The weak winter sun shines over the southern French village of Saint-Cyprien and on a spit of land between the Mediterranean and the harbour the long tent is full of activity as cars ready for the annual race / rally / adventure / expedition / experience of a life-time to Dakar go through scrutineering.
As you surely know the legendary 'Dakar' doesn't actually go to Dakar any more after the organisers deemed the African wastelands was too dangerous to host such a high profile event and so South America now holds the race whose turbaned brand was forged in the Sahara.
But those who know what magic there is in the African sands also know that the spirit of the event lies there... so when the A.S.O. chose another continent the 'old guard', past winners and organisers of those early and now legendary Paris-Dakar challenges got together to keep the spirit alive... and the Africa Eco Race was born.
I'm happy to see all of the people here...
Now in its 4th year, this epic 13 day event covering 3500km through 5 countries is fully matured and one of the names synonymous with those well-remembered days of yore, Rene Metge, has found and plotted routes for their beauty as well as their brutality, for their diversity as well as distance; The promise is that the Africa Eco Race will not be trying to recreate what went before, but will be an example of what the pinnacle of a rally-raid should be.
Winner of all the previous editions, Jean-Louis Schlesser is a bit of a celebrity here, shaking hands with everyone with his family in tow and is very relaxed ahead of the start. A crowd was pressing around his buggy as it waited in line for scrutineering but the 'Boss' as he is affectionately known had time for me. “I'm happy to see all of the people here and I hope to have a strong and tough race... as there are a lot of good buggies to race against!” His buggy is all new though. Since the last race in the Pharoans Rally in Egypt the car has got longer, lighter, the engine sits lower, the radiator is in a different place... “Ah,” he shrugged when I asked if he was a bit worried about the lack of testing. “I think I know enough!”
Reigning truck class champion is the Czech Republic's Tomas Tomecek who is so unassuming that I mistook him for one of his mechanics. “I like the Eco Race very much,” he smiled. “I was 9 years old when Thierry Sabine started the Dakar and I always liked the idea, but I watched how it changed with the money and commercialism... So now I choose the Africa Eco Race for that feeling of freedom... but maybe I am crazy...”
One of the most popular cars was the gold Dartz Kombat T-98, which I nicknamed GoldZilla, a 4-ton armoured car used in the upcoming Paramount Pictures film The Dictator. Driving it across the start line behind the cars with the whole crowd taking photos was a great experience!
42 cars took the start, with 5 trucks and 17 bikers... and the fun starts tomorrow with a 1000km route to the south of Spain... and a 3am start!
STAGE 1: Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Saint Cyprien (France) – Almeria (Spain)
Free liaison: 1027 km
Competitors will attend a general briefing on Tuesday 27 December, and will then head to the Spanish port of Almeria, where they will embark the ferry, to Nador in Morocco.
STAGE 2: Thursday, December 29, 2011
Nador – Tarda (Morocco)
Liaison: 239.40 km – SS: 276, 90 km – Liaison: 106 km
After leaving the boat in the morning, the competitors have a link of nearly 240 km of public road with a lot of traffic which will be a good exercise in concentration before taking off on the first stage of the 2012 edition of the AFRICA ECO RACE. A timed stage will be a difficult introduction, especially during the first 40 km on a track damaged by recent rains and including subsidence, cracks and numerous diversions. The route then improves to mid-term review. Less demanding in navigation, the second part of the special will be beautiful because the competitors will find a wide and fast track of 40 km which passes through the heart of beautiful scenery. Although this first stage will be the shortest of the rally, it will be still be just a warm-up.
STAGE 3: Friday, December 30, 2011
Soon – Mhamid (Morocco)
Liaison: 8.26 km – SS: 375.14 km
The second stage consists of a short link and then 375 km of special stage, will not pose a particular problem in terms of control, but it will be much more demanding, however, in terms of navigation and. About mid way it will be very important to follow the many changes of caps surface to find a single track in a valley... or lose a lot of time. Despite this, the tracks are generally good but with some tricky parts and a few dunes before arriving at the bivouac.
STAGE 4: Saturday, December 31, 2011
Mhamid – Assa (Morocco)
SS: 414, 14 km – Liaison: 75.90 km
After breakfast, the competitors will go straight to attack the dunes. They will be small but technical as the route leads through the soft sand and rocks to Erg Chegaga which spans 25 km and are the first real dunes of 2012 AFRICA ECO RACE, where it will be important to get the pressure of the tyres right to avoid losing time. Later it will be about the power of the engines on the 'motorway' that is Lake Iriki, before heading into the rest of the stage that alternates between rocks and sandy areas that require 'rolling' techniques... a real rally-rad stage! This will be the longest of the 5 stages in Morocco, but competitors should finish in time for the New Year celebrations.
STAGE 5: Sunday, 1 January 2012
Assa – As Sakn (Morocco)
Liaison: 10.76 km – SS: 290.23 km – Liaison: 14.75 km
The first half of this special in the south of Morocco is composed of wadis (dry river beds that can be very broken, and will need to be scrambled through and many lakes dry. Around the lake the ground could be soft. Then, the competitors will find some very fast and rocky tracks to the finish in Sakn. A stage in the tradition of Moroccan pistes, however, should not pose too many problems.
STAGE 6: Monday, January 2, 2012
As Sakn – Dakhla (Morocco)
SS: 376.67 km – Liaison: 348.18 km
A stage that René Metge is particularly fond of since it involves a lot of navigation. Co-drivers will have a lot of work to do. First with an off-road track hard to see through the grass, in the heart of a great river. Then, in the desert ... the works. Finally, on a small rocky track between the dunes just before the dramatic depression of Wadi Hamra, where, after an impressive descent, it will not be easy to find the right track to get out and pass the CP. From there, the ground will change quickly and then on the fast and rocky tracks the driver will seek to avoid punctures. After the tied section there is a 350km liaison to Dakla on the Atlantic Ocean.
STAGE 7: Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Dakhla (Morocco) – Boulanouar (Mauritania)
Rest day / border crossing: 381 km
A well-deserved day off, just to thoroughly service the cars and to let bodies recuperate. The 318km liaison between Morocco and Mauritania will take the convoy to the bivouac at Boulanouar.
STAGE 8: Wednesday, January 4, 2012
Boulanouar – Akjoujt (Mauritania)
SS: 425.89 km – Liaison: 9.66 km
The first Mauritanian stage. The start will be at the bivouac for the motorcycles. A dramatic departure for the special looks very fast and relatively long. Competitors will follow the line of the railway connecting Zouerat in Nouakchott, used especially for the transport of iron ore. The course of the day will also include some parts of fairly easy off-piste. But there will be 45 km of such difficult terrain that René Metge knows that competitors will curse him. A section of dunes and camel grass where you have to be patient and careful not to get exhausted. After this comes the most difficult test. Tyres will have to be re-inflated for the run to the end of the stage.
STAGE 9: Thursday, January 5, 2012
Akjoujt - Akjoujt (Mauritania)
SS: 412.34 km
This loop around Akjoujt will be the most beautiful stage of the rally since it is dominated by sand and dunes, with some very rocky parts. Navigation will be most important because the traces fade quickly on the ground and the drivers will have no room for error, especially in the numerous wadis cut through the sand this year. The program of the day, crosses five passes, including that of Hnouk where competitors will feel very small. Those who believed that they knew the Mauritanian desert may be pleasantly surprised.
STAGE 10: Friday, January 6, 2012
Akjoujt - Tenadi (Mauritania)
SS: 445.48 km
This special in the heart of Mauritania is the longest of the 2012 AFRICA ECO RACE ®. It will also be one of the best and the one with most sand and dune crossings. Competitors asked for a little hard test: they will be served. However, a large fast track of nearly 200 km will recover from the difficulties and be a pleasure for the driver. This last stage, 100% Mauritanian, will also no doubt be really interesting for the competition.
STAGE 11: Saturday, January 7, 2012
Tenadi (Mauritania) - Kebemer (Senegal)
SS: 280 km - Liaison: 394.76 km
On this penultimate stage of the rally, competitors will find more sand and dunes, especially in the first part of the special, not obvious because it is a mix of dunes to cross and grassy plains. The rest will consist of a wide sandy tracks slaloming between the dunes that lead vehicles up to a second stretch of dunes and plains. The finish is sometimes rolling but everyone will have to remain vigilant to the end so not to make a mistake just before the finish.
STAGE 12: Sunday, January 8, 2012
Kebemer - Dakar (Senegal) - Lac Rose Special
Liaison: 130.96 km – SS: 23.83 km – Liaison: 41 km
The reward for nearly two weeks of effort... The Rose Lake and the final podium for the 2012 Africa Eco Race!