Team Wheels finds the first day of real racing a much, much harder test of man and machinery than we thought... and it ends with an ambulance.
As the windscreen of the airborne Mazda BT-50 filled with the red danger sight of sand, and the rear bucked into the air like a rodeo pony, it seemed all but certain that the Wheels assault on the fierce Finke Desert Rally was over, just 8km from the start line.
Over the next 3.5 hours there were times when our intrepid, arguably insane driver, Toby Hagon, genuinely wished the car would break, so his torture could come to an end. And many more times when he was absolutely convinced it was going to expire, or break into small pieces.
By the time he reached the finish line, Hagon was unable to walk and needed attention from the St John’s Ambulance, but at least he didn’t end up pissing blood (plenty of participants were happy to inform us how common this is at the end of a day of Finke racing).
As for the car, it simply refused to bleed, against all odds, although its power steering fluid did boil, the shock absorbers collapsed, the casings around them having melted from the heat, and the wheel arches appeared to have been rudely assaulted by the suspension.
But both the car and Toby got to the finish line, somehow, against all odds, and well and truly within the 4h 15m maximum finishing time, after just 3 hours and 53 minutes of hugely draining hard work.
“It’s the hardest driving I’ve ever done, by miles, and I can’t believe we made it - I’ve never punished a car that hard and had it keep going, just incredible,” Toby told us, after his legs had started moving again, albeit stiffly. “It’s fair to say I underestimated just how hard it would be.
“We had an absolutely huge moment, about 8km in, where we were completely airborne and nosing in, all we could see was sand, the rear wheels were in the air, and then we somehow landed, launched off sideways, bounced down again… we were all over the place and I thought we were gone.
“Ordinarily you’d think one hit like that would kill a car, but we gave it hundreds like that. I can’t tell you how much punishment it took.
“There were dozens of times where I thought it was over, we heard a big clunk at one stage and I thought that was it, and for the last 80km we had no rear shocks at all, but it just kept going.”
To give the level of difficulty some context, Hagon’s co-driver, Bernie Webb, who's been doing gravel rallies for 20 years but was on his first Finke, said it was the hardest day he’d ever endured.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, there are no words,” he said, fixing us with a glassy, thousand-yard stare.
Plenty of vehicles didn’t make it, of course, including at least one that caught fire and burned to a crisp.
Both of the Wheels/Mazda entrants had a tense first half of the race, as they were desperate to make the cut-off time of 2h 15m for the first 140km to Bundooma, a mark they missed by just 59 seconds.
Having sailed under the overall time, however, the CAMS officials assured them that they had, in fact, finished within the envelope, because the 2h 15m limit was actually set from the time the last car left the line.
And so, the challenge continues, because today the Mazda (fitted with new shocks and generally refreshed by our crack team of engineers) and its bruised and battered occupants, must race the 226km from Alice to Finke in reverse.
The pressure has been intensified because we’ve threatened to give Toby a new nickname if he doesn’t make it - One Direction.
If he does get to the finish line, he’ll be the only four-wheeled vehicle able to legally drive straight to a pub for a hugely well-deserved beer. The Wheels camp has been inundated with people coming to ask if we actually made it, and deeply shocked to discover that we have, and Toby reports that the cheering and arm-waving for his car along the course was passionate and constant.
As for the larger event, it is simply something that has to be seen to be believed. The starting grid on Saturday morning resembled a casting call for a new Mad Max film, while the Aboriginal community of Finke was turned into a finish-line festival of camps fires, fireworks (still legal in the NT, who knew?) and fired up fans.
By far the most incredible humans here, though, are the blokes who’ve entered the event on trail bikes, and damn near battered their bodies to pieces.
Our favourite was Nick Godde, 22, who shredded his rear tyre just 80km into the course and rode the next 146km on the rim, mainly because he knew his Mum, waiting in Finke, would be worried if he didn’t turn up.
These are abnormal people taking on impossible challenges and then backing up to tackle them again the next day. The Finke Desert Rally isn’t just in the outback, it’s out of this world.
And, so far at least, Wheels is giving it a great shake.
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