The bleached, lunar sterility of the Eastern Sahara is a perfect place to run the penultimate round of the FIA World Cup, the Pharaons Rally, a six day, 3000km blast to test man and machine to the absolute limit.
Pharaons Rally, Egypt
Text and Photos by Robb Pritchard
The event was flagged off against the stunning backdrop of the majestic pyramid that stand on the plateau above the seething mass of Cairo with the ‘Desert Fox’ two-time Dakar winner, Jean-Louis Schlesser leading the field off in his Schlesser Original Buggy.
Behind him were some big names in some serious machinery, two-time FIA Baja World Cup winner Gadasin in his brutal 7 litre V8 G-Force Proto, Miroslav Zapletal from the Czech Republic in his X-Raid BMW X3CC and Romanian Costel Casuneanu in his Mitsubishi MPR 13…
But fastest through the opening stage was none of the established names, but rapid ‘newbie’ Vladimir Vasiliev who is quickly making a name for himself in the second G-Force Proto, although being first wasn’t his plan. “Everyone always tells me, drive slow on the first stage, so I did. I was just taking my time, I even stopped at the mid-stage service… just to say hello to the mechanics…” he smiled.
Also a surprise, in 4th place was Jun Mitsuhashi in his T2 class Toyota Land Cruiser 200, which apart from safety modifications, HD suspension and a huge fuel tank is basically in ‘showroom’ class. His time was especially impressive seeing as he had two flat tyres in the stage. “I was expecting more sand and less rocks,” he explained. “So the pressures were too low. Tomorrow I will do better!”
Vasiliev starting first on the the second day but Schlesser wasn’t all that confident that would get very far. “It’s really hard to open the stage so the first rule in rally raid is to never go first if you can help it. It’s always easier to follow a car, to see how it lands over the crest of a dune, to check your navigation against his rather than opening the course yourself.” But it wasn’t an error of judgement in the notorious dunes or a mistake of navigation that caught Vasiliev out… it was a hidden outcrop of rocks that weren’t in the roadbook… and unfortunately they mangled his front suspension.
Zapletal also had a huge disadvantage. Whereas his rivals were in the service park with their massive T5 trucks, tons of spares and teams of mechanics, the Czechs were parked up with nothing but a trailer and a gazebo bought from a garden centre. “The whole X-Raid team are in Morocco preparing for the Dakar,” he shrugged. “So because we only have one mechanic and no spares we’ll have to take it easy.” …which ironically turned out to be what caused a disastrous retirement on Day 2. They took a crest of a dune a little too cautiously and got stuck on the other side, which wouldn’t have been much of a problem in itself, except Costel Casuneanu was following close behind and landed hard on the BMW… The impact in the back corner was enough to twist things at the front, so perhaps the whole car is written off.
After being slowed by an electrical problem that turned his V8 into a V6 Schlesser’s closest rival at the start of the stage was Gadasin, but he made a simple mistake. “I got a puncture, so I pulled off the racing route to change it, but as soon as we started again we got stuck. We had to use the sand ladders and go one metre at a time and when we got out I looked back and saw a large circle of really soft sand about 30 metres wide and I’d parked right in the middle of it!”
The desert is a hard place to master; the sands hide constant hazards and there is only one thing that a driver can have to conquer the dunes; Experience. And one man who has that more than most is Jean-Louis Schlesser and as everyone was having troubles behind it was the French ex-Formula 1 driver who headed off at the top of the leaderboard with a string of 5 fastest stage times. But an incredible second overall, partly thanks to Gadasin having a massive accident was Jun Mitsuhashi. “It’s not the big dunes that are the problem,” Gadasin said. “It’s the little ones! They are about 50–60cms high and are very hard to see. We hit one and at 150km/h it’s like driving into a wall, and we lost the whole front wheel assembly.”
Yet his G-Force Proto is very strongly built and by the beginning of the last stage was just 16 minutes behind Mitsuhashi with 350km to go. Should they take it steady and be happy with third, or take some risks and push for second? True racers go for every position and Gadasin duly started the stage at maximum attack, airborne less than 100 metres from the start line, yet by the mid-point where we were waiting there was obviously something wrong. Schlesser powered through, but then 10 minutes passed… then 20… 30… 40… and then it was the previously unremarkable Vadym Nesterchuk in the Sixt Ukraine Pajero.
Neither Gadasin or Mitsuhashi made it out and the G-Force and Toyota mechanics were parked up at the CP service with disconsolate expressions. Finally, after a couple of hours, with body work flapping in the wind and a cracked screen Gadasin came by and limped through to the finish. He’d gone too hard over a crest, the car had flipped in the air and landed on it’s roof and had twisted the suspension in the subsequent roll. But once the T4 service truck had caught up with them in the stage they were able to make repairs and carry on to get third overall. Not so for the unfortunate Mitsuhashi though. After not putting a wheel wrong for the whole week the alternator tensioner arm broke and his rally ended heartbreakingly on the end of a tow rope so close to home.
Back at the finish at the pyramids and after his desert-driving masterclass that left his closest challenges hours behind it was Schlesser with a well-deserved victory with a delighted Nesterchuk in a sensational second.
The 2011 FIA World Cup for Cross Country Bajas finale is in Portugal this weekend. Leonid Novitsky is at the top of the standings and Schlesser’s buggy is only two wheel drive, which on the tight twisty tracks in the Portuguese mountains will leave him at a serious disadvantage. But be sure that he will be fighting right to the end!
- Jean-Louis Schlesser Schlesser Original Buggy 23:27:34
- Vadym Nesterchuk Mitsubishi L200 26:51:17
- Boris Gadasin G-Force Proto 28:50:27
- Costel Casueneau Mitsubishi MPR13 32:43:09
- Ilya Kuznetsov Toyota Land Cruiser 33:19:38