Life on the Dakar Rally is lived out of a suitcase. Competitors, organisers, mechanics and media find themselves in a different location at the end of each leg as the itinerary of this 13-day marathon traces a linear route.
The hub is the bivouac – the office, the workshop, the restaurant and the camp site rolled into one. It’s where everyone involved in the rally comes together at the end of the day to go about their business, relate tales from the day’s competition over dinner and prepare for the next leg before snatching a few hours’ sleep. There’s even a laundry and a fully equipped medical centre with doctors and nurses on duty around the clock to deal with anything from minor ailments to major injuries.
Plus the site includes landing zones for the numerous helicopters used for filming the event, as well as medical support, along with a refuelling bay, vehicle cleaning facilities and mobile tyre fitment workshops.
Locations vary from race circuits to the middle of the desert, but one thing that doesn’t change is the vast size. It’s home to more than 3 000 people every night, covers about 10 acres and the easiest way to get around is onboard a mini-motorcycle.
Each team has its own area where it sets up its support vehicles, gazebos under which the race vehicles are serviced, a work area and individual tents where its personnel sleep.
The Team Ford Racing set-up includes space for the two MAN 6×6 assistance trucks, service areas for the two race cars and the 4×4 race truck, a physio tent where the drivers and co-drivers (and sometimes the mechanics and other crew) receive attention, and parking for the team’s five standard Ranger double cab support pick-ups.
There is a huge catering area which will serve more than 80 000 meals during the event. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all offered and for those who think mass catering rarely works, they should try this.
Dinner last night was pumpkin soup, steak (rare, medium or well done according to choice) with mashed potato, salad and apple crumble for dessert. And there’s even a half bottle of red wine, Argentine Malbec naturally, to wash it down if you choose.
Food is served round the clock so however late the mechanics have worked to restore their car to full health, or however many hours a straggler has lost in the stage, there’s always a hot meal when they reach the sanctuary of the bivouac.
And the water. The tower of water bottles is simply enormous. The most common sight as you walk around the bivouac is a team member struggling under the weight of several packs of bottles as he returns to rehydrate his colleagues in the 38 deg C heat.
Every evening, typically at around 8 pm, the organisers have a briefing for all competitors at the information centre. This details any last minute changes to the road book, new developments or other critical aspects of the event. It’s here that the competitors also receive a unique code that unlocks the following day’s stage on their GPS systems.
The info centre is always a hive of activity as crews view up-to-date stage times and overall results on the multitude of touch-screen displays, and view some of the TV footage captured after the past couple of days – a particular point of interest for each team’s assistance crews that have little of idea of what the stages are actually like.
And when the day is over and thoughts turn to sleep, the luxury of a cool shower can’t be missed. It’s one of Dakar’s ironies that the showers are frequently cooler than the bottled water after a few minutes in the sun.
As the weary caravan departs early the following morning for the next leg, the bivouac is taken down, packed away and transported to its next location to await the return of its friends.