The beasts of the rally track earn their place, writes James Stanford
FORGETthe custom cars and bikes, it’s the trucks that have the most presence in the gruelling Dakar rally.
They might not be as fast as the other machines, but the big rally rigs certainly make more of an impression as they charge over the sand dunes.
This year’s Dakar has just been run and won, with its bruised and battered competitors now making their way back to homes around the world.
The Dakar Rally Raid is now held in South America after gangs and extremists made the previous African route too dangerous.
It is no more forgiving, though, and drivers must travel 9000km through Argentina and Chile over 15 days, racing flat-out for 4810km.
It’s an incredible test in or on anything, but the trucks are another challenge altogether.
Weighing up to 10 tonnes, these beasts are a real handful to throw around corners and steer along treacherous tracks.
The Dakar trucks used to only carry spares for the smaller racing machines, but a class was soon set up to allow them to race flat-out against one another.
In the 1980s the competition was so fierce between DAF and Mercedes that DAF came up with a monster machine with two engines and more than 700kW (952hp) before a fatal accident led to its withdrawal from the competition.
The Dakar trucks are not quite as wild as those machines, but they are still amazing feats of engineering that are able to withstand remarkably rough conditions.
They travel surprisingly quickly across the treacherous route.
This year’s winner, Vladimir Chagin, finished the rally in 48 hours, 28 minutes and 54 seconds. That’s faster than any of the motorbikes and would have placed him fifth in the car class.
Nicknamed the Tsar Chagin has won the Dakar event an incredible seven times behind the wheel of his Kamaz truck, which is more than any other racer. The 41-year-old, who was congratulated this week by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, also has the most Dakar stage wins at 71, 10 more than the next-best driver, Stephane Peterhansel.
Kamaz trucks filled the first four places this year and have won nine Dakar rallies in the past 11 years, beaten only by MAN in 2007 and Tatra in 2001.
The Russian truck-maker has thrown its full weight at the Dakar program for the past decade.
The Kamaz truck is no lightweight at 9500kg. It has a huge footprint, which helps it tackle tough surfaces using lots of momentum.
Truck-makers need to produce a handful of trucks for sale, and having one of these could certainly would make for some fun delivery driving.
The Dakar organising body has allowed teams to move the truck engines to enable better weight distribution. They are pushed back and down for the best balance.
The racing Kamaz runs an 18-litre twin-turbo diesel V8 that generates a healthy 624kW (850hp) at 2500 revs. That is enough for it to wind up to 165km/h, which is very fast when you consider the forces involved.
There is a driver and the navigator, who has a hell of a job finding his or her way out in the middle of the sand dunes
This is a thirsty beast, and there is a 1000-litre fuel tank on board to ensure the truck doesn’t run out in the middle of a remote stage.
The engine is linked to a 16-speed ZF manual gearbox and power is fed to all four wheels via a transfer case that is placed at the rear for optimum weight distribution.
Suspension is all-important and the Kamaz is especially good at handling tough terrain. It is able to get serious airtime, which is simply remarkable for such a heavy truck.
The Kamaz has huge solid axles at the front and rear. There are 15 leaf springs at the front and 10 at the rear, which are aided by Dutch shock absorbers, one of the few nonRussian components on the truck.
There are huge drum brakes on each corner, and the rear ones can be operated independently to help it go around corners. It has 20-inch rims wrapped with chunky Michelin rubber. An on-board pressure system allows the driver to let down the tyres— so they can work better in the sand— and automatically pump them up again.
The cab is from a road-going Kamaz truck, but has been reinforced with a web of a steel cage, which would hopefully help in the event of a rollover, although I would rather not be in there to find out.
There are three race seats in the cabin. That’s right, three.
Just like the cars, there is a driver and the navigator, who has a hell of a job finding his or her way out in the middle of the sand dunes. Filling the third seat is the all-important mechanic. Of course, the driver and co-driver are capable of carrying out most repairs, but as you can imagine, having a third set of hands to help with the larger parts used on trucks could come in handy.
The first non-Kamaz truck to finish this year was a MAN in fifth, with an Iveco in sixth.
Kamaz trucks won all but two of the stages, which were won by Tatra driver Ales Loprais, whose run came to an end when a turbo failed. The fastest Hino finished ninth.
Seventh heaven: Kamaz driver Vladimir Chagin (top) celebrates after the 2011 rally while a Tatra and a MAN find the going tough.