Words: Piers Ward
Photography: Ferdi Kräling Motorsport
For a moment, all is calm inside VW’s Dakar Touareg. The driver, Dieter Depping, has eased off the throttle so the engine note drops to a dieselly purr, and all I can see out of the windscreen is blue sky. There’s a fluffy cloud drifting across the view, some vapour trails in the distance. It feels remarkably serene, given that we’re five feet up in the air.
There’s still tension in here, nervous anticipation of what is to come. Because – if you’ll forgive the cliché – what goes up, must come down. And in our case, it’s nearly two tonnes of Race Touareg.
The horizon swings into view, and the nebulous anxiety morphs into sincere, old-fashioned panic.
The skyline is definitely wonky, and, what’s more, it’s wonky in my direction. The Touareg is heading
for a hard landing, and it’ll hit on my side first. Because I’ve been admiring the clouds, I’ve no idea what sort of scrub we’re about to land on – rough or smooth, bushy or grassy, flat or angled.
Crump. Impact. Head snaps forward. Spine compresses. A jarring sensation so extreme, it’s like you’ve just been involved in a 100mph car accident. With a brick wall. And yet the only thing to break or feel any distress is me.
This is brutal. Dieter doesn’t hesitate, aware the Touareg will have comfortably dealt with that impact, so he’s off, back on the accelerator and scanning ahead, working out how to inflict more pain. We’re connected via in-car radio, and I’m aware that I’m the noisy one. Dieter is silent, speaking only when spoken to, whereas from my side there’s a constant stream of laughter, grunting and swearing. The ice-cool German and the idiot Brit: the contrast couldn’t be greater.
This is when you realise how capable the whole VW package is – the driver and the co-driver as well as the actual Touareg. He’s going so fast over such lethal terrain that any weakness in the system would present potentially fatal problems. Three more laps of this, and I call time. Dieter is going at Dakar pace, and the pain from some ribs I broke a while back becomes too much.
A pause, then, to think. I’ve lasted two minutes – the Dakar boys do seven hours at this pace. A scrummaging session with the All Blacks would be easy in comparison. I’m absolutely exhausted, the sweat pouring off me, and I’m not even doing anything. All I’ve done is sit and hold on.
This is a war. Man versus machine versus nature. It’s motorsport on an almost animalistic level – and it makes a WRC car feel like a teacup ride in comparison.
Which is one of the reasons why no one enters the Dakar and wins first time out. This event requires hard-won experience. The knowledge of when to push and when to ease off, when to chat to your co-driver to try to work out the best route across a particular dune, or riverbed, or blind jump. Despite what it feels like when Dieter drives, it’s not about being flat-out all the time.
That’s the odd thing about this Dakar car – it, and the Dakar event, actually require finesse. Not because you have to treat the VW with kid gloves – the Race Touareg does the entire Dakar, some 9,000km, on only two sets of shock absorbers – but because the organic matter in the cabin can’t cope with the pace and brutality the car is capable of, and because if you try to wrestle the Dakar, it usually wins.
The odd thing is that the Touareg is surprisingly easy to drive. Most high-spec racing cars have ferocious on/off clutches, but the Touareg sets off with zero drama. The steering is light; the throttle is progressive and smooth. Even hitting cruel bumps at speed doesn’t make your right foot jerk the accelerator.
But what really strikes you about the Race Touareg is how balanced it feels. It pivots around you, inspires confidence as soon as you set off. You soon learn that the brake and throttle can control the direction you’re heading in as much as the steering.
There’s very little understeer, just an initial hint as you turn in, before the 306bhp, 442lb ft diesel denies it with a tweak of your right foot. It might be 4WD, but the Touareg feels like it shoves all the power to the rear wheels: it’s ridiculously easy to summon oversteer on demand.
The same balance makes it quite friendly to drive. Not at all scary. When it fires up for the first time, it sounds like a cartoon monster from outside – all turbo whistles and diesel bark. But there’s no hidden side to it once you’re strapped in, as it will happily give plenty of warning of what it’s about to do.
Given how brutal the VW is, it’s surprising how relaxed it makes you feel – helped by all that feedback. Despite running on a combination of gravel and sand, you’re so locked into the seat that everything is transmitted straight back to your arse.
An aspect less comforting when Dieter climbs back into the driver’s seat.
All of a sudden, the Touareg’s friendly air disappears – now it’s back to its savage best. When Loeb drove me in his WRC C4, I watched his feet and hands, how he danced across the controls. None of that with Dieter. Here, it’s all about me looking ahead, bracing for where the next impact will come from. I’m far too tense, gripping the sides of the seat and tensing my neck muscles. The trick is to try to relax in the seat, to let the car and the suspension do the work.
Dieter is going so fast that the Touareg is skimming across the tops of the bumps, but it still transmits more of the violence through to the cabin than you’d expect. There’s one nasty off-camber bump that throws the Touareg in completely the wrong direction for the corner – if this were on a track and we were in a racing car, you’d try to avoid the whole section because it compromises the next corner.
But in the Touareg, Dieter just launches the car at it, making the suspension and tyres absorb the impact, working the 4WD to fire himself out of there. It’s very impressive, and it looks like he’s got no mechanical sympathy.
But this is where ‘normal’ isn’t really relevant. The Touareg is able to absorb so much, all of the time, that you can – must – be harsh with it. You can use the landscape to help you go quicker, riding the edges of corners where dirt is piled up, ignoring everything you think you know about driving quickly.
There is finesse here. There is intelligence. But the pace and aggression of delivery is never less than pitiless, so far above most people’s perceptions that, by the end, I feel… mortal. I’m exhausted, broken, in pain, with an urgent need for a fresh T-shirt. Dieter is smiling, the Touareg is barely even dirty. I’ve been humbled by man and machine, but couldn’t feel happier. Now I just need the physio on speed dial.