be impossible to spot us until the truck is very, very close. So we are not optimistic the truck will find us that night. Without much enthusiasm we ready ourselves for another, second in a row, chilling night in the desert.
And then, at 3:00 AM, out of nowhere, the T4 appears. The guys drove all night in the darkness, with broken springs, navigated beautifully, and dropped right on top of us! Pali gets to work, and within a couple of hours we have a new differential and a new prop shaft. We are, again, good to go.
With first light we continue. We go over the dunes with some difficulties, it would have been impossible to try and cross them at night. Another 200 KM of deep, nasty Fesh Fesh await, and after that additional 200 KM drive to Arica, on the Peruvian border. Day 8 is rest day, so, as long as we get into camp by 6:00 PM we are OK to continue the next day.
Day 9, Arica to Antofagasta
Rest “day” turned into rest “hours” for Aviv and me, but still very welcome after the two nights in a row in the desert. Had a chance to eat a warm meal, take a shower, and the mechanics had time to work on the car. All is well and we feel great.
Unfortunately the T4 is now out of the race, so we cannot depend on it to save us as it did on day 4 (wheel bearing) and day 7 (prop shaft and rear diff). We will have to manage, although it is not realistic to assume that we won’t have further serious mechanical problems in the stage. I am starting to think that this car’s MTBF (Mean Time Between Failures) is around 200 KM. So, with the average stage being about 400 KM, we are almost certain to have to deal with more serious stuff down the road without the T4.
Nevertheless, our luck seems to have changed for the better for the next two days. Minor things like a leaking wheel bearing and a wheel that gets loose and falls off while driving, do not slow us down much and we are making great time.
After a long ride in the Atacama Fesh Fesh, day 9 ends with a spectacular drive down a very narrow, undulating, canyon with soft shoulders. It is so narrow there is only room for one side of the wheels on the ground, while the other side travels on the canyon walls. It feels very much like a ride in an amusement park. Then, suddenly, the Rio opens up to a surprising view on the Atlantic Ocean! What a day!
We finish with a 250 KM drive on the tarmac along the coast, and have a chance to help our Australian teammates who need a tow all the way into camp.
Day10 Antofagasta to Copiapo
Another great day. We are finally out of Fesh Fesh country, and enjoy the fast, hard surfaces of the Atacama as we pull further South towards Copiapo. Several hundred kilometers south of Antofagasta we encounter a patch of soft, hard to cross dunes. Many motorcycles, cars and trucks are scattered around in various stages of being stuck. It is a tricky Erg with many bowls, once you drop into one it is very hard to get out of it, your best just is to pick a course that avoids the bowls. We realize the truck drivers are the most experienced on the bunch and we follow a group of them. It is slow going but it pays off, we find an easier route on sand ridges, avoiding the bowls, and out of the sand.
A race against darkness brings us over the last patch of dunes into Copiapo, the Chilean city who became famous with the rescue of the trapped miners last summer.
Day 11 Copiapo to Copiapo.
This is a circular stage, with a lot of sand dunes. We feel great as the Desert Warrior excels in the dunes.
Well, sort of. less than 1 km from the start in front of many spectators, we snap a prop shaft and break the front differential. Not a great way to start the day. Remember that we do not have a T4 in the race anymore, so we somehow need to get the car back to the road and get our T5 truck to help.
I find the support crew of a Chinese team, and recruit them to help push the car downhill. Aviv dismantles the broken parts and drives the car, slowly on rear drive only, back towards the road. I hitch a ride with a friendly Chilean fan who drove 1000 km all the way from Santiago to watch the race, back into camp, to get our mechanics.
Pali and Jon ride with me in the truck and we meet Aviv who managed by now to get the car back to the road. Pali and Jon work their magic, and in a couple of hours we have a new differential, and a prop shaft broken but welded back together, ready to return to the race.
We lost a lot of time, and the stage is officially closed, but because we already took the start on time, we can go back and try to finish.
Not far from the start we spot Paul and Henk, car’s not moving and they do not look good. Turns out their engine died, end of the race for them. They are exhausted and deflated, after fighting the good fight for 10 days, their car won’t move further.
Nothing we can do for them, so we continue and drive/navigate very well thorough a series of sand dunes alternating with fast, hard-packed dirt roads. We even manage to get into camp in day light, not much to do with the car. We have time for shower, food, and a decent night’s sleep.
Day 13, Chilecito to San Juan
After getting stuck in the dunes on day 12 with the fuel problem and managing to still finish the stage, our moral is high and we feel great. We are very, very tired, having slept only 2-4 hours a night for the last two weeks, sometimes not sleeping at all, and after overcoming a long list of serious mechanical problems. But from now on the terrain is easier, and people around us start talking about the finish at Buenos Aires just 2 days from now. The end is very tangible and real now.
As we drive to the start of the day, Aviv senses that the engine doesn’t produce its normal power. We have to turn around to catch the mechanics before they take off to San Juan.
They quickly determine that there’s a problem with the turbo charger system, the system that compresses air into the pistons to achieve greater power. But they cannot diagnose which component is faulty. There are four possible component, it takes about one hour to replace any of them, and we only have 2 hours of “grace” time in which we can still join the race.
We gamble and decide to replace the exhaust manifold. One hour later, turns out it was not causing of the problem. Next is the turbo itself. Pali works like mad, gets his hands burned couple of times, and within an hour we have a new turbo. But it is not that either. Next is the high-pressure pump. Another hour goes by, and we know that officially we may be out of the race, but continue to work. It is not the high pressure pump, though. Last component to be replaced is an air flow regulator. An hour later- it works!
We do not have much hope as we are already two hours beyond the grace period, but decide to give a go now, and plead our case with the officials at night.
It is not meant to be, though. On a twisty mountain road, in a turn, we break a steering rod and the car hits the mountain side, and then crashes into rock on the cliff side and stops. We do carry a spare steering rod, replace it and continue.
We then smell burned oil coming from underneath the car. We stop and see that the whole undercarriage is sprayed with dark oil, but cannot diagnose where it is leaking from. The quantity of oil we lost is alarming; we are concerned about getting into the stage in that condition.
Eventually one of the official trucks of the organizers catches on to us and tells us in no uncertain terms we have been disqualified (for missing the start time) and that we should not get into the stage.
We are done. This is the end.
We gave it our best shot but it was not meant to be. In days the car worked fine, we preformed well as a team and achieved great results, some days getting in in the 20s and 30s places (among about 150 cars that started). But we just had too many mechanical problems, the vehicle wasn’t up to the challenge this time, and eventually a mechanical problem brought us to our knees.
Still, we had amazing 13 days of great adventure and although it would have been better to finish and have 15 days of adventure, 13 weren’t too bad either.
What’s next? I do not know, but Aviv wants to race next year in a truck.