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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

How to Rally in Style

Imagine the look on the faces of all the other racers. You, in that Rolls, on the Dakar Rally across South America."

Chilean Sebastian Etoheverry is grinning like a kid who has lit off a firecracker. He is responsible for bringing the world's most infamous and challenging car race, the Dakar, across the Atlantic, from its usual home in the Sahara to its new home in South America.

In January, the Dakar will traverse Latin America from Buenos Aires to the Pacific and back, taking in the Andes twice and also the world's driest desert, the Atacama. It's a monster. rolls1_center.jpg


Quite by chance, before the Dakar route was announced, I came up with an almost identical route for an expedition (including a large chunk on dirt desert roads through the Atacama) across Argentina and Chile — in a Rolls-Royce Phantom. That is why Sebastian, playing me (an Englishman) off against the French, thinks the idea of bringing the Phantom back to Chile in January for the Dakar is such a hoot. "The idea of such a British car in a French race is fantastic."

The idea is not so far-fetched. In 1981, when the Dakar was at its most raw and was little more than a Christmastime jaunt to the sun for madcap Europeans, a team entered a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow in the African adventure. Sponsored by an aftershave company, the Rolls made it all the way to Dakar but not in time to be classified.

It took 2000 hours to prepare the Silver Shadow for the Dakar. Our Phantom came right out of the container from the factory at Goodwood. Bone stock and equipped even with a fridge. Hardly competition spec.

The inspiration for our drive was the early competition career of arguably the world's best ever racing driver, Juan Manuel Fangio. The Argentinean grand prix racer started his career in long distance races from Buenos Aires to Lima. Paraguay and Peru are not places to take anything but an armoured version of the Phantom.

Equally harsh, but sporting fewer bandits, is the route we picked; west from Buenos Aires, across the top of Patagonia, over the Andes into Chile. The return leg veered north through the Atacama (no Dakar would be right without serious sand), back over the Andes and across the pampas to the Argentinean capital. 6200 miles in two weeks.

The Sahara gave the Dakar its reputation and stole many lives. Twenty-two-hour days for three weeks, relentless excavating of cars and bikes from dunes high as an office block, and less predictable dangers like minefields created an aura of adventure like no other car race.

"The Dakar in South America will be very different," Sebastian tells me. "There will not be 600 miles of sand in one day like in Mauritania but temperatures could reach 45 degrees Celsius. It will be hard, but in a different way than Africa. Less soft sand and more hard desert tracks."

In Africa, the Dakar bisected areas inhabited only by Tuareg nomads. Spectators were so sparse they could be counted by name not numbers. In Chile, the rally is expected to lure tens of thousands of fans to the Atacama.


Chile will be the most spectacular and most demanding section of the rally. Come January, they'll be racing at over 13,000 feet, in a desert that can get less than a thumb-width of rain a decade.

"Water is the most valuable thing in our lives out here in the Atacama," says a llama herder living outside the oasis of San Pedro de Atacama. "Make sure you have water with you when you are in the desert."

No wonder NASA used the Atacama to simulate Moon and Mars missions. Unlike the Sahara, which has a softness and a Beau Geste romanticism, the Atacama has a rugged, deadly aura. Its beauty is in its life-threatening extremes. It's why the Dakar is staging its toughest stages in the Atacama and why we have brought the Rolls here.

A week ago the Phantom was tangoing down the boulevards of Buenos Aires with the grace and poise of Eva Peron. Now the flying lady atop the famous grille is grubby and the flanks of the handmade limo are coated in desert sand. It should look wrong but somehow a battle-worn Phantom looks very, very right. And it handles the slippery undulating tracks better than you'd imagine.


The Rolls hugs the terrain like a cruise missile. Bumps, holes, and corrugations disappear under the giant 21-inch Goodyears and, with the traction control off, the Phantom balances perfectly in slight opposite lock though bends coated in slippery gravel. All that's missing is some kind of throaty growl from the V-12 engine. But that would be like asking a lady to burp.

The incongruity of the Phantom on these dirt highways is what makes this trip so special. You rarely see one of these cars on Park Avenue or Park Lane, let alone in the adobe-walled main street of San Pedro de Atacama. Cheers go up and one girl even wolf-whistles as we edge through the narrow streets in search of the town's one elusive gas station.

San Pedro will be full of rally machines in January as the Dakar swings through the region. Hotels like the Tierra Atacama are booked solid for the duration. The impact the event will have on the economy bodes well. The reaction to our car shows that Chileans appreciate an evocative automobile.


Whether the police show as little lenience to the competitors as they do to us remains to be seen. Pulled over for the third time in Chile, the highway patrol makes it clear that our progress has been well charted through the country.

"This is not the first time you have been stopped," says the officer. It's hard to adhere to a 62=mph limit in a car comfortable at almost three times that speed and on some of the smoothest, most open and uncongested roads on the planet.

Their warning is reinforced by an unhealthy series of roadside decorations. Shrines, in fact. Memorials to those for whom driving in Chile spelled the end.

"Many of the crashes happen when people fall asleep behind the wheel," says our guide, Alfonso. The trouble is, 62 mph is the most sophorific speed at which you can drive. It's not an excuse the police like to hear, but we do escape with our licenses intact.

It took two weeks to cover the 6200 miles from Buenos Aires to the Pacific and back again. Neither car nor its drivers broke a sweat. The Phantom did not have even a puncture to show for crossing Latin America, twice. All the more reason that, come January, we should bring it back and show the French how to rally in style.