The Paris-Dakar Rally: believed to be the toughest endurance challenge the motorsport world has to offer. Attempted only by an elite few, the 14-day slog traditionally began on New Year’s Day in the French capital, finishing in the Senegalese city of Dakar. Along the way, scores of competitors in cars, pick-ups, bikes, trucks, were joined by quad riders and buggy pilots, tackling up to 800 excruciating kilometres per day. Traversing some of North Africa’s most arduous terrain, the ultimate off-road test came in navigating deadly seas of ‘fesh-fesh’, ascending mile-high dunes, plugging through knee-deep mud, dodging rocks, and blasting across miles of celestial erg. To be crowned King of the Sahara was no mean feat.
How the McRae Enduro took on the Dakar and survived
However, all good things come to an end. Political enmities in Mauritania saw the 2008 event cancelled, ultimately forcing a move away from the legendary African route. Like the 2020 edition in Saudi Arabia that ended with Carlos Sainz Sr. crowned Dakar king for the third time, the 2009 Dakar Rally posed the challenge of a new route on a new continent. Among the competitors anxiously lined up for the start in Buenos Aires for the first South American Dakar were four newly built cars bearing the name McRae… Among the debutants was team principal, Christopher Bibb, already red-eyed with fatigue after a sleepless night trying to tempt four brain-dead McRae Enduros off the ship from the UK. “Just getting the cars to the start line was a marathon, years in the making,” Bibb recalls. “Simply having made it to Argentina felt like a huge achievement, but we still had a job to do”.
The McRae Enduro project began in the mid 2000s. At that time the weapon of choice for four- wheeled Dakar competitors was either a £1m-plus works prototype, a T1 machine – think Pajero, X3, Touareg – or a heavily modified, yet lumbering, T2 production-based pick-up.
“The T1s were unaffordable,” Bibb explains, “while the T2s were only fractionally more desirable than a camel. Drivers really took a beating. The FIA felt strongly the former had little place in the desert, while the Dakar organisers themselves were beginning to struggle with the effects of the growing speed differential”. The speed of the prototypes was such that each morning they left the ponderous, live-axled T2s trailing, before ripping through the earlier starting trucks, quads and bikes. Dust clouds and high speed differentials led to accidents, and posed a significant risk for the organisers.
In an attempt to address this – and rising costs – the FIA had looked at creating a one-make buggy, with a then-desirable diesel motor. A formal tender was issued and working at Lola, Bibb began a feasibility study. “A cheap lightweight buggy – even based around with carbon-fibre tub – was feasible and the world and his dog manufactured suitable 2.0-litre diesel turbos, but all viable transmissions cost as much as the rest of the vehicle. It was just too risky for Lola and the FIA’s initiative was shelved”.
Meanwhile Porsche, BMW and others bought 300bhp-plus SUVs to the market and an alternative solution emerged: “The idea was to develop a T1-prototype chassis, with advanced, independent suspension, powered by an off-the-shelf T2-production driveline.”
With behind the scenes encouragement from Ford’s Richard Parry-Jones, the prototype was designed around Ford’s V6 diesel – then the Range Rover Sport’s driveline. “We calculated that a 300bhp diesel would have sufficient in power and torque for a lightweight machine. Key to lightweight was a diesel motor, requiring just 250-litres of diesel at stage start,” Bibb explained. “Petrol cars were disadvantaged in being created around a far bulkier and heavier 450 litre tank.”
Logically, lightness and agility were guiding principles and the main benefit bestowed by replacing a chassis with a bespoke spaceframe. The tube frame chassis was a clean-sheet design. Compact, light and appropriately stiff, the main aim centred on optimising the advantage of the small fuel tank. The suspension, however, was more adventurous. Twin-Reiger dampers per corner chased in-stage survivability, but front and rear uprights and wishbones were interchangeable, reducing substantially the weight of spares carried. After all, a light car with a shed load of spares is a heavy car.
Early in the development of the prototype, Bibb bumped into none other than Colin McRae on a Dakar recce. The two had not really spoken since 1996 when, while looking after Colin in his World Championship year, Bibb introduced the young star to video game studio Codemasters. Keen on the prototype, McRae offered an invitation to meet in Scotland and within no time it was agreed that the McRae name would adorn the concept.
The prototype was completed in the summer of 2007 and the concept promptly won Autocar’s Idea of the Year Award. It was clever enough, too, to cause several manufacturers on the FIA committee to object, but after some machinations the new hybrid class was adopted by the FIA for 2008. Meanwhile both Jim and Alister McRae carried out shakedown testing and several cars were sold to private customers. Then, a week or so before Colin himself was due to test the car, news filtered through of his fatal accident. Bibb recalled: “With heavy hearts, development continued. Four customer cars were already entered for the 2009 Dakar in South America and there was no turning back.
“Outside the crack works’ teams little was known about the terrain we might face. Everyone assumed it wouldn’t be a tough as Africa.”
How they were proven wrong. “The attrition rate in the first few days was immense. Few expected floods and fewer expected the destructive nature of the innocent looking, but extremely resilient Pampas scrub: both caused punctures and ripped bodywork clean away,” Bibb continued.
In a year that saw all four diesel works Mitsubishi’s fail, three out of four McRae Enduros successfully crossed the finish line in Buenos Aries, scooping a class win on debut. Among them was the original prototype – which prior to the Dakar had been punished over several thousand miles of test work and used to complete several FIA Bajas. When stripped, to everyone’s amazement, the standard, £650, ZF five-speed transmission was as good as new, a fact that went a long way to prove the overall concept. The alternative, employed by all leading prototype teams, was an Xtrac device, costing in the region of £30k. Obviously, all competitors would carry a spare gearbox, so that’s £1,300 compared to £60k-plus. Unquestionably, the McRae Enduro concept was affordable and reliable.
Sadly the project came to an end, in part due to Colin’s untimely death – derailing future sponsorship and licensing revenues – and a number of “behind the scenes dramas”.
Ford’s 2008 sale of Jaguar-Land Rover played a part, too. The arrangement with Ford had been that they’d supply the team with its V6 diesel, while developing its ECU – a surprisingly complex task – as a ‘Saturday morning project’. In the meantime, the McRae prototype and initial production cars would use ‘open’, development ECUs. Pretty soon Bibb and team learned these were prone to crashing, but Ford sent reassuring emails regarding rectification. “We took them at their word and concentrated on more pressing matters. Meanwhile, perhaps because of the impending sale, or the fact that our contact Parry-Jones had been elevated to distant North America, incentive at Dunton evaporated,” said Bibb.
“At first, when pushed, Dunton sent further supportive holding statements. But ominously and late in the day a different story began to emerge.
First, delays were explained away because the IP to the ECU was held by Siemens – not Ford – their ability to assist was ‘restricted’. But this merely preceded the bombshell: as custodians of Siemens’ intellectual property, Ford required all development ECUs to be returned immediately, adding that with regret, no replacements would be forthcoming. Put another way, Ford had sold us engines, then withdrawn all ECUs and neglected even to advise us until the eleventh hour.”
After an initial legal exchange some fresh face at Dunton explained that the sale of Jaguar and Land Rover included exclusive use of, and all rights to, their V6 diesel (a motor that powered no Ford) and therefore, sadly Ford could no longer assist.
“This was December and our Dakar entries had already crossed the equator on their way to Argentina – sans ECU. We tried to explain that when South American star Eliseo Salazar tried to start his ECU-less McRae before the gathered media on Buenos Aries’ dockside, Ford would look a little silly. This had zero effect,” Bibb said, frustration still evident in his words.
There was absolutely no solution in sight. The whole issue was largely kept from the team, but the customers remained blissfully ignorant. Their thoughts centred on whether Ford had achieved their promise of 300hp, never mind stopping the existing ECUs farting and failing.
By chance Bibb read that Richard Parry-Jones had been appointed a consultant to Jaguar-Land Rover. “By coincidence his name was raised that same day by Jim McRae. ‘Oh, he was rallying on our event here this past weekend. I have his mobile number’,” Bibb recalled. Parry-Jones listened and promised to get back. True to his word, Siemens were on board and further enquiries revealed that there was just one specialist – a contractor – that had completed all the Discovery 3s ECU calibration, including altitude testing. “But just as we thought we’d hit jackpot, Parry-Jones’ next nugget was that the same fellow had recently begun a new career as a sub-postmaster on the Shetland Isles,” Bibb continued. The one, last hope lay in the telephone number provided.
Bibb recalled: “It was a strange conversation. Not surprisingly, the Dakar Rally was hardly high on the new postmaster’s agenda, indeed I wasn’t even sure he knew what it was”. Fortunately, he was flattered to have been name-checked by Ford’s global engineering chief and liked the idea of an extremely well-paid three-week adventure holiday in South America. Luckily, he’d agreed to join our band before he’d twigged he’d need to be on a plane on December 27th!
“Merely getting all McRae Enduro entries started in Buenos Aries was a very close run, but as it turned out, altitude was the one factor that most competitors in the first South American Dakar misjudged,” Bibb theorised. “Most teams were aware that cars would be running four miles above sea level, but few realised that competitors would be tackling huge, power-sapping sand dunes at that same altitude. That by chance we‘d co-opted the one man that knew more than anyone else about the behaviour of diesel motors at altitude was a blessing.” Mr ECU’s expertise made all the difference and proved key to the team’s reliability and success. That however, may be disputed: “One of our drivers, a larger than life Dutchman, decided to pay for his elder brother, a proper monk, to bless all team cars at the start in Buenos Aries,” Bibb laughed.
Whether by divine intervention or sheer determination, the McRae Enduro teams managed to defeat the toughest off-road challenge in the world in their first attempt. Quite an achievement.
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