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.