Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Petrolhead central

Believe it or not, marshalling a desert rally is rather more than simply turning up on the day. A lot of people spend many, many months behind the scenes agreeing routes, obtaining permissions and dealing with competitors’ applications from the GCC and abroad. This was my fourth consecutive year spent in Liwa for the whole event, and my third in an official marshalling capacity rather than as a groupie.

Ron, the Desert Challenge Chief Marshal, contacted me a couple of months before the event to ask if I’d co-ordinate the scrutineering marshals. He needed a responsible person and, because if anything ever goes wrong I’m normally responsible, I was the ideal candidate. I sent out several email lists at various times, and eventually had around twenty volunteers who would show up at Dubai Marina (DIMC) on the Saturday preceding the rally. Actually, there were more than enough marshals for most of the day, which was ideal for the motorsport fans who wanted to chat with the teams and take photos.

FIRE ENGINE: At the scrutineering. UAE style

During the week of the rally I was allocated to the Start Team. To tell the truth, I’d volunteered before realising that this entailed camping in the desert and getting up so early it felt like it was before bedtime. At least the Prologue was on Sunday afternoon.

Just a note here that this long and rambling blog is a ‘what I saw’. For actual rally results and drivers’-eye views you can check the teams’ own words from the hyperlinks I’ve scattered around. The final results are here

The Prologue is the opportunity for the general public to see an entire rally stage. This year the venue was at the Jebel Ali hotel on the off-road bike track where what used to be called ‘scrambling’ takes place. The circuit arguably offered a distinct advantage to the local bike and quad pilots who race there regularly. The track itself was very lumpy with plenty of chances to get airborne. With hairpin after hairpin it was going to be very tricky to negotiate in a car or a truck.

I ended up starting the whole thing. Consequently I was stuck away from the action and my camera, setting each competitor off. Bikes at 30-second intervals and cars every minute. The Chairman of the Organising Committee, the man who invented the UAE Desert Challenge, Mohammed ben Sulayem, actually waved the flag, but as he couldn’t see the official clock he took his cue from me. Mohammed commented that he liked my hat: a natty red and white number with embroidery and something to keep the sun off my neck.

Monday saw the start of the special desert stages. A ceremonial start occurred at Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace Hotel, after which the competitors headed down to the start of the first Special Stage, near the Al Wathba minus-seven-star resort and spa. Again at 30-second or one-minute intervals the racers were set off on a long zigzag route that would finally end near Hmeem at the eastern end of the Liwa crescent.

Meanwhile, after the last racer had gone, the Start Team packed away, collected the prodigious quantity of empty water bottles and other refuse, and set off by pylon track and road to see the end of the Stage. I briefly sneaked off to help an Abu Dhabi TV film crew who had mired their Land Cruiser not half a mile from the start. After pulling them out, I politely suggested that going and buying a tow rope might not be a bad idea.

Near the end of SS1, there was the opportunity to observe some nutter from the Magic Kingdom driving in the sand in his Lexus.

MAGIC DRIVING: From the Magic Kingdom. And completely stock vehicle too, apart from when the back bumper fell off

Special Stage 2 was due to start early on Tuesday morning about 30km up Madinat Zayed Road at the other end of the Liwa crescent. We just about found somewhere suitable to camp near the start before night fell with a dull thud.

Tuesday dawned about an hour after we were all up and at ’em. It transpired that my airbed had a puncture so I was in for an uncomfortable few nights. Attempted repairs with gaffer tape and vinyl glue were doomed to failure.

We had to be ready this and every morning at least an hour before the first competitor was due. And this meant that a five o’clock alarm call constituted a lie-in. Two people greeted each competitor and tried to get them all to queue up in their start order, two more operated the arrival time control (ATC) and a further couple ensured that each racer set off exactly to time, five minutes after entering ATC. This is as per the Rules.

We made a point of greeting each competitor every morning with a smile and a few words, and wishing them all good luck. It’s appreciated, apparently.

I learned that the Team Saluki was out on Day 1 after holing a piston, and Team FJ’s co-driver Tim had been hospitalised after crushing a spinal disc. Ouch! Tim had an operation on Friday to insert a shim or two and is currently out of hospital and walking wounded.

The silence is deafening after the last vehicle has departed and all the litter has been collected. We struck camp and headed off. I went to watch some of the racing in the hope of taking some photos. Then I headed to the bivouac at Moreeb Hill to use the facilities and to gas up. Then it was back up Madinat Zayed Road to camp prior to setting up the start of Special Stage 3.

An even earlier start on Wednesday. Special Stage 3 was a very long and hard route, heading west and crossing the Ghayathi road several times. Like SS2, it finished at the Moreeb bivouac. I managed to get a couple of photos, and then had to deflate the Goatmobile’s tyres to escape from a powdery bowl and get back on to asphalt.

AIRBORNE: The UAE's Ali Al Shawi and Yahya Al Amri get some air

Special Stage 4 started very close to the bivouac, and therefore entailed an exceptionally early start. Crack of sparrow-fart? Who was I kidding? The sparrows hadn’t even finished their refried beans. The preceding evening we pitched camp near to the start and headed off to the bivouac for some food. Not good food, but at least it was warm, nourishing and there wasn’t any washing up. Then back to the campsite for G&T.

As was usual every evening, all the Start Team sat and socialised. There was no moon, and in the absence of light pollution the stars were very clear. I haven’t had a decent look at the Milky Way for several years. Naturally, astronomy was one topic of conversation. Other topics were eclectic, ranging from the fuel management computers on an Airbus, through Beach Romps, to some extremely politically incorrect jokes that I can’t possibly reproduce here. I think we even discussed the rally itself from time to time.

We fully expected fog in the early morning and a consequent delay. You can’t race in the fog because it’s impossible to see where you’re going, and the safety helicopter can’t take off (or more importantly, land). Miracle of miracles: no fog! We finished by just after 9am, meaning that a quick trip to the bivouac got me the remnants of breakfast, such as it was.

NewTrix Racing later declared the stage as ‘faultless’, although there were certain confessions later involving having to reverse out of a bowl, and a minor dent to a Pajero. I finally had time to get my camera set up and took some photos.

BOWLER: Mr Bowler's Nemesis

FLIGHT: David Donald gets airborne

HOT PURSUIT: A Baltic Bug, (Corrected. Thanks Ian) being hotly pursued by Minky Botha and Peter Rutter

MORE PURSUIT: David DeSouza follows Sean Curnow

PANTECHNICON: Three vodka-fuelled Russian nutters

NEW TRIX: Giving it some stix

Sitting in the shade of the Goatmobile, someone approached me and asked if I was the Grumpy Goat. He’d recognised the snorkel and bumper from here. Outed in the desert! Hi. Thanks for the positive feedback.

As Special Stage 4 finished near Hmeem at more or less the same place as SS5 would start on Friday, the Start Team rendezvoused (that can’t really be a word, can it?) after SS4 finished. I took the opportunity to get out of the sun for an hour. I parked under one of the Hmeem Road underpasses in the shade – and the flies – and jotted the first draft of what you are now reading.

Thursday night was the last night of camping, and it turned into something of a session. It was just as well the start was over 100km from the bivouac because it took a while for the competitors to arrive. We had chance for a serious lie-in and didn’t have to be mobile until 5:45.

Special Stages 5 and 6 aren’t too exciting. They’re a means to get the racers back to Dubai. But they’re still competitive stages nevertheless. Immediately after breaking camp, I hit the road to be back at DIMC in time to help marshal the vehicles prior to the Ceremonial Finish.

FINAL FINISH: Cooling down at DIMC

After passing through the finish gate, I directed all competitors into a Parc Fermé. This is a fenced area where no-one is allowed to go until after the official scrutineers have decided whether or not they need to re-inspect any rally vehicle. The public, and more importantly the teams, aren’t allowed the opportunity to remove any illicit performance-enhancing goodies that might accidentally have stuck to their cars during the week. The Parc Fermé was finally opened at around 7pm, and I crawled off home for a shower and early night.

That was Friday. On Saturday evening Mohammed ben Sulayem hosted a party in his back garden on Palm Jumeira to thank the marshals. I’ve never been on the Palm before, and found the traffic signage extremely confusing. I finally got on to the relevant frond on my third attempt at driving up the trunk. Oh, and I wasn’t the only confusee, so it’s not just me.

As for next year, it seems unlikely that DC09 will be in October. Abu Dhabi is hosting a Formula 1 in November 2009. The Desert Challenge may therefore be preponed (is that really a word?) by half a year or so to March or April 2009.

My new air bed is poised and ready.



sallreen said...

IRWIN Racing’s Marcus Marshall is heading across the globe for round #12 of the V8 Supercar Championship Series, the Gulf Air Desert 400 in the Kingdom of Bahrain. Australian V8 Supercars in the desert does sound unusual, but the people of the Gulf are passionate about their cars and really enjoy the V8's.
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Ian the Dog said...

"We made a point of greeting each competitor every morning with a smile and a few words, and wishing them all good luck. It’s appreciated, apparently." Damn right it is! Having friends wish us well at each start and PC meant a lot to us.

Couple of minor quibbles: The Mean Green Machine's crew were Lithuanian, not Latvian. (Your Baltic readers will no doubt appreciate the distinction.) And the final diagnosis was that Tim fractured T12 and L1 vertebrae, which have been repaired with 'cement' (Portland? Polyfilla? God knows..) and the intervening disk 're-inflated' (don't ask!) Prognosis is for a full recovery... eventually.

Ian the Dog said...

Ooops - just double checked and the Oscar's driver is Latvian and the co-driver Lithuanian. Apologies.

So if you had a pic of the Kamaz next to it, you could use the caption 'Nuts and Balts'. Just a thought...

Anonymous said...

Hey there, it me, the (white Tahoe) one who outed you at the DC.

I've been catching up with your blog and please do keep up with the good work.



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