Last summer I was driving in the English countryside, somewhere between Manchester and Huddersfield. It was raining and it was foggy and I was partly lost. I was on my way to the headquarters of RallyRaid UK, so I was looking for some high-tech building, with a lot of glass and chrome, with employees in white coveralls, maybe the quite hum of precision machinery, as befits the high-end specialized driving machine that the Desert Warrior is. All I could see is sheep, lots of them. There were farm houses too and some sheds. It took me a while to figure out that one of those sheds was indeed the world-wide headquarters of RallyRaid UK.
And this is just like Paul Round (right) and Beady Jones (left) ,the inventors and developers of the Desert Warrior, who are down to earth, incredibly nice, and fun-to-be-with folks, with a huge passion for the Dakar and off-road racing, that without much fanfare developed a great desert vehicle that this year will participate in the Dakar for the 6th straight year.
Why RallyRaid UK?
Nadav and I considered a bunch of options when we decided to try and do the Dakar. We talked to people who modified production vehicles and concluded that while it was the lowest cost option, it probably won’t get us to Dakar given the heavy weight that could become a drag in the sand, and the (relatively speaking) weak structure. We also talked to folks in the US who offered to build us a Baja 1000 machine, but realized that while those are incredibly fast and agile vehicles, they are not designed for the sustained punishment and marathon conditions of the Dakar (the Baja 1000 takes about 24 hours vs. the Dakar’s two weeks). After talking to a few specialty shops that focus on the Dakar, we picked RallyRaid.
The first reason, and in retrospect the less important one, was that the car that they make, the Desert Warrior, is really an awesome machine, optimized for the Dakar and for dune driving in particular. It is on its 6th anniversary, thus benefits from a lot of first hand and real life experience as the RallyRaid folks participate in the Dakar every year themselves and always return with new ideas for improvements (this year’s race will be Paul Round’s, the man behind RallyRaid, 10th Dakar).
The second and more important reason is that we learned that you can really trust those folks who are motivated not strictly by commercial interests but rather by the love of the Dakar and the desire to see more and more Desert Warriors complete the Dakar. With that comes a very helpful package of in-race support truck with spare parts and mechanics, and an off-race mechanical and logistics support that is invaluable. Add to that the fact that they are the biggest group of English (I should probably say non-French) speaking competitors and support staff, and you have a wining proposition for the non-French speaking, serious amateur. Over the last two years Paul, Beady, and Martin have become our good friends and mentors, and if we ever get to Dakar they will have a lot to do with that.
How it all started
Ten years ago Paul Round sold his business successfully, but was bored to death; one evening while watching the Dakar on TV with his son Mark, they decided to give it a try; without much preparation and with zero support, they got an old Land Rover, and joined the Dakar. Mark was the driver; Paul was the navigator, as well as his own mechanic and support crew. Not deterred by an almost fatal wheel bearing failure while still in Spain, by having to drive on 4 flat tiers in the sands of Mauritania, by a car that was just too heavy and hence got bogged down in the dunes over and over again, and by many sleepless nights (you get none if you insist on being your own mechanic; mechanics typically work while drivers sleep and vice-versa), somehow they emerged from the desert two weeks later in Dakar, exhausted but victorious.
Paul (middle, next to Nadav) fell in love with the Dakar, and was determined to develop a better vehicle and the right support system. He teamed up with Beady Jones (on the right, after losing a front wheel while driving 110 km/hr off road), an avid off-road motorcycle racer, and a gifted mechanic, electrician, computer hacker and overall a multi talented dude.
In recent years Martin Coulson (left) joined the team and takes care of client relations and with a multitude of organizational nightmares. The first Desert Warrior hit the Sahara sands in 2003, and continued to improve ever since. RallyRaid produces only a handful of vehicles each year, and organizes a group of clients, more like friends-of-the-firm, to compete in the Dakar. Each client gets a dedicated mechanic, as well as in-race support provided by a 4×4 race truck filled with spare parts and driven by expert mechanics.
The Desert Warrior
Looking from the outside, the Desert Warrior looks a bit like an SUV, somewhat similar to a Land Rover. But beneath the fiberglass shell you will find a unique structure, best described as a large roll cage, or a very strong, ruggedized dune buggy. When I visited the shop Paul pointed to a pile of 2” and 3” metal pipes and said: “this is your car”. I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. After putting together the roll cage, the guys add a BMW 3 Litter, 225 hp, Diesel engine, and a Land Rover power train. Almost everything else is custom made or assembled specifically for this vehicle. On top of that they overlay a fiberglass body, but it could look like almost anything you want it to look like. Similarly, although you may think that the “BMWs” in the race are modified X3s, the “Mitsubishi” are Outlanders, or that Robby Gordon really drives a Hummer (and therefore you ought to go and buy one for yourself), they are definitely not. Like the Desert Warrior, they are all specially designed roll cages and frames, made to look like one of the models of the car company that sponsors that team.
The diesel engine is a great choice for the amateur who wishes to complete the race first and foremost, and cares less about winning. It may be a bit slower than the gasoline engines on hard surfaces, but produces a lot of torque at relatively low RPM, which is just what you need in the sand. It is also much more economical. So you either take less fuel (and thus your car weighs less), or, you fill it up and then can do almost 2x the distance that the gasoline driven cars do. E.g., on road conditions, the Desert Warrior will do 8 km/l (~20 m/gl), and can cover 1,800 km (~1,125 miles) on a full tank; in the sand, it will still get a respectable 4 km/l (~10 m/gl) and 900 km (~562 miles) respectively. A turbo charger provides excellent acceleration and power, but is super sensitive to sand (we will carry a spare turbo in the vehicle, just in case).
The 5 speed, close ratio gear box, with max 400 bhp & max 800 ft nm torque, provides great dynamic range. A pair of separate front and rear diff locks, pneumatically controlled, helps a lot in the sand. The twin Fox shockers have a 12” front and rear suspension travel, and make the vehicle fly over hard surfaces. Given the desert temperatures and the workload, everything in this car is cooled separately by its own circulation and radiator systems: fuel, engine oil, gear and power steering oil, the air from the turbo, and of course the engine coolant. Except, of course, the cabin: no Dakar vehicles have air conditioning… We will be driving on BF Goodridge A/T tires, that are relatively soft and could change the tire profile at lower air pressure; this is what you want in the sand, where you drop the air pressure to 1 or even 0.5 bar for greater traction. The down side of this type of a tire is that it gets punctured easily; for that reason, and just for good measure, the Desert Warrior carries 3 spare tires and is equipped with hydraulic jacks on both sides.
Overall we feel that we have made a good choice of vehicle and an equally good choice of partners in the form of the RallyRaid UK team. Of course, we will be wiser and more experienced after the race, so stay tuned.
Next time: how to prepare for the race, and what I learned from the folks at Team O’Neil in New Hampshire.