Kazakhstan at Dakar 2014: Pain and Gain

By Alex Lee

The Dakar Rally is one of the world’s most unique and difficult automobile races. It pits man and machine versus nature across vast, unforgiving landscapes in a two-week long adventure fueled by adrenaline, danger and luck.

And this year, the drivers and crews from Kazakhstan had ample doses of all three en route to four top-20 stage finishes, including a driver and partner who barely escaped a vehicle engulfed in flames.

The Dakar rally is an off-road vehicle endurance race founded in 1978, in which off-road cars, trucks, motorcycles and quads navigate thousands of miles of desolate sand dunes, mud pits, rocks and other natural obstacles. Twenty-seven have died attempting the race since its inception, including one racer and two members of the press at this year’s event. Simply finishing is an accomplishment.

dakar_5This year’s race was held January 5-18 and covered 13, roughly 500-mile stages from Rosario, Santa Fe, Argentina, via Bolivia to Valparaíso, Chile.

The Astana Team included drivers and crews for both cars and trucks. And it was one of those crews – that of Bauyrzhan Issabayev and Gabdulla Ashimov – who barely escaped their burning Toyota. On day two of the race, Issabayev and Ashimov were traveling at 150 kilometres an hour when one of their tires caught fire. As they struggled to regain control and bring the vehicle to a halt, their Toyota became engulfed in flames. Both driver and co-pilot, however, managed to climb out without severe injury.

“It is a pity and it hurts,” Aidyn Rakhimbayev, pilot of the fastest Kazakh crew in this year’s race, commented on his Facebook page about the incident. “Each year, dozens of cars burn and wreck during Dakar. We just didn’t expect it to happen to our team.”

dakar_3Rakhimbayev, who along with his crew finished 17th overall, went on to describe what it feels like to be in the race. “Both the speed and drivers are crazy. When your helmet hits the roof or body of the car, your head doesn’t only hurt, it rings inside like after boxing. … Dakar is [like] the Olympics of motorsport.”

And with just a few hundred miles and the final stage to go, he wrote, “Mountainous, dusty, serpentine, with incredibly sudden and narrow turns, and deep vertical cliffs and a total of 157 kilometres – that was our last Dakar stage.”

After navigating those obstacles and finishing in the top 20, Rakhimbayev continued, “I was overwhelmed with emotions, we made it!”

dakar_6Rakhimbayev wrote on his Facebook page, “We reached our goal. My 20-year-old dream came true. It has been a tough test and finally, I have conquered Dakar with a third attempt. I have peeked beyond my capability.”

But Rakhimbayev noted that it was not easy. “It was the most mountainous Dakar in history and one of the most complex.”

In total, only 40 percent of those who began the race actually finished it. Only 62 off-road cars out of 155, 78 motorcycles out of 196 and 50 trucks out of 76 were able to stay in shape across 9,300 kilometres to cross the finish line.

Rakhimbayev’s performance this year bodes well for the future of Kazakhstan representation in the event. According to Rakhimbayev, he met with Sven Quandt, director of the MINI team, one of the race’s most successful teams, who expressed interest in signing Rakhimbayev to the MINI team. Since last year, Rakhimbayev and his other Kazakhstan teammates are all members of the Presidential Astana Dakar Team, receiving sponsorship and other support from the Samruk Kazyna National Welfare Fund.

Rakhimbayev, however, wasn’t Kazakhstan’s most successful racer in this year’s event. That honor goes to Artur Ardavichus, Alexey Nikizhev and Radim Kaplanek who competed in the truck category and finished 14th overall. Another Kazakh crew consisting of Denis Berezovsky and Ignat Falkov finished 37th overall. The event’s winner was a crew led by Spaniard Nani Roma.1509182_1433712233531210_257205028_n

Kazakh racers have participated in numerous Dakar Rallies and so far their best finish was in Morocco in 2013, in which two crews finished in the top 10.

“The difference between us and the car that followed us was only three seconds! … Had we not had a mechanical breakdown that stopped us for about five hours, we could have finished third. Even the organisers emphasised this fact,” Gabdulla Ashimov, co-pilot of one of the crews that finished in the top 10, said after last year’s race.

Next year’s race is scheduled to be held January 5-20 in Peru.

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