November 2018. Rally teams from across the globe are dropping cars, bikes, quads and trucks off at ports, destination Peru. Among them, Dubai’s very own Sabertooth Motoring Adventure (STMA), who are shipping their Nissan Navara T1, nicknamed El Matador.
Fast forward to January 4, 2019 and docks literally half a world away, rally driver Tom Bell and Co-driver Patrick McMurren, along with their support team, retrieve car #419 from the port of Calleo. For team STMA, the Dakar dream is now a reality; a 7,000kms odyssey around the stunning but brutal Peruvian landscape.
In the three days until the rally flags off, there is a multitude of things to be done. Car testing, essential after 6 weeks being idle at sea. Paperwork, payment and technical checks, “always a stressful time” muses Patrick “I always fear being suddenly excluded for a minor technicality before we even start”. However, this time the stress was for their mechanics as they needed to have El Matador’s restrictor checked which involved a few hours work to gain access. Apart from that they passed with flying colours and were on the start list!
Dakar Start Line: January 7; 1413hrs.
“The nerves suddenly disappeared as Tom and I sat on the actual start line of Dakar 2019,” reflected Patrick. “Once the helmets were on and we were snuggly strapped into the strangely comforting environment of our Nissan Navara we were completely focused… and we felt like we were in our own backyard; the dunes! The stage went well with the only frustration being it was too short at just 84km! We had taken our first step toward our goal: ‘winning a Dakar finish!’”
Stage two was relatively untroubled, but Dakar really ”happened” on stage 3! Some 60km into the stage, the team came in a bit ‘hot’ to a dune and stood the car on its nose on the down slope “after 10 seconds in a vertical position, the car started to tip over, despite Tom and I willing it not to whilst shouting ‘No, no, no!!” Patrick recalls. After the car flopped onto its roof it then did one barrel roll down the dune and miraculously landed on it wheels. However, after 40 mins of checks and patching the car up, they were back in the race, but more was to come Tom continues “we had been warned at drivers briefing about a very narrow canyon. When we arrived, we discovered it had been blocked so were asked to wait at the entrance until it was cleared. 45 minutes later, we were the first car allowed into the canyon only to discover that the blockage of a rolled car had not been cleared. Other competitors desperately tried to climb the steep bank and they too rolled! All told three cars rolled just when we were there! Dakar madness! We ended up in a compromised angle and whilst trying to get clear we took the tyre off the rim and damaged the drive shaft which then required an hour fixing post canyon!”
All of these delays meant that they had their first taste of ‘Dakar by night’ as there was still 160km still to go to complete the stage. At 9pm, car #419 arrived at the finish line but there was still an exhausting 460km road section to the service area (bivouac). “It took us 9 hours, arriving at 6am which gave our service team just 2 hours to rebuild the car after the roll! We got 90 minutes shuteye before we were back in the car! Dakar proper had started!” reflects Patrick wryly. Sleep deprived but with El Matador rebuilt they were on the road again for the marathon stage. This double-leg entails the teams staying in a military barracks after the stage, with no outside assistance meaning the competitors have to do the service themselves. Stage 4 had been the longest so far, but was reasonably uneventful apart for the dreaded fesh fesh, a very fine dust which covered the car and meant long periods of no visibility; the team praying all the time that they would not hit rocks lurking in the dust! The late start time meant once again they were late on the stage so more night driving looked a distinct possibility.
A problem with their air compressor meant they could not re-inflate their tyres after the sand section and subsequently had two punctures in the rocky river beds. As the sun set, they still had 120km of the stage to complete including an extended dune section. As darkness descended, they slowly soldiered on until reaching the finish line at 10pm. With 220km of road section before servicing the car and hopefully some sleep they still had a lot to negotiate. “We arrived at 2:30am and decided that sleep at this point was more important than service so we managed to get 3 hours in a dormitory full of snoring competitors!” said Tom.
The start of stage 5 saw Patrick and Tom up at 6am to service the car, making sure they ate their fill at breakfast as they were unsure when they would eat next. This proved to be a good move as Dakar had some more surprises in store! Patrick recounts “The stage started well with a blend of dunes, river beds, mountains and fesh fesh, but at 130km we had a monumental impact with a rock (more like a planet!) that was buried in the dust. It registered 4.5G on the car data logging system and we decelerated from 70kph to 0kph in the length of a car. The front bash plate was completely deformed from the impact, and we were now perched on the rock with our back axle. Tom and I were both momentarily knocked out from the impact, with me biting my tongue (talking too much!) and Tom breaking a tooth. We had begun to think that someone above us was looking after us as incredibly, there was no major damage – had our path been 6 inches left or right we were out of the rally. A quick recovery from the rock and we were out and, on our way, again, although still with our brains rattling in our heads!”
However, Dakar was dealing STMA a difficult hand and there was still more to come! The car was significantly down on power on entering dune section in the dark at km 320. After struggling through the first section they found themselves in an impressive stuck with the car at an awkward angle and a tyre off the rim, but help was on hand by way of a race truck from the Boucou team who arrived and dragged them out.
They continued for a short distance before arriving at a massive bowl with approximately 15 cars in it.
At this point, knowing they could not continue safely, they contacted the organization to request permission to sleep in the dunes and finish the stage early the next day (the supposed ‘rest’ day!) “We got the survival bags out and hunkered down on the sand next to the car. The fog meant we were very quickly wet, but we were in good spirits,” remembers Tom. At first light we entered the bowl and once more a Boucou team truck assisted by towing them up the other side, only just making it! From there they finished the stage, at approximately 11am. A 230km road section meant we only got back to the bivouac at 430pm; an hour later they would have missed their deadline, excluded from the rally and their Dakar dream would have died! Not a particularly restful ‘rest day’!
Stage 6 started as all other days on Dakar had done so far – breakfast, road section and a late start to the stage. An incredibly tight and technical dune section at the start of the stage meant STMA were 36th through the first checkpoint, having done a good job in the dunes.
However, things were yet again going to get difficult; the Dakar way. The lower crown nut of the front left suspension parted company from the car and the suspension collapsed, requiring two hours of mechanic work in the field – yet again darkness loomed. “Patrick and I battled on through the stage through the dark until at 12am when the fog got so bad we made the tactical decision to sleep on the sand again and finish the last 65km of stage 6 tomorrow – if we could. Out with the survival bags again!” said a smiling, or was it grimacing, Tom. The next morning, instead of having a relatively late sleep at the bivouac, the team found themselves awake at 4am; although it was still foggy there was enough light to make the last kilometres of stage 6 followed by the 58km road section to the bivouac, before turning around again and going straight out onto stage 7! Dakar smiled on them during this stage and they had a great day allowing them to finish during daylight!
They were delighted to get back with enough time to eat, fix the car, attend the drivers’ briefing and get some much- needed sleep. They had finished a Dakar stage, and a bit and the whole team felt on top of the world!
The good form continued into stage 8. No dramas, no rolls, no breakages, no major stucks and once more, they were back in the daylight. However, if there is one thing they had learnt in Dakar (apart from never, ever giving up) was that just when things were going well, Dakar would bite. And bite it would.
Having had 2 back to back good days, STMA’s start position on the penultimate stage was significantly better which gave a good chance of completing the stage in daylight. And then it happened; on the road section to stage 9 they had a head on collision with a local car.
Thankfully Tom swerved enough that both cars only clipped each other, destroying the local car on the right and ripping El Matador’s front wheel and a lot more beside it right off. Thankfully, all persons involved were uninjured, but it genuinely looked like their Dakar dream was now over. Car damaged, police and ambulance on the scene and a lot of admin to get through even reaching the start line. Patrick continued
“We set about fixing the car having first made sure the other driver was comfortable and we were incredibly lucky that we have most of the components needed already stored on the car – but we had 2 hours to make the stage start and Tom had to go to the hospital for a blood test for alcohol. We managed to get the car to the stage start with just 30 seconds to spare, where I had to drive it over the start line whilst Tom got a police escort from the hospital to the start line!”
They eventually started the stage at 1140, with a mere 313km of Dakar stage ahead of them, Tom and Patrick dug deeper that they even thought possible and made it to stage end by 830pm. However, they were unsure whether we were excluded or not until they attended a stewards’ enquiry; but the Dakar gods smiled again on them and they were still in the race, against all odds!
After such a gruelling few days, all that stood between STMA and their prized Dakar finish was a 112km offroad section coupled with a very carefully driven 247km road section. The starting order was inverted which meant an early start coupled with a track which had not been trashed by over 100 vehicles going over it before them, meant it was a relatively smooth end to their first, hopefully of many, Dakar finishes. The mood at the finish was as expected, emotional, but with an underlying disbelief that above all they had ‘won our finish’, 47th car out of 130 starters.
Patrick concludes “Going over the ramp that evening back in Lima was the realization of a lifelong dream, made into a reality by my mate Thomas E Bell. It was a testament to hard work, belief and an unmovable ‘never give up’ attitude to winning that finish. An experienced navigator afterwards described our adventure as three Dakars in one. We had condensed three Dakar’s worth of experiences into ten days of the most demanding of challenges. As tough as it was, we will be back for more!
A massive thank you to all our sponsors whose support was crucial to winning a finish; BFGoodrich, Dragon Energy, Motul, Fuel Up, Lazer Lighting and OMP.” ■
Written by: Marina Bruce
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