Hellas Rally 2014: Videos

March 31, 2015

More drifting to support Driftt @DrifttHQ

Drifting, having fun, pendulum turn at the end of the race:

LOVE that sound! Start of Day 1

Being towed ’cause we ran out of diesel, day 2


Hellas Rally May 2014

March 31, 2015

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In May 2014 Aviv and I participated in the Hellas Rally, a 6 days race in central Greece, centered around the beautiful coastal town of Nafpaktos. We shipped the car from England to Israel a year earlier and tried to make it race-worthy. On days that the car worked, we did quite well and came in 2nd place on 3 out of the 7 stages we were able to finish. But we could not finish 3 stages due to a failed alternator, a broken differential and a series of broken driveshafts. All in all we had a ton of fun, worked well together, and learned some good lessons for future races.

Just a few pics and videos and keeping the comments short. Enjoy!

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Town of Nafpaktos, in central-western Greece.  This is the old Venetian port.  The mountains shoot straight out from the Mediterranean, to altitude of 7,000-10,000 feet.  Very steep, narrow, rocky mountain dirt roads.  So slower pace but tough navigation, as you need to turn every few hundreds and even tens of meters, not thousands.

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Day 1 is a short 60 km stage, we are getting used to the new terrain and to working together again as a team.  Did OK not great. Broke the power steering towards the end of the race, so it was painful to bring the car back home.

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Day 2 was better.  But we made a mistake and ran out of diesel just 10 km from the end… then this fine gentleman arrived, an Italian driver, and towed us to the nearest road.  Turned out there was a remote village near by. we don’t speak Greek, they don’t speak English, but the situation was obvious… a gallon of diesel appears from somewhere, and we’re back in the game..

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Day 3 started very tough for many competitors, a narrow mountain road that really was more of a goats path; lots of people got stuck:

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By now we were shooting on all cylinders and did well, came in 2nd overall in the stage.

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But, this is rally racing…. half way through the second stage of Day 3, we hear the frightful grinding sound we already know from past experience: a destroyed rear differential… this sucks, as all the cars we worked so heard to pass, are overtaking us one by one now… not much choice, you continue to drive while the car grinds the differential and breaks all the “teeth”; when it doesn’t make that awful noise anymore,  the differential it not delivering power to the rear excel and we drive on front wheels only; a few kilometers after that, we break a drive shaft to a front wheel… we lock the front diff so at least we can deliver power to the one single front wheel, until it, too, breaks.  that’s it, car is immobile.  An hour or so of “what to do next”. then the organizers show up with a Jeep that give us a tow to a road.  There is an OK cell reception, so we call our mechanics and in a few hours they show up and fix everything.

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Day 4 we start early and drive very high into the mountains; it’s so high up that it is freezing, even in late May.  Today the car had no problems, Aviv and I work well as a team by now. During two long stages, each about 150 km, we pass many cars and come in 2nd in both stages.  The yellow car belongs to Raz Heiman and Hillel Segal, a fantastic Israeli team who made it to the podium in many of the Hellas and Greek events.

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Day 5: encouraged by out performance on Day 4, we have high expectations and start 2nd, just behind the lead car.  After crossing a stream we climb a high ridge dotted with wind turbines, overtake the lead car, and we are now at the head of the race! everything just clicks and works well…

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Until, the car just dies on us. Suddenly.  it takes time to diagnose the problem: a failed alternator (so battery didn’t charge, no electricity to all the systems).  it takes time to the rest of the field to pass us, which is even more frustrating now that we understand how big our lead was.  An Italian team passes by and offers to help, they tow us to the bottom of a creak but cannot do more than that; anther Israeli team arrives and they give us a tow over very difficult terrain while risking their own vehicle:

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We arrive to a checkpoint, manned by the local 4×4 club from Petra; they diagnose the problem and try to clean the alternator but no luck.  we get another tow to the nearest village (it’s amazing how many GOOD people you meet on races like this in the most remote places on earth…).  Our mechanics meet us after several hours and it is a quick fix, but too late to start the 2nd stage of the day, a lost day…back to Nafpaktos.

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Day 5 is another good day, with a short detour that lands us deep in the thick brush; a nice Greek team helps pull us out of the brush and back on track.  Then we came across this poor guy, who just rolled his car over and is a bit shocked.  what do you know, that’s the same Italian driver how helped us when we ran out of diesel on Day 2… happy to help, bro!

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That’s it!  it was a lot of fun, great to be driving with my pal Aviv again and even to go through all the miss-haps.  Until next time….

Aviv and Izhar end of rally crew


How Not to Get Stuck in the Sand Dunes

December 24, 2007

As you saw in the video highlights from last year’s Dakar (three posts ago), even the pros find it hard not to get stuck in the sand dunes.  No matter how fast you are on hard surfaces, the sand will get you.  And this year we have extra sand, most of the Dakar will take place in Mauritania, which is mostly dunes.  This beauty was taken in Marzuga, Morocco:

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The Desert Warrior is optimized to drive on sand: it is very light to begin with, and by operating on diesel it carries less fuel (about 200 kg); when you get to the dunes you need to deflate the tiers, to about 1 bar, so the tier flattens out and has better grip.   The Desert Warrior has separate front and rear differential locks, pneumatically activated by the driver. But then you still need to be able to read the terrain, to know from which direction the wind blows , and how to cross the dunes.

Egg Cartons in the Dessert

Think of sand dunes as a (soft) egg carton: a series of bowls, each bowl is surrounded by ridges.  The bottom of the bowl is flat and firmer to drive on, the ridges are steep and soft.                                              November 2007 070 You got to drive over a ridge to get to the next dune.  Most times you cannot drive on the ridge line itself (too narrow, you will roll over), and you cannot just drive straight up to the ridge: you will lose too much momentum (too steep, too soft) and get stuck in no time. 

Morocco 195What to do, then? When we trained in Morocco Paul and Beady showed us a technique they use to drive over dunes.   It is very effective, and, believe him or not, Martin claims that in their 2007 Dakar he and Paul didn’t have to shovel themselves out of the sand even once.

Dune Surfing

What you do is try to “surf” the dune.  When you’re at the bottom of the bowl, drive around in circles and gather as much speed as you can; with more speed you build momentum that allows you to get higher on the dune’s ridge, about 2/3 of the way up; but you drive parallel to the ridge, not perpendicular.  Once you have enough momentum and you’re high enough, lift your head and look for a crossing spot, typically a lower saddle between two peaks (remember the egg carton?).  Keep your momentum to get to the ridge line, and as you crest the ridge, immediately lift your foot from the accelerator, brake gently, and pick your route into, and out of, the next bowl.  As you descend into the next bowl you build up momentum, and so forth for the next 200 miles 🙂

Check out this slide-show to get a sense of what I’m talking about:

This “surfing” technique is very effective and fun, once you get it.  It doesn’t always work, though, as the sand may be too soft, the dune too steep, or you just don’t have enough speed; remember that you can always trade-off height for speed (for those of you who are pilots, I’m sure you get exactly what I’m talking about).   so, if you find yourself on the ridge, your momentum just died, and you feel you will get stuck in the sand any second now, just turn your steering wheel towards the bottom of the bowl, and accelerate (that’s right) downwards; with enough speed and a bit of luck, by the time you get to the bottom you have enough momentum to start the maneuver all over again (and if it didn’t work, well, start digging!).

See how Nadav gets out of a messy situation after he got the the top of the ridge but lost all his momentum (there may be a bug here; if this window doesn’t show a slideshow, just click on the “x” mark on the top right corner):

BTW, both slides shows where created by Slide.com.  I’d be interested in your comments, which style did you like best, the “Slide Show” or the “8 mm”?  Let me know by leaving a comment on this post.


Help Dror Cohen get to Dakar

December 16, 2007

While almost every one that participates in the Dakar deserves some credit either as a hero or as a nutcase or both,  this year one of the competitors deserves a little bit more credit than anyone else.  His name is Dror Cohen.

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A former F-16 pilot, Dror had a traffic accident at the age of 24 that left him paralyzed from the waist down.  Not one to be deterred easily, Dror has since become an extreme sports competitor.  He already won the Olympic Gold medal in sailing in Athens, has taken up rock climbing, Bungee jumping, skiing, and in recent years got into off-road racing and the Dakar.  Watch the following YouTube clip about Dror’s life story; it is in Hebrew, but you will get the point.

Dror first entered the Dakar in 2002 and has done quite well until he Dror carhad to drop due to mechanical problems.  Since then he has been building a unique vehicle that will allow him to compete effectively and hopefully to finish the race.  Nadav visited Dror and the folks who build the car for him in Israel, and says it is beautiful, powerful machine with an automatic transmission,  a 400 hp Chevy engine, and a cabin for 3 (Dror as the driver and two co-pilots).

Designing a special vehicle and recruiting a full crew to help out with mechanics and logistics is a very expensive undertaking.   You can help by going to Dror’s website; there, you can chose any area on the car’s hood, pay for the space, and upload a picture or a message.  Or you could just contact Dror and dror@drordakar.com.


Cool 2007 Dakar video

December 14, 2007

Check out some of the 2007 Dakar videos on YouTube. This one is quite good, it is from Day 7, the first day in Mauritania. Watch how they all struggle in the dunes, pros and amateurs alike.  It is going to be a lot of fun!


RallyRaid UK and the Desert Warrior

December 9, 2007

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.

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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. Paul and Martin 2006 car 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 June 2007 086 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.   

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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. June 2007 225 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. June 2007 093 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; June 2007 237 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.


What is the Dakar?

November 30, 2007

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Nadav flies over the dunes

 The Dakar (www.dakar.com) is the ultimate off-road race. Each January, for about two weeks, some 1000 brave souls attempt to cross the Sahara desert riding cars, motorcycles and trucks, and covering some 6,000 miles over sand dunes, the Atlas mountains, and a variety of desert terrain. The actual route changes from year to year to keep it interesting, and it may start from different European cities, but it typically goes across Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Mali, and ends at Dakar, the capital of Senegal on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.  2008 route small This year (2008) is the 30th anniversary of the Dakar, and about 500 vehicles will attempt to make it to Dakar: 200 cars, 200 motorcycles, and 100 trucks, not counting hundreds of support vehicles, dozen of cargo planes, etc. In recent years commercial interests have taken over, and as part of the rationalization, the privilege to host the start of the race in now being auctioned among European cities (hence why it is no longer the Paris-Dakar race, but just the Dakar). The 2008 race will start from Lisbon, Portugal.  See a larger map of this year’s race at http://www.dakar.com/2008/DAK/presentation/docs/parcours_novembre.pdf

How does it work?

The Dakar is a stage race, somewhat similar to the Tour de France: each day there is a specific route to cover, and each day your time is captured and accounted for towards your overall time; the driver in each category (motorcycles, cars, trucks) with the fastest overall time wins.  Most days start and finish with a “short” road section (typically 60-120 miles) for which you are not timed, and in between is the “special”, a 200-400 miles of off road section that you’re timed for, and in which you have to hit specific way points.  A GPS in your car marks the fact that you drove close enough to the way point.  However, the GPS is dormant most of the times, so it doesn’t help much in navigation. 

For that, you have to closely follow a road book.  The road book represents the route fairly accurately, it is being prepared each year by a reconnaissance team that the organizers send a few months prior to the race to pick the exact route and to prepare the road book.  It is a set of pictorial instructions, e.g.,: “drive 1 km in direction 320 degrees, you will pass a dry creek, when you get to a tree, turn left”, and so on.  You can imagine how in the desert there could be more than one dry creeks in the same section, you may or may not be able to see the tree, or there may be two of them, etc.  So it is fairly easy to get lost and spend hours driving the wrong direction.

Mechanical problems and getting stuck in sand or mud are other common problems.  The rules of the race are such that you are not allowed to receive help from people outside the race.  In its early days  the Dakar was more collegial and friendly, and the spirit was indeed that competitors helped each other.  getting stuck in the sandIn recent years, with the immense popularity of the race, professional teams came in and the spirit is more competitive.  What people do, though, is to enter a truck filled with spare parts in the race as a competitor in the truck category.  That truck typically drives at the back of the caravan, and can help with mechanical problems if any of the competitors in the group needs that help. 

Every night, if you’re lucky, you get into camp, the Bivouac,  where food, medical assistant, more serious mechanical workshops, and a tent to sleep in are available.   Because the professional drivers start early and drive VERY fast, they actually get to rest and enjoy the Bivouac so they can start fresh the next day.  The amateurs, on the other hand, start later in the day, drive slower, and most likely will have to cover the last dozens or hundreds of miles in the dark.  So you may get into the Bivouac very late at night, or, sometimes, as late as 8:00 AM the next day.  But as long as you did get in, on your own without help, prior to 8:00 AM the next day, you are qualified to start that day.  If not, well, that’s the end of the race for you.

So, either for mechanical problems, for getting lost and running out of fuel, or for serious damage to the car due to an accident, or just because of fatigue, about 70% of the competitors that start won’t finish the race.  If you haven’t figured that out by now, our goal is not to win this race, but we will be thrilled to be among the 30% or so that get to see the Ocean in Dakar at the end.

So, why are we doing this?

Neither Nadav (my brother and partner in crime) nor I have a good answer to this question. Like many other folks we used to watch the Dakar every year on TV and were fascinated by the whole thing. We just love the combination of desert terrain, driving skills, mechanic-ing, and navigation challenges.    It seemed like the ultimate off road challenge.  A couple of years ago we looked at each other and said “OK, let’s do it”. None of us thought the other was too serious, it was a bit of a “dare”, but one thing led to another, both of us are a bit stubborn and don’t want to lose face, so almost three years later, and many dollars short, we are embarking on an adventure of a lifetime.

Nadav (32) and I (44) are brothers, he is the youngest and I am the oldest out of a family of five; maybe this is why we get along well, too many years between us to be preoccupied with sense of competition, obligation, role models, etc.   October 2007 Nadav and me We grew up in Israel in a Kibbutz which is a form of a communal farm and worked with agricultural machinery since childhood. In the Kibbutz, the dirtier you were coming back from a day’s work to the communal dining hall, covered with tractors’ grease and dust, the higher your social status was :).  We both served in the military where we did a lot of orienteering and navigation, on foot and mounted, mostly in deserts. He is now a medical student in Milan, and I am a venture capitalist in Boston (www.crv.com).  Although we both like driving and have some experience with the different skills needed in the Dakar, we are complete amateurs when it comes to rally racing. If you think it is a complete lunacy to try and do the Dakar as your first ever rally race, you’re probably right.

Nadav w Desert Warrior October 2007 Izhar

Nadav (left) and me (right) in Morocco, testing our new Desert Warrior that was made for us by our friends at RallyRaid UK(www.rallyraid.co.uk).  More on RallyRaid and the Desert Warrior next time.

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