Cyprus Mail
Life & Style

Daring to dream the impossible

Intense, extreme and punishing, The Dakar is an annual off-road endurance event known as a ‘rally raid’. First raced in 1978, it was originally known as the Paris-Dakar Rally for its start and finish points. But since 2009, when the event moved to South America to escape security threats in Mauritania, it’s been called The Dakar – a race in which hundreds of competitors from all over the world race cars, bikes, quads and trucks nearly 9,000km in the space of 12 days. And while it’s definitely the toughest and most dangerous motorsport known to man, it’s also just possibly the biggest adventure on the planet…

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From January 2 to 14 this year the 491 competitors of The Dakar 2017 raced 316 vehicles from Asunción to Buenos Aires through Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina. Participants battled against everything from shifting sand dunes to altitudes close on 5,000m – a height at which oxygen deprivation can wreak havoc with both the human lung and the internal combustion engine. But that’s often the least of the pilot and co-pilot’s worries: for those 12 days, the two drivers are functioning on almost no sleep, fighting treacherous terrain and extremes of temperature all while competing against the best the world has to offer. So those who can claim not only to have taken part, but to have actually completed the race, are extremely few and far between. They are the men and women who have dared to dream the impossible, brave the unbearable and endure the intolerable…

And Roman Starikovich is one. A naturalised Cypriot and CEO of the Orpheus Group who has lived on the island for 23 years and considers it his home, Roman was the driving force behind the first ever Cyprus entry in The Dakar. Competing under the team banner of Autolife – the Limassol-based garage he owns – his Desert Warrior placed 45th in an event few ever finish. It’s a staggering achievement which has put Cyprus well and truly on the motorsport map, and which Roman humbly attributes to two things: teamwork and preparation.

“It takes a lot of people to get a car to The Dakar,” he explains. “It’s an event that really is all about teamwork, and we had a fantastic group, all of whom worked for over a year on the project.” At the start of January, eight of the team headed off to South America – three mechanics, the team manager, press team, and photographer – along with Roman and Bert Heskes, whom Roman describes as “an excellent co-pilot and superb mechanic, incredibly trustworthy and very smart.” But their arrival in South America was merely the culmination of 12 months of intensive preparation…

“The most difficult part was probably the finances; if you want to go to The Dakar your budget has to be about half a million euros, and unfortunately I’m not a billionaire!” Roman chuckles. “We did have some sponsorship, but 80 per cent of the money was my own. Fortunately my wife is a very wonderful woman,” he enthuses, “and she said go for it. She knew it was my dream and she completely supported me in it.”

In addition to the monetary aspect, Roman had to build up his race experience (a prerequisite for entering the contest) with races all over the world, and – most importantly – needed to find and totally rebuild a car…

“You want the truth?” he laughs. “I found our Desert Warrior on sale online in Manchester: it cost €50,000 and I spent another €100,000 on spare parts. I originally thought I would buy it for practice, use it for half a year and then sell it and buy another more reliable, easier car.” But while on a preparatory trip to Latin America, he came across a Peruvian shaman who revealed that Roman would complete The Dakar in “a yellow car. And so that’s why I decided to stick with it. He also predicted we would finish between 40th and 50th… We came 45th!”

It’s an incredible achievement for first-timers, and while rank is certainly not the be-all and end-all of The Dakar, such a result is a huge accolade for Cyprus. “There was a lot of responsibility representing Cyprus for the first time and, though The Dakar is about the team not the country, everyone raises their national flag on the podium,” Roman explains. “I am so very proud to be the first Cypriot competitor in the race. Thousands of people both from Cyprus and around the world sent us messages of support. It’s what keeps you going when you’re stuck in the dunes or in the water…

“That level of support gives you such an amazing feeling, wherever it comes from,” he continues. “We stopped at a petrol station in Argentina in the middle of nowhere, and suddenly 300 people appeared to cheer us on. Then in La Paz, when the car was almost broken and would only run in fifth gear and we were still 30km from the podium, I knew millions of people were watching and supporting us… And so we made it: we crossed the finish line and we raised the flag of Cyprus!” TheSticking gears and broken engines may all be in a day’s work in The Dakar, but driving for 19 hours and 1,000km a day, Roman adds, is “really tough. You’re driving off-road through dunes, water, mud; sometimes you’re in a river for 30km, at others you can’t see the track. You go from sea level to 4,500m in 24 hours. The temperature in the car is over 60 degrees, and you’re drinking 10 litres of water a day – I think I lost eight kilos over the course of the race. Plus you’re not allowed any communication devices, just a compass and a map, and you’re required to pass certain points or you’ll be penalised.

“It’s kind of like a quest; a very intellectual race. Technically, it’s about getting to the finish line as quickly as possible. But in reality it doesn’t work that way – sometimes you feel you have a problem with the car and might have to avoid, for example, difficult dunes. This happened to us,” he continues. “After three hours of fighting the sand, we knew we were about to lose both our clutch and engine, so we decided to circumnavigate the dunes and take the 15-hour penalty.”

However, “the placing doesn’t matter at the end, it’s really about helping each other through. Two or three times we were helped out by other cars; it wasn’t critical, they may have lost five or 10 seconds, and this happens all the time in The Dakar. But there was one night when we passed a car that was completely stuck. I looked into the pilot’s eyes and realised how I would feel in his place – the hopes and dreams of my friends, my family and my country riding with me – and knew immediately that, despite the fact it was three o’clock in the morning, we had to help.”

Already delayed by dunes and mud, Roman and his co-pilot still had another 70km to the day’s finish line. “We were wiped out, and freeing a heavy car can also be a huge risk to the integrity of your own vehicle. But the Argentinian pilot had already been passed by six other cars; we were his very last chance. So we pulled him out, towed him for hours, lost him, turned back, towed him again, and eventually got both vehicles across the finish line. And that, I believe, is the real spirit of The Dakar. The race will end, but life continues. Helping someone is never the wrong decision.”

By the end of the final stage of the final day, Roman and his co-pilot were totally exhausted. “I slept for one-and-a-half days! You look back afterwards and realise the thing that really kept you going was the support of the people who believed in you. I think that’s the main reason we managed to finish. And it’s good to know that millions of people around the world now know our small island in the Mediterranean exists. Perhaps,” he concludes – with the glint in his eye of far off mountains, endless deserts and raging rivers, a melding of man and machine against the elements – “I will do it again…”

For more information on The Dakar Rally Autolife team, visit www.dakar.team or the Facebook page ‘Autolife Dakar’


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