x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Leading the charge at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge

The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge relies on dedicated support staff and volunteers who ensure competitors stay safe and within the rules.

Jeeps navigate the Liwa sands on an inspection of the more remote checkpoints along the Abu Dhabi Desert Challange route, which starts today.
Jeeps navigate the Liwa sands on an inspection of the more remote checkpoints along the Abu Dhabi Desert Challange route, which starts today.

Starting today for the next six days during the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, it might seem that, when the last rallier crosses the finish line, the event will be done for the day. But the desert won't yet be quiet. It is then, once the racing is over until the next morning, that a sweep team drives back and forth along the route until every single driver and rider is accounted for. When the last member of the last team comes in, only then do the search and rescue teams stand down.

These are just some of the 150 people that keep the Challenge going. Getting up hours before the racers and going to bed hours later, they do it out of pure love of the sport. "Normally I'll be the first up to do the weather check, which happens at about four o'clock in the morning," says Angus "Gus" Duthie, the SAR (search and rescue) chief. "We have breakfast and then the aircraft are live. I sort out who is doing what on which aircraft and where that aircraft will be deployed to. We get the medical staff together, brief the pilots and send it out."

The SAR team is made up of 10 trauma doctors and four search and rescue crewmen. They find any injured racers and stabilise them for the helicopter trip to the hospital. "It's a five-day event [the Liwa stages] and we usually have between five and 10 serious trauma incidents. They are things like broken backs, broken legs, two broken arms and severe dehydration." None of the members of the team are compensated - the doctors give their time freely. But the race gives them the opportunity for a unique learning experience.

"With this event, [the doctors] are out there by themselves, with a helicopter, with a kit and they have to do it right from the very start themselves," says Duthie. "They get a tremendous amount of practical experience which other doctors will just never get." Of course, people are not the only things that break down in the desert. John Mitchell-Ross is the leader of a recovery team that sweeps the desert for bikes and cars that can't continue. He oversees four squads, each with a tow vehicle and two specialised pickup trucks - nicknamed toast racks - that have been designed to cart away bikes.

"The team that I lead drives a fleet of vehicles to follow the competitors over the route and cut down any broken motorbikes, bring back any uninjured riders and also to provide medical assistance if we are at the scene of an incident in a reasonable time frame," he says. They work at least a 12-hour day, starting at 6am, and sweep the desert until everyone is accounted for. Sometimes they do more than just pick up vehicles.

"When we find a bike that is broken down, the guy will think that it is broken down but we can probably repair it very quickly. He is tired, he is hot, he's dehydrated so the mind starts doing silly things." Three of the teams follow the riders and the last team that heads out is in charge of closing down the route. While these teams have sometimes been forced to spend the night in the desert, they have never lost track of a single participant.

Volunteers return to the Challenge again and again, and many fly in from all over the world. The experience has been described as addictive and few people who participate in the event can leave it behind. "I have no idea why I do it," says Mitchell-Ross, who has been involved for the last 13 years. "The desert is an amazing terrain. The deep, dark dunes are just fascinating. It is an amazing, amazing place. You are away from civilisation and you are just completely remote. I love it."

More than half of his team for this year have participated in the Desert Challenge for the last eight years. In addition to donating their time, these volunteers lend their own tools to the event. "The event gets a lot of personal sponsorship from these individuals. These people who aren't paid to supply their vehicle, who aren't paid to supply their equipment, but are doing it because they love the desert, they love motorsport and want to be involved."

Fadi Melki, a Lebanese-born driver, has competed in the Desert Challenge over the last three years in a modified Range Rover, but the privateer first experienced the event in supporting roles. In 2000 and 2001, Melki drove the lead vehicle for the event; in 2002, he drove the support vehicle for a BMW bike team and, in 2003 and 2004, he drove the support vehicle for Team Saluki. Melki describes the role of support driver as "very important" and "a lot of work".

"The competitors take the hard route and the support team drives the easy route, but that is longer," Melki explains. He recalls an incident from the 2004 Desert Challenge when a Team Saluki vehicle had to be rescued after dark: "We went out at 11pm to get the car and didn't get back until 4am. When we were out in the desert, we had a sleep for an hour and a half, but we got the car and got it back in the rally the next day."

"It turned out that the car was only about three kilometres from where we had our sleep." This year, Melki will be driving with fellow countryman Mario Mitri, who has raced with the Daihatsu Rally Team in 2004 and first competed in the Desert Challenge in 1997. Perhaps the volunteer who devotes the most time to the event is Andrew Childs, the chief marshal. He begins preparations about a year before the event, organising all the details and planning the route. During the race, the marshals are located at specific checkpoints to vertify that drivers have passed them.

"They have a time clock or a little rubber stamp. It's a proof of passage," says Childs. "The top competitors will not want to stop. Some of the cars and bikes will hold the time card against the side of the car door, and as they drive slowly past they'll expect the marshal to stamp it and continue on their way. It's all fairly fraught." However most will stop, glad for the chance to rehydrate and reorient themselves.

"Many will stop because they want to be offered a bottle of water, which they tip down the front of their overalls or over their head or have a swig and tip the rest on them to cool them down, because dehydration is a big issue." These volunteers, who have flown in from places as far as Russia, Germany and the UK, spend the whole day under the desert sun. They are not aiming for the glory of the winners, they are just there because they are diehard petrolheads.

But support at the Desert Challenge doesn't just come from people who love cars; it also comes from people who love the competitors. Sharon White is the wife of Paul Anselmo, part of the UAE Charity Challenge bike team and the leader of their support team. White takes care of the camp and food preparation, among other jobs. "I'm pretty much mothering them," she confides. She will prepare breakfast and get the riders ready for an early morning start. During the day, she meets them at the checkpoints with a cooler of supplies.

"When they get back to camp, I try to make sure there is a meal waiting for them. All they need to focus on is being healthy, getting themselves recuperated, staying on the bike and getting to the other end in one piece." She says there are a surprising number of people helping out the way she does. It is not only family members but also friends who take the week off work and support the riders and drivers.

"[The competitors] put their hearts and souls into it, so it's just a matter of making sure they get what they need. Listening to their aches and pains and just talking to them about their ride and their experience." She laughs off the fact that her day is longer than the riders' and that she spends the week exposed to the harsh conditions. "For me it is not that difficult. I am just the cheerleader."

* With additional reporting by Georgia Lewis Go to www.abudhabidesertchallenge.ae for more info on the rally