Road book to hand, evo ventures to the dunes of Dubai to discover first-hand what it takes to
be a (reasonably useful) co-driver on the Dakar Rally

By ANTHONY INGRAM

ART

NAVIGATION

of

The

I’VE ALWAYS BEEN A VERY GOOD AT colouring within the lines. Not metaphorically, but literally, especially in my childhood. The glee of receiving a new box of crayons and carefully skimming away their waxy tips between the untouched lines in a colouring book, or popping the top off a felt-tipped pen and casting perfect, even swathes of colour over a freshly scribbled drawing.

As it turns out, the pursuit is similarly satisfying as an adult. I may even once have filled in a desert scene as a child, much as I’m doing now – though my seven-year-old self might have demanded apparatus less limiting than the fluorescent greens, blues and oranges of highlighter pens.

The stakes are higher now, of course. An errant marking here or inappropriate shade there would have caused much consternation as an ankle-biter, along with a hasty attempt to rectify or hide the mistake. Today, accidentally marking an obstacle as blue or a caution mark as green might land us in a ditch. Or upside-down. Or upside-down in a ditch.

Three things will hopefully minimise the chances of such a scenario. The first is my expert colouring-in ability, something my peers at St Joseph’s primary school (class of ’92) would corroborate.

‘Some Dakar co-drivers barely read the route book, simply calling out particularly dangerous sections’

‘For three kilometres
I make half-hearted attempts to describe non-existent sand dunes’

Top: Périn instructs the rookies, including our man Ingram (above, right). Bottom: the co-driver’s instruments, including compass and tripmeters

The Road Book
The large numbers show the total stage distance at the end of the corresponding sequence. The smaller numbers show the sequence length. ‘±V’ refers to the post/turning being ‘more or less visible’. ‘c80˚-75˚’ indicates the ideal heading, as per a digital compass. The fourth instruction means ‘Danger – bump, then keep left through sand spit’. Orange brackets indicate short distances between instructions – 100m, here.  

The second and perhaps almost as important factor is that I will later co-drive for Dakar expert – and 2014 Dakar Rally winner – Nani Roma. The Spanish ace, I suspect, knows the course already, lest he be at the mercy of a throng of journalists whose sense of direction generally extends to navigating between a luxurious bedroom and an open bar. If my ‘flat over crest’ call has us heading for a hidden tree, Nani will already have graciously ignored it. I hope.

Factor number three is Michel Périn, French rally navigator and Roma’s regular off-road co-driver. Périn is the man tasked with making sure I select the right pens, colour within the lines (way ahead of you, Michel) and can identify my sand from my chott. Périn has had a long and varied career, starting as a racer in 1977 and hopping over to the passenger seat in 1984.

Since then, he’s called the notes for drivers such as Carlos Sainz and Bruno Saby, as well as spending six years in charge of Citroën’s motorsport activities. His last Dakar victory came alongside Roma in the Mini All4 Racing car in 2014 – a typically gruelling event in which fewer than half of the 431 starters crossed the finish line in Chile.

He’s now explaining, with great patience and in great detail, every single one of the dozens of pictographics we’re likely to encounter in a typical Dakar road book. These pictographics are necessary because, unlike traditional stage rallies or even regularity rallies where ‘tulip’ diagrams are used, there is no defined course on the Dakar. While it’s tempting to make a beeline from stage start to stage finish, the reality is that deep ruts, foliage, rivers, lakes and villages all get in the way, so navigation becomes the art of indicating not speed or corner severity, but carving a line of least resistance through the landscape. Routes must be indicated by what you can see, by compass directions between GPS beacons and by pictographics, rather than a string of corner-by-corner notes.

It’s made doubly difficult by the timescale over which route books are constructed: rally officials scout the course months beforehand, but in the wilds of South America – where the rally has been held since 2007 – it’s entirely possible that a whole new river has sliced a road in two during the intervening months and floods have washed away previously prominent topographical features.

Driver and co-driver pairings thus recce the route again a few days before the rally itself takes place, amending the organiser’s diagrams as necessary – sometimes adding or removing entire pages from the road book. It is this dog-eared, heavily scrawled set of notes – complete with studious highlighting to pick out dangerous sections and obstacles, and handwritten notes to expand the navigator’s lexicon ready for the rally – that must then be used to brave some of the most inhospitable terrain in the entire motorsport world. It’s far from perfect, but the best driver and navigator pairings are those most able to match speed with an ability to adapt.

That’s if the conditions don’t exert their toll first. Thick dust, searing temperatures and, in the Atacama Desert, extreme altitude make cockpit conditions a living hell. Over dinner the night before, 2015 Dakar winner Nasser Al-Attiyah described in graphic detail the folly of forgetting to take his altitude-sickness pills. The scoop of hummus I’d just gathered didn’t seem so appealing all of a sudden, but the risk of hypoxia-induced cerebral edema is even more terrifying than losing your lunch mid-stage. 

Cockpit temperatures can climb into the 70s – that’s Celsius, not Fahrenheit – on the hottest stages. All teams equip their vehicles with rudimentary air conditioning systems, which shaves maybe ten degrees from the ambient temperature. 

This is all quite concerning. If I were to list three things I dislike most in the entire automotive world, it would include uncomfortable cockpit temperatures, passengering other drivers at speed, and attempting to read while a vehicle is in motion. While Périn’s instructions are sinking in with surprising ease and my pristine road book is now meticulously highlighted, I’m not entirely sure my mollycoddled brain and hummus-fed physique will be up to the task of navigating a professional rally driver through the deserts of Dubai.

Oddly, a drive in the car calms my nerves. The heat, initially stifling, fades into the background as the adrenalin begins to flow. The Mini All4 Racing is something of a pussycat by rally car standards – tractable, easy to steer and relatively quiet. All are desirable qualities in a car designed to cover hundreds of miles of uninviting wilderness every day, and hugely appreciable qualities for someone setting foot into a £900,000 competition car for the first time.

There are some unusual sensations, all the same. The six-speed Sadev sequential gearshift requires a strong arm and changes smoothest on full throttle, though its pull-for-up, push-for-down action is natural to someone who grew up with racing videogames. Less natural is the constant thumping sensation to my head. After a few minutes of confusion, I realise it is the sides of my open-face helmet pinballing between the prominent wings of the Recaro driver’s seat over rough ground.

Shotgun time. The co-driver’s pew is as comfortable as that of the driver and still offers a relatively useful line of sight. Unlike stage rallying, where co-drivers rely heavily on their accurately noted calls, an off-road navigator spends a great deal of time observing what’s ahead, ensuring the route is accurately described by the notes. As Périn tells me, some Dakar co-drivers barely read the route book, simply calling out particularly dangerous sections before the driver approaches them. Périn adds, with a grin, that he is not one of those co-drivers. ‘I make detailed notes and expect drivers to follow my directions,’ he explains.

In front, an array of electronic readouts are haphazardly mounted to a roughly cut rectangle of carbonfibre. There are two seemingly identical tripmeters, each modified with a custom-made sunshield. Between them is a more sophisticated tripmeter that not only records distance but heading, pointing towards the GPS waypoints that crews must navigate between.

On the floor, my right foot is covering a small, innocuous black switch that resets one element of the trip each time we reach the interim distance designated on each instruction in the road book. From above, a long, flexible hose blows air at my face. With an intercom helmet, sunglasses and balaclava on, it adequately cools my nose and cheeks a few degrees below ambient temperature.

For the first one, maybe two kilometres, all is well. My expertly coloured road book seems to be describing the road ahead. I confidently inform Roma of a turning just after a post, then a crest, then to aim to the left of a tree. I prod the trip reset button, ready to call the distance to the next instruction.

Unfortunately, my next instruction is completely wrong. Fortunately, Roma knows this, and as he’s ‘asking’ me which direction we should actually be going, he’s already taken the correct path and negotiated another corner. I’m now a few notes behind and the rough terrain is curtailing my attempts to keep up.

By the time I’ve deciphered one squiggle, another is already upon us, and the constant punishment is making a mockery of my attempts to call ‘double caution’ at the required intervals. I involuntarily shout a four-letter Anglo-Saxon word down the intercom as we hit a bump, just in time for us to swing unexpectedly sideways around a dune. I remember the dune from my own drive, but the velocity and angle of attack is foreign to me. A vast plume of sand obscures my view through the passenger window.

It’s then I remember I’ve not reset the trip in a while, so for the next three kilometres I make half-hearted attempts to describe non-existent trees and sand dunes that all look the same from my vibrating perch, while stabbing at the reset button like someone trying to stop an errant penny from rolling away. The stage is only ten kilometres long, but after five I’m reduced to a passenger, mere dead weight in a car that already breaks the scales at 1952kg.

Roma doesn’t seem to mind – he does after all know the course, and I’m enjoying the ride much more without the pressure of navigating. At the same time, it’s sobering to think of the consequences of similar inaction during an actual rally. Missing one note could end your chances of success, breaking a wheel on a hidden rock or approaching a dune from the wrong angle and tipping the car onto its roof. Miss several notes and you could become stranded dozens of miles from civilisation, with rescue crews hours and even days away as they try to retrace your steps.

Périn’s position in the team is probably safe. And at least I’ve got a beautifully coloured-in road book to show for it.