Behind the driven plan to break a Dakar record

Excite Rally Raid is aiming to be the first all-British female team to complete the Dakar Rally

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Women competing in the Dakar Rally is nothing new. There’s been females competing in the rally throughout its entire 43-year history, with Jutta Kleinschmidt winning the overall car race in 2001. But to date, there’s never been an all-female crew making the trip from the UK.

And while that won’t be immediately changing, one team is currently gearing itself up to achieve that exact feat in a few years’ time.

Excite Rally Raid was created with the sole purpose of tackling the Dakar Rally with an all-British, all-female crew. It’s been a mission of team principal John Hardy for sometime, but he’s been careful not to hurriedly scramble a team together and then send them straight off into the desert wilderness on their own in the knowledge there’s almost no hope of them making it to the end.

Instead, the team is taking a very methodical step-by-step approach having laid out a clear succession plan in order to ensure that, by the time it reaches Dakar, it will not only be there to start, but also to compete.

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The team spent last year competing in the T2 class of the British Cross Country Championship with Jade Paveley driving while Claire Williams and Hannah Davison shared navigating duties.

All three individuals are very experienced when it comes to rallying, but off-roading and cross-country is an entirely new discipline for the trio and the BXCC proved to be the perfect platform for them to learn and gain experience.

“It was a massive transition over to the 4×4 stuff,” Davison explained to DirtFish. “Obviously I do gravel rallying but it’s nothing compared to being in a big Jeep and going off steep cliffs. So it was quite a big transition, but it’s been really, really enjoyable, and I’ve learnt a lot.

“We’ve become more comfortable with the car and the courses and stuff and yeah, it’s been a really, really good year.”

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Despite the fact that the team was totally new to cross-country before the season began, it’s taken the new discipline in its stride, claiming four straight class wins to secure the 2021 T2 BXCC title.

Reading that result in isolation might give you the impression that they were easy victories, but that couldn’t be any further from the truth. Having never competed off-road before, the team had to adapt to a completely new way of working.

“You’ve got to be careful you don’t get lulled into a false pretence because you can drive on sections of a BXCC stage and then be like ‘oh this is just like a rally stage’ and then suddenly you do a hard left, down a huge rock, across a river and then up the side of the hill and it’s just insane,” said Paveley.

“Honestly, I could recommend it to anyone. It’s been so well organized and such good fun.

“You are completely immersed in that moment and of course you have that with rallying or racing, but it’s just having to really pinpoint where you are putting the car, make sure you don’t ground out, make sure you don’t get a puncture.

“Of course, all drivers have to be aware of that, but driving in some of the places we’ve been to like Walters Arena, some of the places we were using there were completely off-road where you have huge rocks, sharp rocks and big ditches and potholes.

“So you’re having to really be very precise with where you are putting the car and that was for me something I really love because you have to really think about it.”

And it’s not just about the course. The team has spent the year using a Mitsubishi Pajero, the perfect vehicle to learn about cross-country, but it’s completely different from the Subaru Impreza Paveley normally drives.

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“It has been like nothing else I’ve driven before in competition,” she confirmed. “The center of gravity is extremely high so when we were competing at Kielder where it was more like a rally stage than anything else, it was very top heavy.

“So because we have this huge fuel tank in the back, you kind of have a secondary weight transfer in the back. So when you went round you’d suddenly start to feel the fuel move and it was quite a handful in that respect, but the suspension was incredible.

“We didn’t get one puncture, the car handled brilliantly, the car jumped very well and landed very well. It had great rebound and it went over the jumping sections and the car was able to take that and that was amazing fun.

“But it was very different because I’ve always been used to being quite low to the ground whether it was in karts or race cars or in rallying. You are always told to keep as low down as possible to keep the weight down where it should be, but in those it was crazy.”

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The co-driver’s role also completely changes when moving from rallying to off-road. It’s no longer all about the pacenotes, and in the BXCC it’s not necessarily about searching for waypoints. It’s about reading maps and keeping your eyes on the road, reminding the driver what parts of the course should be avoided.

And this is where the transferable skills start to shine through.

Although Williams had never competed off-road before, she already knew how to map read, having done some road rallying in the past, and that element gave her a headstart when her season began.

“I have that experience that I can bring to the table without a doubt and some single-venue rallies as well use maps,” said Williams, “so I’ve not really had that kind of issue really.

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It’s a case of making some mental notes about where the bad bits are. The driver is relying on you at that point to remember Claire Williams

“I mean, yes, I suppose it is a bit weird going into the forest as quick as you can without breaking the car on very rough stages. Obviously the map doesn’t give you any indication how rough or where the holes are or anything. So in that respect then, that’s when the different kind of co-driving comes into it because you’ve got different conditions that aren’t on the map.

“It’s a case of making some mental notes about where the bad bits are. The driver is relying on you at that point to remember and if you are following along on a map you get to a junction where you can say ‘OK, from here it’s very rough or gets very narrow’.

“So you sort of bring that kind of play in and give the driver the information you’re gathering as well. Obviously things can change as well and you’ve got to update the information on the map as well as you’re going along really.

“So it’s one of those things, you just relay that information back, but it’s very much sort of on the job.”

Having secured the BXCC title, all attention has shifted to this year. At the moment, the team hasn’t made a final decision on where to compete, but it’s targeting Europe; more specifically, some of the Baja events.

“Excite went through the plan very methodically and logically and they’ve come up with a plan really that we can use,” explained Williams, “and it’s all really a building exercise to begin with.

“Now the plan is to go to Europe to do a few Bajas, which will again be one steep learning curve.

“If I thought last year was something to go by, this year will certainly be something else again.

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I’m really looking forward to the challenge of that and I’ve done quite a bit of road rallying and stuff over the years, so bringing in those skills as well which will be nice Hannah Davison

“They are a lot longer events, they are a lot more challenging and in all fairness, again, it’s one of those things I’ll embrace the learning curve because it will be hundreds of miles long and I’ll relish in that I think for definite.”

The Baja-style events will also bring Davison back to some more familiar territory with the style of navigation.

“It moves back towards navigation that I am used to with regards to diagrams and stuff like that and move about from place to place rather than on BXCC it’s all on one venue,” she said.

“So yeah, I’m really looking forward to the challenge of that and I’ve done quite a bit of road rallying and stuff over the years, so bringing in those skills as well which will be nice, and yeah, looking forward more to the challenge with that.”

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With such a long-term project and naturally big budgets at play, there’s obviously going to be obstacles for the team to overcome before it can reach the starting ramp of Dakar. But Paveley knows that as and when the team reaches that ramp, it will prove to other girls interested in the sport that anything is possible with the right attitude and belief.

“I think to have that type of record would be special for us as a team and also for myself, Hannah and Claire to get there,” Paveley said when asked about what it would be like if Excite was to become the first all-British female crew to complete the Dakar.

“I think if it can just show other girls or other competitors that normal people can get to that type of level in the sport by hard work, teamwork and getting the right sponsors behind you and the confidence and self belief, that will be a great example to others that they could follow.”

The long term plan that Excite has already put together may seem a rigid one for some, but it’s this calm, methodical approach – along with the success the team is achieving on the stages – that means there’s no reason why Excite can’t overcome any challenges it faces and achieve its goal, all while making in history and inspiring others in the process.