It wasn’t too long ago that navigation – once seen as the most demanding element of cross-country – on the Dakar Rally was considered less of an art and rather more like a science.
Even after the introduction of GPS systems which first appeared in the late 1980s and became commonplace throughout the ’90s, plotting the best route from A to B was a meticulous, arduous process running deep into the night.
Dedicated map men would study the paper roadbook handed out to crews the evening before the next stage and work while others slept to ensure their team knew exactly where they were going.
Since moving to a digital roadbook, given to the crews just 15 minutes before the start of the stages, that level of preparation is no longer available. Which, according to Dakar winning navigator Mathieu Baumel, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“We used to receive the roadbook the day before,” explains Baumel, who claimed the inaugural World Rally Raid Championship title alongside Nasser Al-Attiyah in Andalucía this year.
“You had the whole night to do whatever you wanted with the roadbook which meant that you could really prepare the next day.
“How we did that was that we’d use the roadbook, Google Maps, or any other information we had from online or past experience, and we tried to ‘drive’ the route. So, in our heads, we could easily know the direction we would need to drive the day after, and this was very interesting for us.
“Why? Because you need to go from one waypoint to another waypoint, and between these waypoints you can go wherever you want and if you can find some shortcuts or other pistes, you can possibly gain some time.
“With Nasser, we were very good at doing that. He trusted in me to do my job and when I found a shortcut, I was really happy because I knew I could possibly gain us one minute or more. This was a good part of the navigator’s job.
“But, suddenly, to reduce the differences between all the teams, that changed.”
The rationale for switching to a tablet-style roadbook delivered to the teams just minutes before the start was aimed at negating the strategic advantage for the better-funded teams such as Baumel and Al-Attiyah’s Toyota Gazoo Racing outfit or the Prodrive-run Bahrain Raid Xtreme squad for which Sébastien Loeb drives.
These teams would invariably bring in dedicated map readers, local experts with knowledge and, more pertinently, time to studiously analyze the roadbooks while the rest of the team grabbed their 40 winks.
Bigger budgets meant more staff, which translated to better information on the day. The event organizer ASO wanted to reduce an advantage it deemed unfair.
The knock-on effect is that navigation has become far more important now than it had been for the past 15 years, during which time there has been big changes to the Dakar route as the rally-raid has been moved from Africa to South America, and then to Saudi Arabia, leading some crews to get it horribly wrong.
“It means that there is no preparation, you don’t even know where you are going in the day and you cannot have an average route in your head at all,” says Baumel.
You don’t know if you will have some mountains, some dunes, you just discover on your way.Mathieu Baumel
“So, you don’t know if you will have some mountains, some dunes, you just discover on your way.”
The Dakar roadbook can appear at first sight one of the most complicated pieces of equipment in the car, but the concept is actually quite simple.
A typical page in the roadbook consists of a number of rows, each with the adequate information, cap headings and warnings for the route ahead.
Each row consists of three separate boxes: the first of which tells the crews how far in distance they are from the next instruction. In the second box is a basic depiction of the road facing the competitors, which cap heading they must follow, and basic directions left, right or straight ahead.
The final box contains any other relevant information such as warnings or anything else they need to keep an eye out for.
Now the waypoints are virtual, and crews must be within 90 meters of them to validate them. Cars are equipped with an odometer and GPS to give them the necessary information on distance and direction between waypoints.
And while the roadbook lexicon has changed very little since the paper days, the new system requires crews to adapt quickly to the tablet and interpret on the fly, which isn’t as easy as it sounds.
“Sometimes you almost need to imagine what is going on in the mind of the guy who makes the roadbook,” says Lucas Cruz, who navigated double World Rally champion Carlos Sainz to his three Dakar victories.
“The point of view from the car on the stage is quite different to how it is in a road car when making the roadbook, and you need to open your mind more which isn’t easy.
“When the rules say one thing and the roadbook seems to say the opposite, it’s almost impossible to take the right decision. If you need to follow a cap but the road you need to take is 90° to the other side, and you have very few tracks to show where the line is, that’s what makes it so difficult.”
Second-guessing the roadbook is rarely a winning strategy and the ASO has made it clear that it aims to improve the way its roadbooks are written in order to avoid the sort of chaos that afflicted the second stage of the Dakar in 2022.
More than 50 cars ended up getting lost early in the special stage, most notably Sainz and Cruz who shipped almost two hours, effectively ending their hopes of a top-five result with the event barely underway.
Sainz’s Audi team-mate Mattias Ekström lost just over 90 minutes at a contentious right-hand fork in the road, which proved the undoing of a spate of competitors. It left the organizer a little red faced, but as Stéphane Peterhansel’s navigator Edouard Boulanger explains, efforts are being made to ‘uniform the roadbook’ for future editions.
“It’s not just one person writing the roadbook, it’s many different people and they are alternating between themselves,” says Boulanger who, like Peterhansel, is a former biker who has made the transition to the car category.
“This sometimes creates a big difference in how they are writing the roadbooks, but they are making a huge effort to uniform the way they are creating but it can lead to some small misinterpretations.
“If it’s the same people making the roadbook and then opening the track, they already know where they want to go and they can make the same mistake, and this is exactly what happened to Lucas and Carlos last year.”
Improvements are likely to be made, but it’s down to the crews to be able to adapt on the fly, something they have not necessarily been used to doing before the new rules.
While Sainz bemoaned some Dakar stages resembling “more gymkhana than rally raid” after losing half an hour on the second stage in 2021, others such as Baumel and Boulanger encountered no such issue.
“I was a little scared when the new roadbook was introduced,” Baumel admits. “I asked Nasser, ‘what is the value of my job now?’, but actually it was a lot more because your brain has to work at 200% now and that’s not easy with all the mental and physical stress.
“You need to have the trust with your driver; sometimes you’re in the box [a specific section of the digital roadbook] and you are late because you need time to understand the drawing, to analyze, to check in front of you that the drawing and the reality are the same thing, and then to explain this to the driver can be too late.
“So, we’re always working on solutions to be fast and accurate. And now I prefer the new rules compared to the old roadbooks.”
The role of the navigator has changed largely due to the evolving topography of the special stages themselves. Look back at some of the videos of the early days of the Dakar and you’ll no doubt see the iconic images of René Metge blasting his Range Rover through the Mali desert or along the beachfront of Lac Rose, foot flat to the floor in top gear.
These are the classic memories of the Dakar, but they are by and large gone now. Placed in the history books.
“If you remember how the rally was organized maybe 10 years ago, it’s totally different now,” reflects Boulanger.
“There were much more straight lines back then, while these days it’s more like a gymkhana in the desert because they are trying to slow down the speed to avoid big accidents, especially for riders.
“And one of the big points for the organizers is to complicate the notes and the numbers in the roadbook so that the bikers have to put their heads down [to read them] and therefore slow down, so you are not following the geography anymore and it’s difficult to interpret what they want.”
This mixture of competition and safety has had a significant effect on how crews go about rally raid. Flat out is no longer a viable option if you want to stay on the right track. Instead, precision is the strategy of choice and this has divided opinion among competitors and fans with regards to the spirit of the race.
“It’s a lottery sometimes,” says Boulanger. “When you miss some references, some waypoints, you feel like it was a lottery. If you are 50m to the right, you get through the WPC [Control Way Point], otherwise you miss it. There are no trees, no houses, nothing telling you that you’re in the right spot.
“Creating a fair navigation which is also hard, is a tricky balance.”
The perils of getting navigation wrong on stages, which more often than not exceed the mileage of an entire World Rally Championship event, are real and the consequences to the overall result well documented.
But how does one get navigation right? There’s rarely a silver bullet but one rather obvious common denominator has proven to be quite successful over the years.
“For me, I need to have a very cool and calm atmosphere, and that’s what I get with Nasser,” says Baumel, who not only sits alongside the four-time Dakar winner in cross country but also in the Middle East Rally Championship which Al-Attiyah has won a staggering 18 times.
“When something wrong happens in the car, whether a puncture or a navigation error, this can create some tension in the car, but with Nasser we have never had any issues; we are focused 100% on our jobs.
“We trust each other, and we know that a perfectly clean Dakar stage simply doesn’t exist, so I am very lucky with Nasser because everything is calm.”
It’s the same story with Cruz, who has been with Sainz since they first entered rally raid with Volkswagen back in 2005.
“The most important part of competing on the Dakar is to combine the professional attitude in the car and the relationship you have with each other in the hard moments,” Cruz explains.
“When you need to make a decision in the car, on the limit, you need to make that decision together. It’s a team effort, the driver doesn’t like to get a puncture and get stuck in the dunes and the navigator doesn’t want to make an error with the roadbook so understanding each other and helping each other is the key.
“It’s two people in the car with one objective, and that is to win the rally.”
It gives you time in the evening to get the rest you need, to hydrate yourself and prepare yourself mentally for the next day.Édouard Boulanger
Boulanger’s collaboration with Peterhansel is relatively new, having teamed up with ‘Mr Dakar’ before the 2021 edition, the second in Saudi Arabia.
The former Malle Moto class rider is used to racing and navigating alone and recalls the mammoth physical effort required to get up in the morning to do it all over again.
“The wheels on the cars are a lot bigger now and they create so much inertia and that has a big physical impact on us, especially at the end of the day,” says Boulanger.
“We are so exhausted, so the new tablet system is a big help for us because it gives you time in the evening to get the rest you need, to hydrate yourself and prepare yourself mentally for the next day.
“Before, we’d be working late into the evening. So, it’s fundamental that we crews get sufficient rest otherwise there would be a lot more accidents.
“It’s not so much extra effort in the car with the new system, but we’re having to remain focused in the car whilst getting punched all day!”
It’s a physical beating like no other, and it gets underway on New Year’s Eve in Saudi Arabia, running right through to January 15.