40 days until the 2009 Dakar Rally in Argentina and Chile
Everything for the "Dakar": the other life of the Volkswagen drivers
Wolfsburg (24 November 2008). Exactly 40 days from now, a new life will start for the Volkswagen drivers at the Dakar Rally that is being staged -- for the first time -- in South America from 03 to 18 January. For a little over two weeks they will have to subordinate their days to the demands of the world's toughest rally in extremely difficult conditions. There is no doubt about the fact that for the teams in the four Volkswagen Race Touareg 2 vehicles the road to success can only be travelled with uncompromising discipline. "Highly detailed and professional planning is indispensable at the 'Dakar'; this also applies to the daily routines of the drivers," says Volkswagen Motorsport Director Kris Nissen.
The German duo, Dieter Depping/Timo Gottschalk, will contest the "Dakar" in the Race Touareg for the first time. But both are intimately familiar with the irrefutable principle of the cross-country classic, "Expect the Unexpected". As varied and unpredictable the tracks of the 9,578-kilometre route may be, as well-organised are the day-to-day activities which the drivers and co-drivers experience on the 14 legs of the "Dakar" - with recurring rituals and duties, as a "peek behind the scenes" of the team of Dieter Depping and Timo Gottschalk shows.
Professionalism even before the first metres
After getting up in the morning, the typical "Dakar" day starts in an unspectacular way for the teams. While their thoughts are already revolving around the leg ahead, their travel baggage needs to be stowed - from the tent to the toothbrush. "We have one stowage compartment on each of the two service trucks in which we pack our bags," explains Dieter Depping. "Everything comes in twos - to make sure we can continue working in case one of the trucks gets stuck." A brief breakfast follows and a quick look into the co-driver's bag to see that the roadbook and work materials are within ready reach - an absolute must for the navigator.
Prior to their departure, the driver and co-driver perform a final check of the Race Touareg according to a strict checklist - similar to those used by pilots of an aircraft. "For example, before starting, we check the tyre inflation pressure, we make sure there's enough diesel fuel on board and check whether the power wrench has been charged and set to 'loosen" in case we need to change a tyre. After all, we don't want to lose any time in case of an emergency," says Gottschalk, who, as a mechanical and vehicle test engineer, possesses in-depth technical knowledge. "I personally check whether the so-called trip master, a high-precision odometer, works properly and enter the daily code, which was issued the night before, into the GPS unit so that it will later detect the mandatory way points we have to pass. This is an important step because otherwise we are subject to serious time penalties or even an exclusion from the classification."
The liaison stage: warming up for the competition
When the drivers leave the bivouac with their Race Touareg there is usually a so-called liaison stage on the agenda. "This means that a few kilometres at moderate speed will be driven before the actual start," reveals Depping. "These are the few moments when we can enjoy the landscape for a change and also just chat with each other. But it could also be that Timo and I don't engage in any conversation." Nevertheless, the duo, which celebrated a strong third place at the Central Europe Rally in April, cannot just take its own sweet time. The pairing has to be at the start to the special stage in time to pass the control point at the established starting time. "We aim to be there a half hour before the start to be on the safe side if something unforeseen should happen. There are severe penalties imposed for being late," says Gottschalk.
Now of the essence: utmost concentration on the next special stage
When the countdown is running for the start to the next special stage, "Dakar" life has finally started to get serious. For the next few hours - the lengths of the stages vary between 215 and 670 kilometres - maximum concentration is required. The driver is focused on the track, the type of terrain and the right pace, while the co-driver determines the right direction and checks the overall course. "Each one of us has their own specific role, but at the same time we depend on our partner," says driver Dieter Depping. Concretely speaking, this means that at the "Dakar" a driver has no chance without the co-driver because unlike in classic rally racing, the vehicles operate in off-road terrain which provides no orientation. Perfectly coordinated communication in the cockpit is therefore indispensable since any misunderstanding would cost time. On clear sections with good visibility the co-driver may occasionally function as the driver's "waiter": "When I get hungry on long legs Timo may have to stick a piece of cereal bar into my mouth," reveals Depping with a grin on his face, although he is perfectly serious: "Without energy, concentration will drop." In unusual situations the two will roll up their sleeves together. If a puncture should occur on the way - which can hardly be avoided on extremely rough legs - an intensively trained programme is reeled off to keep the stop as brief as possible. "We've got no service crew at that time, but every move has to be perfect," says Gottschalk. That is why the driver and co-driver know their Race Touareg inside out so that they are able to perform a repair quickly and safely if necessary.
The late shift: separate ways in the bivouac
Once the stage finish has been reached the participants can take a deep breath for a change. "We get out of the vehicle, quickly drink something and eat some of our rations. This is also the first opportunity to get some information about what happened on the special stage and to get rid of some of the pressure," says Gottschalk. Afterwards, the duo has to start to the liaison stage to the bivouac which the service crew headed for in parallel and has since set up. As soon as the driver/co-driver crews arrive at the service park their next duties are awaiting them, but first they will be going separate ways. At the de-briefing with the engineers the driver discusses the way the leg went in detail and subsequently makes the preparations for the next day. "The engineers need to know how the day went, or more precisely, how the Race Touareg was running - and what my wishes are for the next leg," explains Depping. "The various legs differ greatly at times. This also determines factors like the suspension set-up, the fuel tank filling or the number of spare wheels for the next day." Simultaneously, the mechanics check the racing vehicles and begin preparing them for the next start.
In the meantime the co-driver receives the roadbook for the next day from the rally directors. In a meeting with the organisers the co-drivers learn about any last-minute changes made to the route description - this is another mandatory meeting. In addition, all four co-drivers from the Volkswagen team gather around a table and discuss the route for the next day. With coloured markings and easily visible notes the co-drivers adapt the roadbook to their needs, for better legibility at rally racing speed. "The key figures about the distances as well as the symbols for the course must be understandable at first glance because there's hardly any time to think about their meaning in the cockpit," says Timo Gottschalk. "Depending on the length of the special stages, this can take up to five hours. Again, you need to be as meticulous as necessary and as quick as possible." Only when all the work has been done can the duo think about its own needs. "Showering, using the water bottle, if necessary, changing clothes and then dropping into bed - or crawling into our sleeping bags after having set up our tents. All of this usually happens very late but it's very important. You've definitely got to get some rest," says the 34-year-old.
After all, the next morning another tough leg will be on the agenda - and the whole programme starts all over.