Your eight-step guide to drive and survive as a desert racer | Top Gear
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Thursday 2nd February
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Your eight-step guide to drive and survive as a desert racer

Fancy taking on the Dakar? Here's our handy guide

Top Gear’s simple eight-step program to drive and survive in the desert
  1. Preparation

    Top Gear’s simple eight-step program to drive and survive in the desert

    Just about anyone can drive into the desert. But should you want to repeat the process – or simply enjoy the little things in life, like continuing it – you’ll want to prepare a bit beforehand.

    Owning or having legal access to a car, for instance, is a stellar first step. Making sure that it can go more than three feet in the desert is an equally celestial second step. Having a properly desert-worthy off-roader that couldn’t be any tougher if it was forged from mithril is the third star in Orion’s Belt, but being properly prepared yourself is the Galaxy Brain moment.

    And if you thought it was a slog to get to that particular punchline, you may not be cut out for the task ahead of you in terms of your own preparation. Because you have quite a metaphorical road ahead of you before you can safely venture off the literal one.

    Physical fitness is key. In fact, physical fitness is key, lock, door, alarm system and house, as well as a solid home-and-contents insurance policy. Unless you are crossing the desert by helicopter or hovercraft, you will be digging your car out at some point. And then some more points. You will be changing wheels when you catch a flat tyre, attempting to bend bits of engineering or bodywork back into some kind of serviceable condition or digging anchor points in the dunes to winch yourself free.

    And even if, by some miracle, you sail across the desert, borne on the wings of impossible fortune, you will still be sitting in a noisy, hot and dusty cabin for what feels like an eternity. This will actually turn out to be one tenth of an eternity, with the subsequent nine yet to come.

    So get fit. And once you get fit, keep fit. Do not sell, trade or give away fit. Do not use fit as collateral, attempt to lease fit or create NFTs using fit’s likeness.

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  2. Familiarisation

    Top Gear’s simple eight-step program to drive and survive in the desert

    Of course, you will want to familiarise yourself with the desert you intend to drive through. For any number of reasons – such as the fact that the Arabian Desert, for example, is seven times larger than the entire United Kingdom – true familiarity will not always be practicable.

    So familiarise yourself with the machine you intend to take to the desert. Where does it excel? Where does it struggle? And is it a Hyundai Excel, which is almost guaranteed to struggle? These are the things you’ll need to find out for yourself.

    The balance of probability suggests that your venture into the desert will occur during a rally raid, rather than as part of a voyage of self-discovery and self-actualisation. If this is the case, it’s time to familiarise yourself with the rally’s regulations and requirements, as well as the technology you’ll be carrying with you on the rally – GPS tracking, road book (electronic or paper), flux capacitor and so on.

    You’ll also want to familiarise yourself with... yourself. No, not in that way; self-exploration in such a manner is, as far as we know, not pertinent to your survival in the desert. Finding your weaknesses as a driver is. So take stock, be honest and assess where you’re too cautious, a bit foolhardy or completely out of talent. This will give you the opportunity to improve as a driver, as well as drive within your limits when your very life depends on it.

  3. Navigation

    Top Gear’s simple eight-step program to drive and survive in the desert

    Consider the phrase ‘lost in the desert’.

    Consider the ramifications of having to say, ‘We are lost in the desert’, due to the fact that you are, in fact, lost in the desert.

    Then consider spending a good chunk of time learning how to navigate, to avoid ramifications of this nature and magnitude.

    This means being au fait with road books and pace notes, of course, but also knowing how to read terrain, find waypoints and recognise landmarks in an environment that, at first glance, seems endless and featureless. Know what dead reckoning is? Well, you’d want to well ahead of the rally, unless... well, you can probably figure out where we’re going with this.

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  4. Repetition

    Top Gear’s simple eight-step program to drive and survive in the desert

    The best way to learn something (sorry in advance, Masterclass) is to practice it. Again. And again. And so on.

    Obviously, you’ll need to gain experience in the desert by practicing... well, driving in the desert. Which means that in the early days, you will need to do quite a bit of driving in the desert while inexperienced. This presents something of a conundrum, given the general level of survivability offered by your average desert.

    But if experience puts you in good stead (it does), and, as a novice, you won’t have any of your own (you won’t), the simplest solution is to bring someone else’s.

    At Dakar 2022, Mattias Ekstrom’s desert-driving experience, for instance, was somewhere between 'not much' and 'nothing'. So, along with training ahead of time and practicing on similar surfaces (in less severe parts of the world), he sought the counsel of those who’ve been there and done that.

    For various reasons, you may not have the ready access to desert-racing doyens, like Stéphane Peterhansel and Carlos Sainz, that Mattias enjoyed. But the fact that events like Dakar and Baja routinely attract competitors in their hundreds suggests a fairly strong reserve of desert-driving experience to draw on.

  5. Hydration

    Top Gear’s simple eight-step program to drive and survive in the desert

    You gotta stay hydrated, bud.

    But at the risk of flirting with actual advice for a moment, do not underestimate how bad dehydration and heatstroke are. Ever had heatstroke? You don’t want to.

  6. Calculation

    Top Gear’s simple eight-step program to drive and survive in the desert

    As Oh, the Places You’ll Go! reliably informs us, life is a great balancing act. So, as well as vital tips like never mixing up your right and your left, Dr Seuss’s advice-laden tome also describes the simple precept behind the complex art of desert driving: it’s a balancing act.

    Sometimes in the literal sense, of course, especially if you are riding a motorcycle, which does tend to come unstuck otherwise. But what we’re talking about here is more of a conceptual equilibrium: finding the balance between competing priorities, completing complex tasks in a high-pressure environment and all the other sort of guff you find on a job ad.

    In essence, you’ll need to calculate how to tackle each section of the race, while keeping a running tally of where you might have to make up time or where you can ease off a bit if you get through quickly. You’ll then have to balance speed and safety, momentum and mechanical sympathy, how much time you can gain versus how many hours you stand to lose trying to fix bent and broken bits of car.

    So if you find the balance, will you succeed? Yes – 98 and three-quarter per cent guaranteed. Kid, you’ll move mountains. Or at least drive up sand dunes.

  7. Assumption

    Top Gear’s simple eight-step program to drive and survive in the desert

    Step one: don’t do it.

    Step two: no, really – do not do it.

    Step three: OK, unless you’re assuming that you don’t know enough about what’s going on to be in any kind of position to assume anything beyond your initial assumption that you don’t know enough, do not assume anything.

    Um, we’re just going to assume that all makes sense.

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  8. Application

    Top Gear’s simple eight-step program to drive and survive in the desert

    So, you’re as fit as a particularly well-tuned fiddle, as prepared as a politician’s candid comments and a navigator of such talent that you’ve already found the famed city of El Dorado. You have enough experience to hit the level cap in World of Warcraft. You’re familiar enough with the desert that you could borrow its 10mm spanner without asking first – but you would ask first, because you don’t want to assume anything. Your car is robust enough to outlast humanity itself, plus you just topped off the radiator. What now?

    Now, it’s time for the fun part. Well... the fun part, if you are actually mad and find the concept of driving in a hotbox for hours on end – across an environment that is seemingly custom-designed to foreshorten your life – an entertaining prospect. So, good luck with that. We’ll be somewhere near the catering truck when you get back.

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