1997 MARLBORO UAE DESERT CHALLENGE
The UAE gives you the opportunity to do things not possible elsewhere in the world. This time it was a chance to compete against the big boys.” That’s how Mark Powell, 37, and Dave Pryce, 41, put into words their dream of driving through the inhospitable tracks and dunes of the Emirates, racing against the world’s elite, in the 1997 Marlboro UAE Desert Challenge.
Where else in the world could two sales and marketing managers, married with families, enter a rally car and take on the world’s best rally drivers? Starting 44th out of 45, they finished 14th. “Which,” grins Mark, “for total amateurs, is stunning”.
Years ago, when Mark was riding around Southern Africa on his motorbike and Dave was watching the RAC rallies roar through the hills of his native Wales, neither imagined that one day they’d be taking on the likes of Citroen’s Ari Vatanen and Pierre Lartigue. Living in Abu Dhabi gave them the opportunity, at the beginning of November, to turn the dream into reality.
“Why do it?” repeats Mark. “It’s conquering the dunes; being in control of the car. It’s just an enjoyable feeling.”
“Quite simply,” says Dave, “because we both love driving.”
Neither Mark nor Dave can remember exactly when they first met. Both think it was about five years ago in the “Desert Duelers”, a group of four-wheel drive enthusiasts, which organised desert trips. As experience generated confidence, Mark started organising trips. “Very soon, I knew I could rely on Dave,” says Mark. “He was always there – enthusiastic and committed.” Their skills complemented each other: Mark carving out routes; Dave bringing up the rear, helping those who needed it.
With the UAE Desert Challenge taking place in the UAE, as with any major sporting event over distance, there was a need for volunteers to man controls and check points. People were also needed for “sweep teams”. These followed the rally, picking up competitors who had broken down or dropped out. The “Desert Duelers” was an obvious place to look for volunteers. And, when asked, Dave and Mark jumped at the chance.
Initially, they ran a “PC” (Passage Control) – stamping competitors’ time cards. Although they saw all the cars in the competition, it wasn’t until they joined the sweep team that they felt really involved with the rally. Besides following the route, they also joined the competitors in the evenings, at the overnight bivouac site. And an idea started to form: why not us?
Mark knew that without a car the dream of entering the Challenge would remain that – just a dream. For years, he shared his interest in the Desert Challenge with Omar Al Askari, President of United Technical Services in Abu Dhabi. He and Omar had been off-roading in the past. Earlier this year, while reading the latest Desert Challenge newsletter, Omar suggested entering a car. Mark was ecstatic. A white, rally prepared Land Rover 110 was purchased…
Mark would drive. Who would navigate? It became clear that Omar would not have the time available to prepare for, and do, the Challenge. There was only one other. Dave.
Dave would have preferred to drive. However, after thinking about it for all of 5 minutes, he agreed. “Yes. It’s a chance to get in a car and do the rally.”
The pair became a team, taking the name “Team Saluki” – hoping to emulate the Saluki, the legendary Arabian hunting dog, bred for speed and endurance in harsh desert conditions.
Omar and Mark agreed that the team would attempt to raise 50 percent of the cost of their rally expenses through sponsorship. “Not a problem,” said Mark. “The car has always been a major obstacle. If you’ve got the car, you can get the sponsorship.” This belief helped them realise the dream.
The first thing Dave and Mark did was prepare a professional prospectus to show to the sponsors. Image was important: a proper team doing a proper job. Both were in sales and marketing therefore they knew how to sell the team. Although they had personal aims of competing and finishing, obtaining sponsorship put extra pressure on them — to ensure they presented a good image for their sponsors throughout the Challenge.
Sponsors came in. MECO, Union National Bank, Mobil, Super Spongex, Carrier, ADCOM, Al Otaiba and Profab. One thing all these firms had in common was their commitment to supporting local effort and initiative. Other people chipped in by lending them equipment.
Having a rally car does not necessarily make you a world-class driver. Why did they think they could compete with the world’s best? “We used to go out on desert drives,” explains Mark, “not just spending Fridays driving around tracks or the beach. We used the cars for what they were designed to do! We’d pick a start point and drive throughout the day to an end point, using a GPS (Global Positioning System), attempting to crest all the higher dunes. The immense dunes at Liwa became a favourite.”
“The most important knowledge for the desert is momentum,” adds Dave. “It’s also knowing the right place to stop and being able to spot hard and soft sand. A lot of the foreign competition don’t know this. We saw it time and time again on previous Challenges.”
They had the car, they had the sponsorship. Now they needed back up, both during the race and in preparing for it. Only 100 percent commitment was wanted. Choosing a back-up team can be a tricky thing. Both men agreed on what was required: “A certain amount of lunacy, I suppose,” laughs Dave, adding, “but more than anything else, commitment. We wanted people who were responsible; capable of being level-headed when required.”
They found this in John Brasier, Phil Chicot, John Cross, Dick Danielson and Paul Richards. Team meetings were held regularly. Faxes flew around Abu Dhabi as “To Do” lists were compiled, added to, and then completed. Dave’s initial scrap of paper grew into a 5-page spreadsheet. The men became a team. Weeks passed. Increasingly, their time was taken up preparing the car – and themselves – for the rally.
Leaving families behind on Fridays, the team drove into the desert, using previous years’ route books. Mark learned about the car. Dave practised navigating. The support team followed them, in case disaster should strike–mechanically or otherwise. Mark may have wished the team wasn’t watching one particular Friday, when he “pitch poled” the car.
Dave confesses, “Hindsight is a wonderful thing! We were both a bit over-eager, a bit inexperienced with the car. But that’s the point of practising. I should’ve told Mark to slow down, which is part of a navigator’s job. We were running on a previous Challenge course, but were off the route, so there were no warning notes. We weren’t on the track, but rolling through dunes – with the slip faces running away to our right side. We weren’t expecting to find the slip face 90 degrees to the thing! But the worst was a natural sand ramp, just below the crest. We never actually touched the crest itself. We hit the ramp and took off, heading nose down, straight for the ground on the other side.”
The car landed on its front bumper, bounced onto its roof and rolled onto its side. Dave continues, “As the car went over, I didn’t think, ‘We’re going to die.’ or ‘We’re going to get hurt’. I was more concerned for damage being done to the car.”
Mark and Dave learned the hard way that speed and determination to do well were not the only requirements of the challenge. The car damaged, practice runs were over. The next time the team took the car out was on the first day of the race!
The support crew, not being noted for considering the delicate feelings of others, later presented Mark with a plaque entitled: “Team Saluki Airborne Division.” Mark became known as “Flipper” Powell.
More seriously, the car needed extensive repair work. It was touch and go whether they would get it back in time for the race. Competing was now in doubt. As Mark scraped around to find the money for the repairs, stress took its toll. By the end of the rally, he had lost 6 kilos in weight.
Fortunately, things began to get brighter when the car passed scrutineering and was accepted into the rally…
Wednesday, November 5th. Abu Dhabi’s Corniche was ablaze with the red and white colours of the UAE Desert Challenge. Cars of various colours and modifications, covered in sponsors’ logos, queued behind motorbikes to mount the ceremonial starting ramp.
Photographers, camera crews, radio interviewers, support crews, friends, families and spectators waited for Mohammed Bin Sulayem to have a word with each competitor before flagging them off. The two noticed none of this. Second to last, nerves taught, they waited in the car. The flag dropped. They accelerated down the Corniche.
The 1997 UAE Desert Challenge is the eighth and final round of the FIA (Federation Internationale de L’Automobile) World Cup for Cross Country Rallies. The 1997 circuit started in March in Italy, and finished in November in the UAE, crossing countries as diverse as Portugal, Australia and Russia. A four-day event, the UAE segment covers over 2,200 kilometres, 1,550 kilometres of which are “Special Stages”, traversing the deserts of the UAE, including the feared and respected Rub Al Khali.
Each day comprised one or two special stages, which varied in length. On the fourth day, after a punishing morning in the desert, the competitors also undertook a “Super Special Stage” in Dubai, for thousands of spectators who could not get into the desert to watch.
Day One was a mixture of terrain, from tracks to dunes, with a section of cross-country thrown in to test the navigators. For Team Saluki, everything was new. Overtaken by a Jeep, they were finally last. Then the Jeep took a wrong turn. Dave grew more confident of his navigation. Passing other cars, they began to feel they were racing. Through rough territory, the Land Rover shook and bumped, but hurtled on. Thinking they’d make up two or three places, it was not until evening that they received the surprising news that they were fifteenth: one hour ten minutes behind the eventual winner.
Day Two is traditionally long, approximately 450 kilometres, skirting the Rub Al Khali. The cars go deeper into the desert, although, disappointing for Team Saluki, the larger dunes were
omitted this year.
The last part of the day followed Bedouin routes and tracks, lacing through the dunes, testing the drivers’ skill. Team Saluki’s worst moment occurred when a severe knocking noise began from inside the car. Investigation revealed two shock absorbers had broken. After removing these, they couldn’t start the engine. The starter motor cable had melted. Meanwhile, cars were roaring past. After solving these problems, the engine started to cut out going uphill.
“Water in fuel,” they thought and changed to their second tank, which necessitated a change over of fuel hoses. Then the starter motor failed again. After losing so much time, Team Saluki were disappointed to drop to 26th that night.
Day Three tested the navigators. Through gravel plains, on tracks, the cars now met wadis (dried-out river beds) and ranges of high dunes. If the previous day had their worst moment, this day brought their best. Chased by a Range Rover, they had to work for 30 kilometres to stay in front.
“It was absolutely exhilarating,” recalls Dave. “Although the Range Rover had superior speed, we had to get to the narrow tracks just before he did, so he couldn’t pass. We had to use speed and skill to keep at least one hundred, two hundred metres ahead of him, otherwise his speed would have beaten us. It was real rallying!”
The test did not end when the cars reached Dubai. No time for relaxation, the teams had to race in a specially built arena near the Hyatt Hotel. Bulldozers had built sand dunes and an underpass. Under a blaze of floodlights, in front of the world’s cameras and thousands of spectators, teams raced in pairs against each other and the clock.
Day Four – make or break day – included terrain untouched by previous years’ Challenges. Giving the teams no respite, both driver and navigator were tested. There was a difficult section following an old track, up and down steep hills, over very rough ground containing lots of clumps and bushes. To make matters worse, the fourteen or so cars ahead of them had dug up the road. This was the day when the car really impressed them. “It just ate its way up the slope. It was terrific,” recalls Dave.
Finally after four days, the Finish – in Dubai. Cool to the end, Dave counted them down the distance. “It’s around the corner. Three hundred metres, two, one. There it is!”
They’d done it! Cheering and backslapping, their supporters gathered around to congratulate them. They’d done their best against the rest.
A total rally time of 18 hours, 44 minutes meant they finished as fourth Gulf Team and 14th overall – against top international competition – six hours ten minutes behind the overall winner.