Before the Dakar Rally, a reconnaissance team drives the length of the course to compile the guidebook for the drivers. Ahead of the 35th Dakar – the fourth since its move from Africa to South America – The Red Bulletin called shotgun on this extraordinary exploratory expedition.
When you’re travelling at speeds of around 130kph and conditions are more off-road than on, the slightest bump in the road could be fatal. Yet when dangerous-looking ground rapidly fills the windscreen of a 4x4 piloted by two veteran French motorsportsmen as they map out the course for the Dakar Rally, there’s no panic. Jipé, in the driver’s seat, whispers across something to Jacky as he makes two swift pedal manoeuvres. Jacky makes a note in the book in his lap. These two men know each other, and the terrain, better than anyone.
You might call Jean-Pierre ‘Jipé’ Fontenay and Jacky Dubois an ‘old couple’, but don’t let them hear you. Fontenay, a sprightly 55, has a sun-weathered face rich with wrinkles, but he still has that same beady eye and cast-iron grip that has seen him complete 21 Dakars, including victory in 1998.
Alongside him is Jacky Dubois, an even sprightlier 63, who has raced so many special stage kilometres, on the Dakar and elsewhere and everywhere, that he has lost count. When, as is the case now, he is creating the road book for a rally which each driver and, more particularly, his co-driver will use to navigate through the race, he uses three different coloured felt-tip pens, which are kept on the dashboard just in front of him, under a GPS device. In this car, a Toyota Hilux that the two men refer to as The Toy, there is a brake pedal under his right foot. Sometimes it’s one, sometimes the other who stops the car. But it is Dubois who notices the slightest changes in terrain. Every bump, ditch, trench, rut, dip, stretch of water, patch of water... It all gets noted down, hand-written in, drawn on.
The Toy comes to a halt; it is Fontenay on the brakes this time. Dubois is the judge investigating the road. The two men come to an agreement on the DZ 30s – 30kph danger zones, a compulsory one for the book whenever the race course passes through a village – and the PPs, which are main roads. At each feature, GPS co-ordinates, distances from and to other features on the course, and the level of difficulty and any potential obstacles, are all noted down with pin-point accuracy. On paper, using the felt pens. “Even if we provide a glossary in all languages for foreign drivers,” says Dubois, “nothing’s as good as a drawing.”
This is proof of the old one about experience and therebeing no substitute for it. David Castera, the Dakar’s sporting director, would not have his road book made any other way. “Obviously, we have to come up with the best road book possible,” says Castera. “We enter the GPS co-ordinates into the computer every evening. Sometimes we’re too tired, so it all stays in Jacky’s notebooks and we take care of it later, either when we’re on the plane or once we’re back in Paris [where the Dakar’s organising company is based]. Let me tell you, we definitely don’t want to lose those notebooks.”
During the rally itself, only a few top drivers will take the time to conscientiously study the road book every evening before drifting off to sleep. The others will either be up to their elbows in muck fixing cars, or out for the count. But it is unfamiliarity with the road book that causes more problems than anything else. “Take the motorcyclists,” says Castera, who came in third on two wheels on the 1997 Dakar Rally. “There are 15 who are really fast, 15 who are fast and 200 who trundle along at a regular pace because they haven’t read the book.”
Castera is the right-hand man of Etienne Lavigne, the director of the Dakar. In November 2005, Lavigne’s predecessor, Stéphane Le Bail, was involved in a scooter accident; the 2006 rally was just two months away. Time was short. They had to get the road book finished, so Lavigne asked Castera to do just that. “All the work had already been done,” Castera says, modestly. He has been responsible for the making of the road book ever since. It’s a job with many potential pitfalls, like last spring, for example.
Read the full story in December's issue of The Red Bulletin.