Words: Maria Guidotti ǀ Photos: Edoardo Bauer and Cristiano Barni
When you arrive at the Merzouga Rally, the importance given to each competitor, from the top factory rider to the amateur, makes you feel at ease within this warm, familiar, and non-pretentious atmosphere.
Photo credit: Edoardo Bauer and Cristiano Barni
However, VIP treatment to one and all is not the only priority at this rally. Security plays an equally important role in ensuring the continued success of the event, now a highlight on the rally calendar. With one heli ambulance, five 4x4 ambulances, fifteen medical staff, and two doctors on bike along the track, riders can focus on the task at hand, racing, knowing that if needed, medical help was nearby.
This year saw the fourth edition of the Merzouga Rally take place from 20 to 26 October 2013, in the deep south of Morocco and close to the Algerian border, and it did not disappoint.
“Edo Mossi, the organiser, is also a Dakar rider and his experience is precious when it comes to designing the route,” commented Darryl Curtis, the winner of the XRally Marrakech 2012, held in Morocco, and is another event promoted by Edo Mossi. “The route is designed specifically for bikes and this makes the navigation technical and demanding, but absolutely perfect training for the Dakar,” said Curtis.
Based on the desert stage of the Paris Dakar, the Merzouga Rally presented a demanding route on the varied sub-Saharan terrain, ranging from the big dunes of the Erg Chebbi, to the fast tracks on the plateau, the hard enduro mountains tracks, and the spectacular Scorpion Pass.
THE LINE UP
There were more than 100 competitors from 13 countries taking part in the three categories (bikes, quads, and side by side), including three factory teams: Team HRC Honda with Helder Rodrigues and Sam Sunderland; the Yamaha team with Olivier Pain and Frans Verhoeven; and the Gas Gas squad with Jordi Viladoms, Gerard Farres, and Marc Guasch, for their final test in preparation for the Dakar 2014.
With five days of racing, plus a warm up and prologue (at night), which all combined to cover almost 1,300 km of hard navigation and technical terrain, riders’ skills, stamina, and physical and emotional fortitude would be tested to the max.
DAY ONE: warm up & prologue (total 126 km)
The day started with a 120 km warm up to allow the riders to find or regain confidence with the African terrains, regulate the trip, and for those who were experiencing the rally for the first time, to understand how the GPS worked. At the end of the warm up, a 4 km prologue was held to determine the starting order for day two. There was no holding back, especially from the riders with a motocross background, such as Arnold Brucy, son of the Dakar Champion Jean Brucy, and Sam Sunderland, the young Brit with the HRC factory team.
STAGE 2: Jamalun “camel”
Liaison 3,43 km – Special Stage 191,69 km – Liaison 6,07 km
As was anticipated at the riders’ briefing, the rally started off with a very demanding day consisting of the special stage of 191,69 km of which the first part was characterised by dunes and camel grass, and there was also a lot of off-track navigation required. In the latter part, the riders tackled a mix of traditional secondary tracks and numerous single tracks, with several breathtaking enduro paths, such as the Scorpion Pass near Erfoud.
In the Rally class, the two Honda factory riders, Helder Rodrigues and Sam Sunderland, secured the first two places respectively, with the Yamaha factory rider Olivier Pain in third. Gerard Farres and Jordi Viladoms of the Gas Gas squad rounded out the top five.
STAGE 3: Tamaghirt “The Berber”
Liaison 25,42 km – SS 276,29 km – Liaison 25,51 km – Total 327,22 km
After an early start, the competitors tackled the third and longest stage of the rally: 327,22 km of dunes and technical tracks that tested both riders and machines. In the first part, they rode to Cap Erg Ouzina, passing through the mythical places of Erg Chebbi and Erg Snagui (Erg is the Arab word for 'mountains of sand').
In the second part of the stage, the terrain changed completely and the most technical riders could show their riding skills on hard paths. Leading the group was Pain, Viladoms, Farres, Sunderland, and Botturi, who all rode together, and it was a great pity for the Italian Alessandro Botturi, on Speedbrain, to have to stop because of a problem on his bike. In the end it was Frans Verhoeven (Yamaha) who claimed the stage in front of Sam Sunderland (Honda), with an advantage of 00:03:59. The Gas Gas riders Gerard Farres and Jordi Viladoms were 00:08:06 behind the stage winner.
Stage 4: Khettara "traditional wells" – marathon stage
Liaison 5,15 km – SS 200,85 km – Total 206 km
The fourth day was a crucial stage as it required a strategic approach to tackle a 200,85 km special stage on hard-packed terrain and 15 km off-piste with Cap Erg Chebbi reaching the parc fermé in the bivouac, called 'la belle etoile' (meaning 'the nice star'), outside Merzouga, where the riders would sleep in tents. During this stage and in stage five, no assistance was allowed, so it was important for the riders to manage and look after their bikes.
Honda continued to dominate with Sam Sunderland winning the fourth stage in front of teammate Helder Rodrigues and Yamaha factory rider Olivier Pain.
Stage 5: Nakla “Palms”
SS 218,56 km – Liaison 0.44 km – Total 219 km
After a night spent in the bivouac, in the desert, without any assistance, the competitors tackled the fifth stage that boasted several off-tracks and dunes crossings until Erfoud. After CP2, the second part of the stage was in a sandy and flat area with fast tracks.
Once again, it was Honda finishing first in the fifth stage, to claim three stage wins out of five. Helder Rodrigues, who won the second stage, showed what a classy rider he is when he took the win ahead of his teammate Sam Sunderland (+2’:06), who was leading the overall classification.
STAGE 6: Jbel O Ramal “Sandy Mountain”
Liaison 39,99 km – 50,92 km – 58,41 km - Total 149,32 km
The sixth and final day of the rally started with a spectacular ‘Le Mans’ style start in front of the Erg Rissani. Almost 80 riders jumped on their bikes and went straight into the soft sand of the Erg, before riding along the lake of Merzouga and the big dunes of the Erg Chebbi. It was an extraordinary moment of great adrenaline, comparable to the start of a MotoGP race or a F1 GP, with only the sound of the helicopter breaking the deep silence during the four minutes before the marshal gave the start.
Sam Sunderland, Helder Rodrigues, and Gerard Farres were the first riders to cross the finish line in Merzouga, with Sunderland winning the Merzouga Rally 2013 in both the overall and Rally category. On the second step of the podium was Honda rider Helder Rodrigues, winner of the first edition of Merzouga Rally in 2010, and Olivier Pain finished third.
Sam Sunderland (UK) Honda said, “It was a great race and a great result for me and Honda. I enjoyed the ‘Le Mans’ style start this morning, it was something unique and despite it being a shorter stage today, we had a hard job in the soft sand of the Erg Rissani. My congratulations to Edo (Mossi) for the organisation.”
Added Helder Rodrigues (POR) Honda, “I participated and won the first edition of Merzouga Rally in 2010. In just three years, the event has grown a lot and it has now become a true African Rally; technical and demanding, without losing the friendly atmosphere. For me it’s the perfect preparation for Dakar.”
Commented Olivier Pain (FR) Yamaha: “This is a unique rally focused on training the navigation and demanding stages. I liked the Le Mans start a lot, there was the adrenaline and pressure of a MotoGP start, cool!”
The Rally Lite category (enduro bikes equipped with navigation gear, a water tank for the desert, and an autonomy of fuel for 120 km) was won by Frenchman Arnold Brucy, son of the Dakar hero Jean Brucy. He was followed by Italians Cesare Zacchetti in second and Giorgio Papa in third.
The Quad category’s podium was dominated by the Spanish riders, with Fernandez Covadonga in first, Eduardo Marcos Echaniz second, and Diego Ortega Gil third.
Edo Mossi commented, “It was great to see the factory riders from Honda, Yamaha, and Gas Gas at the start of the fourth edition of the Merzouga Rally. Despite it being a young rally, top riders and many passionate riders have chosen the Merzouga to prepare for the Dakar, and for me this is confirmation that we are working in the right direction.”
The world of rally is changing
Added Mossi, “The world of the rally raid is changing. The new generation of riders is very fast and they ride light and agile bikes with very good handling. They come from a motocross background and I was seeing them riding full gas and jumping. At Merzouga, we are privileged to have a technical route that is designed specifically for bikes, so that they can race and train at the same time. The Dakar is also going in this direction, with more stages where the route of the bikes and cars are separated. Furthermore, we pay great attention to the navigation, which is also a way to reduce the speed and make the rally safer.”
Francois Charliat, former water boy of Ciryl Neveau, was racing in the Merzouga and confirmed what Mossi was saying, “I was impressed by Sam Sunderland. He has grown a lot in terms of experience and road book knowledge. The rider who wins the Merzouga Rally is, in my opinion, a complete rider with a long future in front of him because of what it means to win a rally raid, which is tougher than any other rally and very difficult in navigation. Sam was able to navigate and open the throttle at the same time. My congratulations.”
Charliat was not the only one impressed by Sam’s performance. Katsumi Yamazaki, project leader of the new Honda CFR 450 Rally, agreed saying that, “We are very happy to have participated at Merzouga Rally. It has been a very technical test for the bikes and complete training for the riders in terms of navigation, endurance, and technical ride on the dunes and terrains that we will also find in South America. Team HRC and the CFR 450 Rally is ready for the Dakar 2014 challenge. We participated in the Maroc Rally and Merzouga Rally, a total of 15 days of racing, like the Dakar, and have won at both events. Paulo Goncalves took the win at the Maroc Rally, with Joan Barreda in third place, and Sam Sunderland won at Merzouga, with Helder Rodrigues in second. We are ready for the Dakar and we go there with one goal: to win.”
For more information on the Merzouga Rally, visit http://www.merzougarally.com