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Build up to the Baja
In rather less than six hours time Top Gear magazine will be starting the Baja 1000 desert race. All joking aside, this is quite an undertaking: a 1000-mile off-road race the length of Mexico’s Baja peninsula, through desert and mountains, from sandy beaches to rocky river beds.
We’re (myself and photographer Justin Leighton) competing in the BC class: buggies powered by a 175bhp Subaru flat-four engine mounted in the back and driving the rear wheels through a four speed manual gearbox.
We’ve been out here a couple of days, getting acclimatised. I drove the buggy on Tuesday - it’s a weird thing, quite sketchy until you hit a big impact at which point it puts the full 18 inches of suspension travel to work and soaks boulders up like they’re not there. The steering is amazingly direct, but there’s no feel through it. And while it’s not that fast, it is reasonably torquey, and if I’ve learned anything in the last two days it’s that the Baja isn’t a sprint - not when even the fastest 800bhp Trophy Trucks won’t average over 50mph.
But the buggies feel unstoppable, yomping through the scenery and generally proving to be as much fun as they look. We’ve had to learn a lot - not just about driving, but radio and navigation. Luckily for me I don’t have to worry so much about this, but my co-driver Justin, in between wielding cameras, is in charge of god knows how many radio channels and a frankly baffling sat nav system.
My main concerns are being tapped by faster cars trying to get passed (this happens, and we’ve been told how to do it to other cars), and the dust. The dust is unbelievable. Get within 30 seconds of a slower car and you can’t see a thing.
So, we’re now faced with 400 miles of dust blindness and navigational confusion as we try to hit a rendezvous point at about 11pm Mexican time tonight. There we hand over to another crew for the next 400 mile stint before a final crew does the last 320 miles of this year’s route. Expected total time? Around 35 hours of racing.
Want to know how big the Baja is over here? Yesterday was scrutineering and signing on and the streets of Ensenada were rammed with people. The Baja is a national holiday in Mexico; even the schools are closed for the biggest single sporting event in the country with around 1.5 million expected to line the route. When you realise how remote this area is, you realise how impressive it is that people make it here to watch. And mess around. Stories abound of people burying fridges in the road, digging ditches, then just kicking back, getting drunk and watching the carnage. I’m hoping these are just scare stories…
Either way, Justin and I are in for the adventure of a lifetime. Seriously, this is a real bucket list thing. I won’t be able to do any updates from here on until our stint is over and I pick up some more wifi, but you should be able to follow our exploits live here, or alternatively you can wait for the whole story (complete with Justin’s hopefully-not-wobbly in car shots and my hopefully-not-dazed words) to appear in the magazine. We’re in car BC6. Wish us luck.