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Tony Harris

 

Growing up, I’d never really taken that much interest in motorsport, my Dad used to watch the F1 on telly, but I was more interested in rugby and going sailing to be honest and those were my interests at secondary school which I continued when I joined up.

That all of course came to a grinding halt when I got blown up. In work and in sport I’d always been part of a team, each with different roles, but working in a structured way toward a common goal. Suddenly I was in danger of no longer having that as part of my life.

Complications with my injuries meant I eventually had to have a below knee amputation. Whilst in treatment we all chivvied each other along but there was a big focus on the individual, so we began to start to look at what activities we might be a part of where team work was a central focus.

Rallying and cross country racing looked good opportunities, I liked that there were two people in the car, not just an individual and that you had to work together to get to the finish. But more than that, the right mechanics needed to be in place, there had to be the correct strategy and planning etc.

We also liked the idea of it as we couldn’t all go trekking in the Andes or climb mountains, but we did think if we were going to do something, let’s not muck about at it, lets aim big. I didn’t want to end up being a guy who sits in the pub and can only talk about having been in the military. I was determined that the biggest thing in my life was not going to be having been blown up, I wanted something memorable to have happened after that. So we looked at the Dakar Rally and just thought that’s the one!

We spoke with QT Services who make the Wildcat based on the Land Rover and have a great reputation on rally raid competitions and that was the start of our adventure. We had no funding, no car, no rally experience and no competition licenses, other than that it was going to be a doddle…

Time to pull a team together. My good mate Matt came on board along with Army colleagues and civilian personnel too. You can’t just enter the Dakar and crack it without the right experience and knowledge in the team.

It was then we went to talk with sponsors, set out what we aimed to achieve and how we planned to do it. They could see the determination in the team and thankfully Land Rover, Quaife, Cooper Tyres, Bosch and many big names in motorsport came on board (See www.race2recovery.com/our-partners )

We were convinced we were going to succeed in this, the sponsors could see this determination too. Britain is renowned for succeeding in pushing the boundaries and being the first in the world in achievements in motorsport, taking on challenges and making it work for example our record in land speed records is fantastic. Competing in the Dakar was going to be a huge challenge, but one we knew we could conquer.

Whilst we were building the team, bringing together sponsors etc there was also the small challenge of starting out in competitive driving. We sought advice from many different people, some of which we took, some of which we adapted. David Butler, himself a triple amputee, has a long history in motorsport and really paved the way for people with physical disabilities to be able to gain motorsport licenses, was incredibly supportive. We began by competing in the MSA British Cross Country Championship. Everyone was helpful, again offering support and advice, what was great though after all the pleasantries and social chat, they would make it clear that at the end of the day, they were there to race.

Our first race was really nerve racking, we’d been given special dispensation to have two disabled people competing in the same car, as our debut was to be a feature on Top Gear. So first race and being filmed by the one of the world’s biggest car shows. No pressure…. Once we got in the car, it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it might be. I remember as I completed the first stage, pulling back into the pits just thinking that was an absolute buzz. That thrill, the slight edge of nervousness sitting on the start line, it hasn’t ever gone away and I think that is one of the reasons I’ve grown to love the sport.

As we were planning all of this, a lady called Trish Chapman contacted us. Her late husband, Gordon had commissioned the build of a QT Wildcat to fulfil his dream of completing the Dakar Rally but sadly passed away before he could attempt it. Despite this tragedy Trish and her family decided that Gordon would have been inspired by what we were attempting and kindly offered the use of the car to Race 2 Recovery.

Initially we were aiming to run two cars in the Dakar 2013 but through the fantastic support we gained, we actually ended up running four.

We were joined by two American guys Staff Sgt Mark Zambon and Corporal Tim Reid both from the US Marines and every time we had either a racing weekend or one focusing on the mechanically aspects of the team, it was always great fun and gave us all a huge lift.

We went out to Morocco for the Tuareg Rally in March 2012 and we learnt a great deal out there, finishing I think 10th & 25th in class. It proved to be a useful trip, it also showed us how much we still had to achieve to compete in the Dakar.

Our first rally was Wales GB, competing in a Freelander we finished 51st overall. It was an absolutely brilliant experience. We again learned a lot from that. First and foremost, we were never going to finish first in a freelander! So we learned a lot about managing expectation and pacing ourselves, driving to finish. It helped develop the relationships between driver and co-driver, knowing when to push and when to reign it back to ensure you get to the finish.

The feelings of fear when you’ve maybe made a slight error, carried a bit too much speed into a corner or had a right tank slapper or just made a hash of it and not been smooth as you could, are all part of the sport and the enjoyment. Often on stage rallying you get to repeat a stage later in the rally. So whilst you know you are not necessarily going to finish top twenty, you can still focus on being competitive, even if it is the challenge of bettering your own time. Once I’m in the car, I aim to be cool and calm, never letting the red mist descend. If a car comes up behind, who is clearly quicker, just let them past, don’t try to race them, that’s when mistakes happen.

I’ve enjoyed the whole learning experience. Having Quin Evans sat alongside as navigator during these rallies was a massive help. Quin’s been right at the top of Rally Raid and Cross Country motorsport and his Dakar Rally record has seen him finish every one of the 7 he’s competed in, which included a 4th place overall.

The trust between driver and navigator and the team work is essential. On stage rallying, it’s almost as if you are driving into thick fog 300 metres ahead. All you are focusing on are those pace notes being called out by your navigator. You get into a zone, where you are almost unaware of anything else other than the next 300 metres and by the stage end, you really don’t recall what’s been said, it’s so ‘in the moment’. You put all your trust and faith in each other, knowing that you both understand what 6 left into 2 right translates into, what you can do and what you are capable of.

On to the Dakar, it’s one competition the UK hasn’t got a great record in. We’ve had success in the Camel trophy and such like, but not the Dakar. Quin recorded the highest place finish by a Briton when he finished fourth.

It’s such a different experience. You don’t have pace notes. You have distance and bearings – 72kms to the next sand dunes! You don’t want to be taking the same lines as previous cars in the sand. The unbroken sand offers the greatest rigidity, so you got to try and read where the best lines are. You don’t know what’s over a rise, you can’t just go flat out, there are many examples on youtube where people have got it wrong on the flat, never mind being caught out by a sheer drop over a knife edge dune. You can look at other dunes around you, but that is no guarantee, so sometimes you choose to skirt along them in a sweeping motion, to check them out and pick the best line.

There are some real rallying legends that compete in the Dakar and even they have to rein it in, slow down and check things out. But there are also times when you do go for it, across the salt plains you can hit some real speed, but even then you have to concentrate and pick out a line, one small error and even on what seems to be a flat surface, it can all end in a horrible roll.

When you look at stage rallying, they maybe last 15 or 20 minutes and might be 30kms in length. If you don’t have any mechanical problems in a stage in the Dakar you can be driving at 100% concentration for 10 or more hours without getting out of the car. I think the longest stage in 2013 covered over 500kms. We’ve got energy bars and drinks in the car. When you are not on a special stage, on one of the long liaisons, where you are restricted to speed limits, you can relax a little and plug in the ipod or maybe listen to an e-book.

Competing in the very first stage, getting strapped into the car at the start of the 2013 Dakar Rally was just incredible. To have finally got there was an incredible emotion. It was huge, absolutely huge. Over 1,000,000 people in Lima, Peru turned out to see the ceremonial start. People were lining the streets, it was just phenomenal.

We drove to the first special stage and after all the planning, all the hard work, all the support, 50 metres before the start line, our front diff broke. Bit of a pain to say the least…but we sorted it out and it was just incredible to actually get going.

The third day was my favourite, we really got going on that stage. We had no problems, the car was fantastic, we were able to push really really hard and made up an amazing 36 places that day. When we first had the thought of doing the Dakar we never imagined just how great that would feel.

 

Tony Harris

Follow on Twitter Anthony Harris R2R ‏@ajelharris

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To read more about Tony’s experience in the 2013 Dakar Rally and to find out more about the team visit www.Race2recovery.com and follow @race2recovery

 

 

 

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