In the final weeks leading up to the sixth Dakar Rally in South America, team manager Neil Woolridge spoke of Ford’s hasty preparations as a roller-coaster ride. Unbeknown to him, the ride was about to become a real nightmare. Pieter Oosthuizen tells the tale…
“You what?” These are the most feared words a support crew may ever hear the team management utter on the satellite phone while waiting in a Dakar bivouac for a car to come in from a special stage.
Some say the feeling of trepidation brings on a cold shiver. Others get a feeling of complete hopelessness, for they know it is the preface to a pending disaster. In this case it was a cruel blow to the esprit de corps of a small team that had only just survived one of the worst possible entries into the Dakar, less than 24 hours before.
They were hanging on by the skin of their teeth, still shell-shocked by events of the previous day when liaison manager François Habib-Deloncle, standing right next to me in the shade of a gazebo, stated in his strong French accent: “You broke the car in the dunes!”
Breaking a Dakar rally car on the road usually suggests there is still a ray of hope. Breaking down in the dunes implies that it is over.
When Chris Visser and Japie Badenhorst rolled one of two Ford Rangers in stage two, fate dealt them a second, finishing blow. If Visser had not suffered a potentially serious back injury, which required a “medevac” by helicopter to play it safe, their Dakar would have continued.
It was a case of adding insult to injury, because this team had started the day’s special stage at the back of the field after losing more than four hours in the very first stage due to wheel problems that were no fault of their own. Visser was in the top ten through the first check-point before wheel studs were sheared off. The car had to be towed in by Ford’s T4 Racing Truck, and they arrived back in the bivouac late at night.
On day two, the T4 took an engineer to the stricken Ranger in the dunes, where damaged electronics were repaired so that Badenhorst could drive it to the bivouac. On the way out the T4 rolled and the night was spent in the dunes, before another competitor’s T4 came to the rescue.
Luckily, the Argentine crew of Lucio Alvarez and Ronnie Graue had a 100% turnabout from the first day, when they lost two hours after replacing a broken throttle body in the first special stage. They were parked less than 2km from the other Ranger.
But when Alvarez broke the suspension of the surviving Ranger in the third stage, losing another four hours, the Ford effort seemed to be on a self-destruct course, full of humiliation.
The reality finally seemed to dawn on the beleaguered Ford team. Not only was it necessary to adjust their focus regarding what they wanted out of the race — restructuring of the man-power also became an issue. There were just too many hands, and people had not even had the opportunity to settle into a Dakar routine.
And, as Scott Abraham, team manager for the Ford support crew, who was on his ninth Dakar, remarked: “The Dakar waits for no one. It hits you hard, out of the blue, and then just carries on, even sadistically, while you try to catch up. You need to make do with what you’ve got left. That is what the Dakar has taught me.”
While some in the team believed that top ten finishes would prove more to the world than getting the remaining car to the finish line in Valparaisó on the Chilean coast, no matter in what position, the overriding feeling was that Ford’s first effort had just become a very, very expensive trial run.
With the Dakar being the ultimate proving ground, team manager (racing) Neil Woolridge decided to focus on the biggest positive aspect of their participation: finding out everything possible about the Dakar, the cars and the team, so that they could come back better prepared next year.
It must have been very difficult for the man behind the steering wheel of the lonely Ranger. Alvarez had to find, under a cloud of uncertainty, the perfect balance between a speed that would constantly see them in the top ten, but would also bring the car to the finish.
By now there was a look of pity in the eyes of many fellow competitors and support crews when they encountered someone in a Ford Racing shirt.
But Lady Luck would not smile on the Ford team. By the time they made it to the rest day, Ford had lost their T4 truck after it broke down and was too late to start the next stage on time.
“I felt very despondent this morning,” said Woolridge at the time about the nasty blow to their chances of getting the remaining Ranger to the finish. “It’s just awful, after all the earlier setbacks.
“On the first day, we were hit right between the eyes. The calmness was gone from the team and the Dakar took on an even bigger challenge for us. We’ll need to pull together harder and keep our focus.”
When the “Lone Ranger” made it to the halfway mark in Salta, spirits were high, because the car was running without any problems to speak of. Woolridge’s list of ideas was coming along nicely and a lot of strangers in the bivouac started to ask about the well-being of the Ranger, many even holding thumbs.
Bernd Wellmann, the master brain behind the building of the Ranger and a man with an open face whose seemingly unperturbed demeanour will stay with me forever, was confident that the “strong” car would easily see it through — as long as Alvarez and Graue could keep it in the race.
They did, albeit sometimes only just, because of driver input. On the way to 22nd place overall (from 81st after the third stage) they even managed a hat-trick of top tens on the last four stages, including the super long 11th stage of 605km.
“The engine needs improvement for these conditions, but overall the car was handling it very well,” said Alvarez.
Their dramatic journey to get to the end was perhaps best summed up by Abraham, the most experienced Dakar participant in a supporting role: “We were kicked in the teeth… and then we got kicked in the balls. But by the time we got to the third last day, we were in a position where we wished the race could start then.”
In retrospect, there are many ifs, but the truth is that when calamity blew into their midst with the terrible heat, sand and dust, this Ford team got stuck in, earning the respect of fellow competitors.
In situations like these, you always need something or someone that others can feed off, like a soldier on the ground. In this case it was an Irishman, Ian “Buster” Moore, who represented one of eight nationalities in the team.
“I always look at the job like a Brian O’Driscoll would for his rugby team: just get down and do it — lead by example. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.”
Moore and his fellow mechanical support crew members, from Wellmann and race engineer Ian “Scooter” Davies checking diagnostics on their laptops to the guy cleaning windows, never had the luxury of seeing their car(s) perform on the stages, because support trucks are not allowed on the same route. So for them it was all riding on one thing: get their Ranger to the end, where they could join it on the finishing ramp — the only place where they might share their sense of achievement. So it was with high spirits that they left for the finishing ramp in Valparaisó.
Having spent two weeks on the Dakar with the Ford guys, I had no doubt about their feelings. But nothing, not even when they were hit between the eyes and kicked in vulnerable places on the first three days, could prepare one for the terrible disappointment that will forever haunt the Ford support team — missing the finishing ramp by ten minutes.
For now, the Ford effort will be remembered as a very expensive trial run. In retrospect, they failed in their premature attempt to impress with a good overall position, but they have learned a lot. It could have been worse, a lot worse. But it was not, thanks to the Lone Ranger.