Pushing The Limits Of Endurance

Published 11 years ago
Pushing The Limits  Of Endurance

Unlike the more glorified test of man and machine (such as Formula One), rally racing has for decades been relegated to an inferior position in the hierarchy of tests of endurance. Yet this demanding sport actually predates F1; finding its roots in 1894 when horseless cart races dominated the city of Paris. Monte Carlo was the scene for the first official rally in 1911 and soon, city-to-city road races sprang up across France and Europe.

These races gave birth to those elements we still enjoy in modern rallying, such as time trials and the use of road books and route notes. Drivers had to weave between pedestrians and animals while covering distances as great as 1,178km—sometimes without any rest periods in between. Safety naturally became an issue, as the clunky vehicles got increasingly faster along those inhospitable tracks. The sport was banned in France for a brief period but soon, purpose-built tracks were developed and the sport came into its own.

A name we now associate with two-wheeled competitions, the Tour de France, began originally for rally drivers and kicked off in 1899. The most famous of all rallying competitions began decades later in 1977. Thierry Sabine was travelling through the Libyan desert on his motorbike when he got lost. Struck by the austerity and beauty of the landscape, he vowed to share his discovery with as many people as possible when he finally made it back to France.

Sabine mapped out a 10,000km route from Europe into Algiers, across Agadez and finishing in Dakar. To mark the birth of the Paris-Dakar rally, he coined the following motto: “A challenge for those who go. A dream for those who stay behind.”  But this competition became a nightmare for 58 competitors who, since the inception of the challenge, lost their lives in pursuit of glory. One of South Africa’s most renowned Paris-Dakar competitors, Alfie Cox (who’d made the transition from bikes to cars), narrowly escaped death in January this year when his Volvo XC60 suffered power-steering failure. The car burst into flames and both Cox and his co-driver, Jürgen Schröder, had to be airlifted from the scene. Unforgiving terrain and mechanical difficulties are not the only threats to competitor safety. The rally had to be cancelled in 2008 due to security issues in Mauritania and the competition shifted to South America in 2009. It has stayed there ever since.

Thanks to its challenging conditions, Africa has hosted some other, perhaps lesser-known events, such as the FIA African Rally Championships (which takes place in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Madagascar), the Kenya Airways East African Safari Classic, and the colloquially-termed Put Foot Rally.

Legend has it that the East African Safari Classic grew out of a conversation motorsport enthusiast Neil Vincent had with his cousin Eric Cecil. Vincent is attributed with saying: “I can imagine nothing more boring than driving round and round the same piece of track. But if you will organize an event where we can get into our cars, slam the door, go halfway across Africa and back, and the first car home is a winner, I’ll be in it.” In 1953, the competition took off under the guise of a tribute to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

The Put Foot Rally, unlike all the rest, emphasizes the social element rather than competition. It is aimed at bringing attention to tourism in South Africa and an appreciation for the wildlife and natural beauty that make up this fair land. But ultimately, rallying is about rivalry and economics—it’s a proving ground where manufacturers test their latest technology (which we as consumers benefit from). These competitions also generate financial rewards for the local areas hosting them.

Take the Toyota Kalahari Botswana 1000 Desert Race for example, which takes place on June 22-24 every year. Since 1975, this has been considered the ‘Comrades Marathon’ of all off-road events. At the launch of this year’s race, Onkokame Kitso Mokaila, Botswana’s minister for environment, wildlife and tourism, mentioned that the rally contributed “millions of pula” to their country’s economy with the bulk of the money being spent on food, transport, accommodation, entertainment and petrol. Businesses in the vicinity of the race route also mentioned increased sales during the annual event.

The technology required to build a car that’s capable of taking on extreme terrain is simply astonishing and begins with a frame that’s not only lightweight but capable of withstanding severe punishment. The frame doubles up as a roll cage and, according to FIA regulations, needs to be able to withstand up to 16.9 tons for a defined area. Driver and passenger safety of road-going cars has enjoyed many benefits, all as a direct result of the conditions experienced in rally (and other forms of) racing.

Keeping these cars in contact with the roads—where there is one—is the job of the suspension, yet this needs to allow enough ground clearance (spring travel is limited to 250mm) while still maintaining stability. Production cars make use of these developments, but naturally the emphasis here isn’t only on performance but also on ensuring comfort levels as well.

Four-wheel drive is crucial in rallying, yet the Paris-Dakar regulations stipulate that any form of electronic control is prohibited. As a result, manufacturers often opt for viscous locking for the car’s three differentials. One might think that, as these cars can’t travel as fast as their road-going counterparts, aerodynamics wouldn’t be a major factor—it actually is. A rally vehicle’s drag coefficient enjoys the highest priority in the design phase (which is obviously of great importance for road-going cars; ensuring high levels of fuel efficiency), all the while taking into account the need for short overhangs that allow easy entry angles when climbing over hills or obstructions.

Creating downforce, unlike in Formula One, is not a necessity as sand has high rolling resistance. In terms of bodywork, the carbon fiber shell on the 2012 Volkswagen Race Touareg for example, weighs in at a measly 50kg. Carbon fiber has now been extensively used in production cars where performance is key and many modern vehicles now make use of engines machined from lightweight yet durable aluminum.

Weight distribution in terrain that can easily flip a car demands serious attention. Typically, an equal weight distribution is placed over the front and rear axles and fuel tanks are placed very low to assist with an optimal center of gravity. While packing components in as compact a manner as possible, mechanics need to have ease of access to exchange parts or service the cars quickly. Support teams also need to carry as few spares as possible so they can be mobile and efficient.

Tire development goes hand-in-hand with racing and again, translates directly into the types of compounds available for production vehicles. Tires need to be capable of handling rough terrain, while offering resistance to wear-and-tear.

Stopping a standard 4×4 has become easier thanks to the testing that goes on in rally races, which is why disc brakes have become an industry standard rather than the antiquated drum configuration. Thanks to these brave drivers and manufacturers, road-going cars have become exponentially safer and far more capable and will continue to do so in the future.