The Dakar rally has taken its toll on Canadian competitors early, with only one of the three crazy Canucks who started the toughest motor race on the planet still in the race five days into the 15-day event.
David Bensadoun’s attempt to be the first Canadian to finish the race twice ended with a sudden bang, when his car suffered catastrophic engine failure early on Sunday, the second day. Motorcyclist Don Hatton’s fifth attempt to finish for the first time met a tortured demise just four kilometres from the finish of the third stage on Monday.
That left only Patrick Beaulé going into the fifth stage of the race Wednesday on his KTM 450RR motorcycle, matching the odds of the whole event, in which only one in three of all the competitors are expected to finish.
The race began Jan. 5 in Lima with 183 motorcycles, 38 quads, 152 cars and 75 European-style cargo trucks. The end is to come on Jan. 20 in Santiago. In between are more than 8,000 kilometres of talcum-soft sand, massive dunes and rocky winding trails through Peru, Argentina and Chile.
At the front of the pack are a handful of professional racers such as four-time Dakar motorcycle winner Cyril Despres, Nascar veteran Robby Gordon and two-time World Rally Car champion Carloz Sainz vying for a podium finish.
The rest of the pack are amateurs like Bensadoun, Beaulé and Hatton, who’ve raided their savings, raised thousands from friends, family and maybe a few sponsors to try to be among the few in the world who’ve finished the epic annual event, now in its 34th year.
For Hatton, a 54-year-old insurance brokerage owner from Duncan, B.C., this will be disappointingly familiar territory.
Finishing the Dakar has been a lifelong dream that he first tried to cross off his bucket list in 2008. That race was cancelled just days before the start due to terrorist threats that led organizers to abandon its traditional route from Paris, France to Dakar, Senegal in favour of South America.
The next year, he was badly injured in a high-speed crash on day four. After weeks in hospital and months of recovery, he tried again in 2010 but was out on day three with a broken bike. It took him two years to enter the Dakar a fourth time in 2012, only to suffer a farm accident a few weeks before the start that left him unable to ride.
With a finish so elusive, this year he set himself a new goal. “Anything past day five is virgin territory for me,” he said before the race.
It was not to be. On Monday’s day three, with his bike stuck in sand 66 kilometres into the stage, an out-of-control truck competitor sideswiped him.
“He could have injured and killed me,” Hatton said by phone Tuesday from the race base camp in Arequipa, Peru, “and he definitely ended my race.”
His arm was hurt, and the bike suffered a damaged clutch, bent handlebars and a broken headlight. He managed to get it going again and limped it along for more than 10 hours and 200 kilometres of towering sand dunes, much of it in the dark. With him was Australian rider Andrew Scott, who until recently called Toronto home.
But just four kilometres from the finish, the bike died for good, and he was out.
“I think this is my last Dakar. There’s been too many disappointments,” he said. “At this point, I have no desire to do another one.”
The luck that Hatton has yet to find had been abundant for Bensadoun, a Montreal resident and president of Aldo shoes. The 42-year-old entered the Dakar for the first time last year, and drove a custom-built 4x4 in the car class to become the only Canadian ever to finish the race on four wheels, with Beaulé navigating in the co-driver’s seat.
This year, his luck ran out on Sunday, 20 kilometres into the second day of this year’s race, when all four wheels of his car suddenly locked up in the sand at 140 kilometres per hour.
“It was quite an adventure just to get the car under control,” he said a day later by phone.
In the co-driver’s seat this time was Paul Round, who had built the Desert Warrior 3 vehicle, the latest version of the successful rally car he’s been refining over 15 years of Dakar racing, but things didn’t look good. The engine, a six-cylinder turbo diesel from a BMW X5, had seized, and they suspected a piston had failed, which would be unrepairable in the field.
Desperate to continue, they got 10 spectators to push them and managing to unstick the engine, get it restarted to go 500 metres farther before the connecting rods snapped and pierced through the block.
“All the locals came running up. They saw all the smoke coming out of the engine. One of them looked at me and said ‘finito?’ And I said ‘finito.’” A later engine teardown would confirm that one of the pistons was toasted.
But Bensadoun is already looking to next year’s Dakar with further upgrades to the car.
“We’ve got to get the car to be bulletproof,” he says.