The remarkable recovery of a Dakar veteran

Competing on the Dakar Rally is hard enough, but Nani Roma has had another fight to win

AUTO – DAKAR 2022 – STAGE 11

Earlier this year, two-time Dakar Rally winner Nani Roma’s life was turned inexorably upside down. The dreaded C word was now an unfortunate reality.

His cancer diagnosis came a mere five days after reaching the finish of the Baja Andalucía, proof if any was needed, that things move quickly in motorsport as in life itself.

Faced with perhaps his biggest challenge to date (and this is a man who’s won the Dakar in Africa on a bike, remember), Roma’s response to the disease has been as you’d expect.

You see, he’s a fighter. Always has been and always will be.

“Physically, I feel very well,” Roma tells DirtFish. “Better than everyone expected, including the doctors I have to say too. I had planned to get back into the car in September, which I did, and I have done some tests with the car [BRX’s Hunter derived road car] in Morocco and a rally in Spain with an R5 car.

“So, the doctors were a bit surprised, but they had never worked with a sportsman before. My job is basically to stay really healthy and fit so my body was ready to fight this. I have a clean body, I stay active, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink a lot of alcohol, so I feel strong and the main thing for me is to know that I haven’t lost anything during this period.”

As any sportsperson will tell you, nothing stokes the competitive fire more than spending time on the sidelines. Many would have forgiven Roma for not being as sharp on his first outing back in a car, but overall victory on the Rally Ciudad de Granada (part of the Spanish Gravel Rally Cup championship) proved he still very much had it.

“When you are in an R5 car, OK it’s not like a World Rally Car but you still need to have really good reflexes and be strong inside the car,” explains Roma.

117138_Nani Roma and Richard Sainct

“This rally I was a little bit worried about, I have to say, because I didn’t know what effect the chemo would have, maybe it would have made me weaker or something. But I soon realized that everything felt like it did before, and this made me very happy.

“For me, of course it’s always nice to have a victory, but the most important thing was knowing that I was OK. I have suffered a lot in the last few months, and it has definitely not been easy. The chemotherapy has been really, really tough and it feels like it’s killing you from the inside.

“I had no energy, no power. I normally cycle 4000km per year but when you cannot even manage 200m, this was tough.

“But in terms of the recovery, everything has gone well. The only thing, in the last few weeks, is that I got the flu after taking my kids to school, and that passed to my wife and the whole family, but other than that, I’ve been fine!”

Nani is, first of all, such a huge inspiration to all of us in the team, the way he has dealt with the illness and his recovery and everything else Gus Beteli

It’s safe to say that things could have been far worse for the double Dakar winner who has spearheaded Prodrive’s program in the cross-country discipline since its maiden outing in Saudi Arabia nearly two years ago.

Roma has been a mainstay in the team and will fit back into the driver lineup once he’s ready, according to BRX team principal Gus Beteli.

“Nani is, first of all, such a huge inspiration to all of us in the team, the way he has dealt with the illness and his recovery and everything else,” Betel told DirtFish.

“He’s got a contract with us and whenever he is ready to make a comeback, there will be a space for him in the team to compete in the world championship.

“He’s a big part of the team, always has been and he has done so much of the work it has taken to build this car and team into what it is now, so he’s more than welcome back.”

A lot of the attention around Prodrive and the BRX has, understandably, centered around a certain Sébastien Loeb, with the nine-time World Rally champion enduring a nightmarish 2021 edition before securing a second place finish this January.

But Roma has played an equally crucial role in the team’s development, having developed and tested the car prior to its maiden voyage in the Middle East, and recording an impressive top five finish in 2021.

A full World Rally-Raid Championship campaign had been on the cards this year, but his season came to an abrupt halt barely a week after contesting the Baja Andalucía in March.

“Basically, I was finishing the rally in an R5 on Sunday and then on Tuesday, I was going to fly to Seville from the Baja presentation and on the return flight I had some pain in my back.


“The following day, I phoned my doctor and asked him to check a strange pain. You know, we know our body really well and we know when something is wrong. It’s like the noises in a car: there are always noises but you know when there is a noise that shouldn’t be there, and it’s the same with our bodies.

“So, I went to the hospital and the doctors initially thought that it might have been kidney stones or something like that. They did some scans and then we found something strange in my bladder.

“This was on Wednesday, so I called another hospital on Thursday morning and had another scan and then after lunch the doctor told me I had a tumor. I was like ‘wow’ but the next question I had was ‘will this kill me or is there a solution?’. Thankfully there was a solution.”

From preparing pacenotes for a stage rally one week to having a tumor surgically removed seven days later is quite the upheaval in the life of a rally driver.

Problem solving is part and parcel of a rally driver’s existence, it’s their job. And for Roma, fighting cancer invoked a similar mentality.

In the beginning I was scared, but I have never experienced this before. In the Dakar, more often than not, I know what we are about to do, I’ve done it 27 times. But this was completely new for me Nani Roma

“We had the picture in front of us, with the problem,” says Roma. “We decided how to prepare the plan, prepare the teams to take care of me and then go out there and fight. Another type of fight for sure, but there is no choice but to fight!

“Some journalists, they asked me, ‘how difficult has this decision been for you?’ and I said come on guys, this was the easiest decision in my life to fight it. There’s only one way to look at it. In competition, there are sometimes some doubts, maybe I will attack the dunes or maybe I drive carefully or maybe sometimes you are unwell. But with cancer you cannot have doubts.

“In the beginning I was scared, but I have never experienced this before. In the Dakar, more often than not, I know what we are about to do, I’ve done it 27 times. But this was completely new for me.”

Roma’s approach to his diagnosis will probably come as little surprise to most readers. He’s a professional, and preparation and knowledge is key to success. That mentality has served him well on and off the stages, in and out of motorsport. It’s admirable.

With the light at the end of the tunnel now get that bit brighter – Roma has been given the all-clear and the cancer is now in remission – getting back onto the start line of the Dakar is the 50-year-old’s main focus now.

“I still have a contract with Prodrive and, once we know the plan, we will decide on what to do. I have been testing in Dubai, in Morocco and I still have the feeling in my body that I want to race,” Roma says.

“For me, the next step after the Dakar will be to talk to the team and to make some plans. And then after that, we will aim to take the start of the 2024 Dakar with the team.


“It’ll be tough to be at home watching this year’s Dakar of course, but this is how it is, and I hope that the team will do a good job in Saudi.

“It’s the first time in 27 years that I will not compete, but this is part of the situation I am in, but I am already thinking towards the future and look forward to getting back to the Dakar soon!”

The Dakar Rally throws up plenty of obstacles to overcome, it’s arduous, it’s physically and mentally grueling and above all, it’s hard. In many ways, much like cancer itself. Nani Roma has overcome the Dakar on two occasions, and is giving the dreaded C word the same kicking as his rivals received all those years ago.

Words:Stephen Brunsdon

Photography:ASO & KTM