Afriquia Merzouga Rally

The 10th edition of the Afriquia Merzouga Rally ended in climax in the dunes of south-east Morocco. The spectacular group start was followed by crowds of local spectators. Adrien Van Beveren (Yamaha, motorbikes), Axel Dutrie (Yamaha, quads) and Nasser Al-Attiyah (Can-Am, Side by Side) kept their cool and each won their category.

After several days of looking up at dark clouds, with the odd shower filling the wadis with water, the sun finally returned. It lit up Erg Chebbi in Merzouga this Friday morning for the start of the last special stage in this 10th edition of the Afriquia Merzouga Rally. The mass start took place opposite majestic sand dunes in the presence of numerous spectators. “It reminds me of Enduro starts, I just love it”, chuckled Adrien Van Beveren, crowned the winner one hour later after having won the last stage on his bike. “We’re going to let everyone go and then we’ll attack”, said Nasser Al-Attiyah, this year’s Dakar winner and first in Side by Side in the Afriquia Merzouga Rally. The driver from Qatar did his job before putting on a show for the spectators with the fastest time of the morning.

At the finish line, smiles were the order of the day for all those crossing it. “Given the difficulties of navigation and driving, just getting here is a real pleasure”, said South Africa’s Calheine Perry. “Once you have tried rally-raid, you immediately want to get back in there”, said Frenchman Antoine Lecomte. After the medals ceremony in the company of one of the coaches of the rally, Giovanni Sala, the competitors reached the bivouac in the luxurious setting of the Hôtel Xaluca to enjoy the warmth of the local people and the satisfaction of having battled the tracks for a week.

Wednesday evening, somewhere out on the desert plains of south-east Morocco. The field of the Afriquia Merzouga Rally spent a night in the middle of the desert as part of the traditional marathon stage. “Finding yourself alone with the other drivers and riders in magical places is the very essence of rally raids”, says Mathieu Beaumel, Nasser Al-Attiyah’s French co-driver. Neither the howling gales nor the sandstorm that battered the bivouac managed to curb their enthusiasm. “This is also part of rally raids”, quips Frenchman Éric Croquelois.

Not everyone can afford to rest, however, as some had to work hard to repair their bruised machines. Spaniard Dani Solà, for example, spent some time toiling away to change the suspension of his side-by-side. The drivers and riders then received the road book for the next stage. Most of them congregated inside a large tent with tables and chairs. Competitors gathered together with their fellow countrymen to work together. Meanwhile, the Hotel Xaluca staff —the support base of the rally— had finished preparing dinner. It was like manna from heaven for the participants, who had to wake up around 5:30 am to tackle the 205.27 km special standing between them and the bivouac.

Some men have lost count of all the rally raids they have taken part in, their names part of the history of the sport. Frenchman David Casteu, Spaniard Marc Coma and Qatari Nasser Al-Attiyah have all travelled to the Afriquia Merzouga Rally this week, but for wildly different reasons. The three-time Dakar winner wanted to try his hand at side-by-side racing. “It’s an excellent opportunity to learn to drive this machine”, he explains. “We’re laying the groundwork for the future. I might start the Dakar in a side-by-side some day!” Frenchman David Casteu no longer races, but his experience makes him a valuable asset for Sherco, where he now works as team manager: “Rally raids made me the way I am. It’s only logical for me to support riders and do my bit for the future of rally raids.” It is the same passion that drives Spanish five-time Dakar champion Marc Coma. At the Afriquia Merzouga Rally, he is responsible for participants in the KTM Ultimate Race, a challenge for fans of the Austrian maker. “Apart from doling out advice, it’s essential to make them understand how important it is to avoid hubris in rally raids, how you never stop learning new things and how you should always face the challenges ahead of you prudently.” Competitors who dream of following in their footsteps could do worse than to listen to his wise words.

In rally-raid, nothing is linear. What is true on the tracks on a daily basis – the obligation to question oneself, the fight against doubt, chasing away trepidations – is also true for a competitor’s career. You have to learn how to fall, lose everything and then get back up. In the Xaluca bivouac, you come across competitors who attempt the Dakar adventure and who do not manage to go all the way. Frenchman Charlie Herbst dropped out at the end of day 7 in Peru this past January. “My ankle still isn’t healed but I had to come back. The Afriquia Merzouga Rally is perfect for gaining experience and bouncing back”. Jean-Remy Berghoune (Side by Side) lived the same misadventure. “In rally-raid, you have to except that sometimes it doesn’t work out. But failure is never crippling and we have to continue to move forward.” David Casteu with 11 Dakars to his credit and Sherco team manager, adds: “When you retire, the disappointment is at the same level as the many sacrifices that have to be made just to participate in the Dakar. But it also shapes a competitor, it hardens him and makes him stronger.” In the Afriquia Merzouga Rally, all the participants are aware of this, because” rally-raid runs through their veins!”, kids David Casteu.

“A rally-raid wouldn’t be the same without a marathon stage”, says winner of this year’s Dakar, Nasser Al-Attiyah, who is attempting the adventure in Side by Side. The competitors, who set off early in this Wednesday morning to begin the first portion of the marathon stage, share this opinion. On the programme: 229kms of special stage particularly delicate under a dark and menacing sky. The tracks were a lot rockier and severe than the previous day, reinforcing the threat of taking a spill or having a mechanical issue. Frenchman Michael Metge (Hero), who was obliged to open the stage following his win the previous day, suffered a broken motor at km 198.He was picked up by helicopter. Adrien Van Beveren, who until then rode near Metge went on for the win. The French Yamaha rider claimed his second stage win and padded his lead in the general classification. It was the same story for France’s Axel Dutrie, who took top honours among the quads and Qatar’s Nasser Al-Attiyah in Side by Side. The Qatari native had to cope with a broken universal joint, but he made the repairs during the neutralization. Canadian rider Jack Lindin, who was participating in his 2nd Afriquia Merzouga Rally retired after a fall.

It is a passion that knows no borders, generation gaps or cultural differences. Racing on the other side of the world is the very essence of rally raids, and competitors in the Afriquia Merzouga Rally, who hail from 27 different countries, know it better than anyone else. Among them are India’s Aravind Prabhakar and Abdul Wahid. “I’ve been racing off-road back in India for a long time, but tackling the dunes like we do here in Morocco… You can’t put a price tag on that!”, says Abdul, now in his second Afriquia Merzouga Rally. He dreams of racing the Dakar, just like Aussie Jamie McCanney and Myunggul Ryu, the first South Korean to take part in the Afriquia Merzouga Rally. “I also want to be the first one to start the Dakar”, explains Myunggul. “Rally raids are becoming increasingly popular in South Korea.” The bivouac is more cosmopolitan than ever before —an encouraging sign for the future of the sport and the atmosphere in the bivouac.

These smiles are a rather unusual sight in the bivouac. South Africa’s Kristen Landman and Calheine Perry, Greece’s Polytimi Kriakopoulou and Andorra’s Margot Llobera are all beaming. The four female bikers in the Afriquia Merzouga Rally have one objective in mind: starting the Dakar next January. “Coming here is a great opportunity to keep getting better and secure a ticket for the Dakar”, explains Margot Llobera. “I’m not really used to tackling dunes”, stresses Polytimi Kriakopoulou. “Back in Greece, you only see sand on the beach!”

Meanwhile, Kristen Landman and Calheine Perry could become the first South African women to start the Dakar in 2020. “It’s always been a dream of mine, but if I want it to come true, I need to be patient and learn to fight on the track”, says Calheine Perry. “Our project has sparked the interest of people in South Africa, so that is an extra motivation”, chirps Kristen Landman. However, they absolutely do not want to get a free pass. “Once you put your helmet on, it’s all the same for men and women”, confirms Margot Llobera. “It’s a tough challenge, but it’s the same for everyone.”

There were a lot of itchy legs out there! The competitors took their machines out for a spin in Sunday’s 2 km prologue, won by Michael Metge (Sherco) in the motorbike category and Nasser Al-Attiyah (Can-Am) in side-by-sides. “It was fast, but it gave us a glimpse of what we can expect this week”, emphasises the French biker Charlie Herbst (KTM). It was an industrious evening for the competitors, who spent the time poring over their road books ahead of the inaugural stage.

The 208 km opener, featuring a large dune sector, was a brutal affair. However, Yamaha’s Adrien Van Beveren was unfazed and trounced the opposition, beating Štefan Svitko (KTM) by 5′12″ and Michael Metge (Sherco) by 8′13″ at the line. Axel Dutrie and Clément Jay made it a 1-2 for the Drag’on Rally Team in the quad race. Meanwhile, Nasser Al-Attiyah won the Side by Side stage without breaking a sweat. A GPS navigation course was given at Hotel Xaluca after the stage. “I’m learning a lot”, stressed French co-driver Arnaud Verdoy. “I’m looking forward to putting it into practice tomorrow!”