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BLOG - PUBLISHED ON JANUARY 18TH 2013
Race2Recovery: A different kind of battle
Race2Recovery became the first disabled team to enter - and finish - the Dakar Rally. The crew documented their experience for AUTOSPORT from start to finish

Race2Recovery is a team of volunteers, racing to inspire those who are injured, disabled or facing adversity.

The team, predominantly made up of British and American servicemen wounded in action, has taken on the challenge of the Dakar to raise money for the Tedworth House Personnel Recovery Centre.

It is a Help for Heroes project and donations to the team's fundraising campaign can be made at race2recovery.com.

Sunday 20 January

After the tension and euphoria of yesterday, the celebratory parade through Santiago de Chile was a chance for the Race2Recovery team todrink in their Dakar success.

Chile's capital put on a great show with thousands of people turning out to cheer on a tired old Wildcat, driven by Matt O'Hare and Philip 'Barney' Gillespie.

After a tour of the city centre, the whole team climbed the Dakar podium for a moment that marked the culmination of two years' hard work.

After many tribulations, Joy made it
After many tribulations, Joy made it

"It's just an incredible feeling," said O'Hare. "Our goal was to be the first predominantly disabled team to finish the Dakar and we made it.

"I drove up on to the podium with half the team sat on the car. Some of the guys were waving their prosthetics in the air to celebrate. A crazy day, but one that makes all the hard work worthwhile."

Gillespie becomes the first amputee ever to complete the Dakar Rally.

"When I stood on the start line in Lima, Peru, all this felt so far away. Then when Joy started overheating and we had to pull over every 30km, it felt even further away.

"But we made it and it's been great to share this moment with the rest of the team."

Joining the parade to the podium
Joining the parade to the podium

Joining the celebrations were Justin Birchall and Lee Townsend, who were involved in a tragic road traffic accident in the first week of the rally.

"I've got some broken ribs and I'm feeling beaten up but I wasn't going to miss this," said Birchall. "It was a horrific accident and our thoughts are with the families of those who didn't survive."

John Winskill, the third member of the team injured in the accident, is back in the UK receiving treatment but passed on his congratulations.

"Having Justin and Lee back with is another positive for everyone," said team manager Andrew 'Pav' Taylor.

"Race2Recovery has always been about injured servicemen going beyond injury to achieve the extraordinary, but we never expected the Dakar to be quite as extraordinary as this.

The drivers celebrate an incredible achievement
The drivers celebrate an incredible achievement

"The last couple of weeks have been more intense than any of us ever imagined, but we came through it all together and I'm immensely proud of everyone. Now let's start the party."

The last 15 days and 5500 miles really has been an incredible journey. Those us of who spent the month of January 2013 with the Race2Recovery team will never forget it.

Click here for AUTOSPORT's Sam Tremayne's blog on following the Dakar with X-raid

Saturday 19 January

At 6.30pm local time, Corporal Philip 'Barney' Gillespie crossed the finish line in Santiago de Chile to become the first amputee ever to complete the Dakar Rally. Co-driver Gillespie and driver Major Matt O'Hare were cheered across the line by the whole Race2Recovery team as they completed an extraordinary journey. For the past two weeks and 5,500 miles, the duo have guided their troublesome rally car, nicknamed 'Joy', through some of the world's toughest, most desolate terrain.

"I don't think it's sunk in yet," said Gillespie. "We've just taken it stage by stage and now we're here at the finish. There were times when we were tackling huge sand dunes in the middle of the night that we thought we couldn't possibly continue, but somehow we kept each other going.

Race2Recovery team reaches the finish line
Race2Recovery team reaches the finish line

"Like so many of the team, I've experienced some dark times over the past few years and I hope that by completing the Dakar I'll inspire others to take on extraordinary challenges."

Over the past fortnight the Race2Recovery team has shed tears of pain and frustration, but today there were only tears of joy for Joy. For two years, this novice team of injured servicemen has battled against the odds to take on the toughest rallies in the world. Today, they achieved their goal of making it to the end.

"After everything we've been through, this is an incredible feeling," said team manager, army medic Andrew 'Pav' Taylor. "There have been many times over the past two years, and even over the past two weeks, when this felt like an impossible dream, but here we are. We have an amazing team and everyone has played their part in this success. Now we can celebrate."

Tomorrow, all the vehicles that have completed the rally will enjoy a ceremonial parade through the streets of Santiago de Chile and a visit to the Dakar podium.

"I can't wait," said O'Hare. "It's been amazing journey that I'll never forget. I'm so proud of Barney and the whole team."

An emotional day for the team
An emotional day for the team

For amputees Captain Tony Harris and Corporal Tom Neathway, who launched the Race2Recovery project while undergoing rehabilitation, it was an emotional moment. Both started the rally but had to retire after mechanical problems.

"Tom and I are obviously disappointed not to finish ourselves, but this project has always been about the team, not the individual," said Harris. "We're going to enjoy the parade tomorrow then focus on raising money for the Tedworth House Personal Recovery Centre."

Friday 18 January

We stood on top of the dune for three hours. It was thirty-five degrees Celsius, we could see for over 20km and we could see no one else.

Sun cream was applied, cameras were readied, GPS coordinates were confirmed and then Robby Gordon's Hummer appeared, powering up the sand with an angry snarl. Man and machine were in charge of nature.

Gordon was followed by the other leading cars in the Dakar Rally; a plethora of garish, million dollar specials built for the sand.

The trucks are an incredible and bizarre spectacle
The trucks are an incredible and bizarre spectacle

Then the frontrunning trucks arrived, looking as incongruous as ever as they monstered their way up the giant sandcastles.

Time moved on and the midfield arrived, zig-zagging their way up the dune as they fought for traction. We waited some more and then, in the distance, there was the faint cry of a familiar V8 engine.

Out of the dust came 'Joy', Race2Recovery's remaining Wildcat. Driver Matt O'Hare traversed the dune, turned right and powered on. We pointed our cameras and co-driver Philip 'Barney' Gillespie even had time to wave. Joy took a breath, gulped down a litre of fuel, crested the dune and disappeared.

It's only by witnessing it in close quarters that you get a true sense of the scale of the Dakar. By the time they arrived at the dune, all the crews had travelled over 5000 miles and everyone had endured some sort of drama. This was the second to last stage but there was no let up. That's why they call it the world's toughest rally.

Team Joy prepare for the final push
Team Joy prepare for the final push

Today's stage lasted 441km and there was an additional 294km of road sections before the cars arrived at the Dakar's final bivouac. Joy exited the special stage at around 11.30pm local time and as she followed the road route to camp, team manager Andrew 'Pav' Taylor summed up Race2Recovery's feelings:

"It's been long, hard day, but we've ticked off another special stage. All the team's mechanics are waiting in the bivouac for the car's return and they'll work as long as it takes to prepare her for the final stage tomorrow. The Dakar can bite at any time and no one is getting complacent."

Taylor, who was seriously injured by a suicide bomber while serving in Afghanistan, is the rock on which Race2Recovery is built and over the past fortnight has done an incredible job of guiding the team through adversity.

Tomorrow is the Dakar's last serious stage before a ceremonial finish in Santiago de Chile on Sunday. It spans 346km with the potential for heartbreak at every turn.

Tonight, as the team prepare Joy for one final mission, they will be hoping that she, Barney and Matt can conquer the Dakar one more time.

Click here for AUTOSPORT's Sam Tremayne's blog on following the Dakar with X-raid

Thursday 17 January

Today the Dakar Rally crossed back over the Andes to Copiapo, Chile. The journey began with a 392km road section, which should have been a relaxing drive through some of the world's most desolate and dramatic scenery. But the absence of tarmac made the route over the mountains as perilous as a special stage.

The heady cocktail of giant Dakar trucks, dirt tracks and an altitude approaching 5000m, made for moments of genuine jeopardy. One of the team's Land Rover Discovery support vehicles was clipped by a competitor car and now bears a Dakar wound. It was a relief that the 'Joy', the team's remaining Wildcat rally raid car, made it to the start of the special stage unscathed.

Today's stage started in Chile and saw the return of the dreaded Dakar dunes. In the soft, sandy conditions, getting stuck is an ever-present danger and for the Race2Recovery team, this was made worse by a technical malfunction.

Long day for the R2R team
Long day for the R2R team

"Joy wasn't starting properly," explained driver Matt O'Hare. "This meant we were paranoid about stalling or getting stuck in the sand. It was all about keeping going and conserving momentum."

As I write, the mechanics are preparing to work through the night to fix the problem.

O'Hare was full of praise for his co-driver, Philip 'Barney' Gillespie, an amputee injured in a bomb blast in Afghanistan.

"Barney did an amazing job today," said O'Hare. "We hit every waypoint and at one point we overtook several cars just because we were able to navigate our way around a huge dune."

Gillespie's skills and chirpy demeanour have been a key factor in the team's success.

"It's another stage ticked off but I'm really trying to focus on taking each day as it comes and not to think too much about getting to the end," he explained. No sooner was he out of the car than he was being handed the routebook for tomorrow's stage, which includes a 441km off road section.

Robby Gordon and the R2R crew
Robby Gordon and the R2R crew

While Joy was out playing in the dunes, the team's US Marines, Mark Zambon and Tim Read, took time out to visit Robby Gordon, who was the first American to win a stage of the Dakar.

Gordon devotes his life to winning the rally (he was second on today's stage) and lives in a different world of posh transporters and hotel rooms. He was, though, hugely impressed with Race2Recovery's efforts: "To do this event with two legs is hard enough," he said, "but to take it on with only one or even no legs is incredible. This is a badass event and these guys are doing an awesome job."

Wednesday 16 January

There's little to report today. The perilous stage from La Rioja to Fiambala was cancelled due to flooding. The whole rally has thus been teleported forwards a day.

"I just can't believe it's been cancelled," said driver Matt O'Hare, "'Barney' and I were so looking forward to the dunes."

The broad grin on his face betrayed his sarcasm. Right now it's all about getting to the finish and after everything they've endured in the past ten days, no one would deny this team a stroke of good fortune.

Fans showing their support

The goodwill being shown to 'Team Joy' right now is nothing short of extraordinary. Every night the team plug in their Inmarsat sat phones to catch up with home.

The social media buzz around #teamjoy is huge, but some fans are going beyond a tweet or Facebook message of support. An as yet unconfirmed rumour has reached camp that one supporter has had a 'Team Joy' tattoo.

If it's you and you're reading this, the team would like to hear from you via their Facebook page.

Tomorrow's stage takes us back across the Andes and the Atacama desert from Fiambala to Copiago in Chile. It's a long day and Joy will be riding out before 8am local time.

Tuesday 15 January

According to the official Dakar guide, today's stage might have reminded "the most open-minded of participants of Ireland in some places."

Race2Recovery's resident Irishman, Philip 'Barney' Gillespie, wasn't convinced.

"I don't remember it ever being 40 degrees Celsius in Ireland," he said, "and we're more into mud than dust."

Gillespie was in high spirits after another good day. While everyone is keeping everything crossed, the overheating problems that blighted the car in the first week appear to have been alleviated.

"Argentina has been good to us so far," driver Matt O'Hare says. "It's a beautiful country and the stages are fun. It's unbelievably hot out there but we're loving it."

Right now, Joy is proving true to Kipling's old adage about keeping your head while all around them are losing theirs. Both the team's eight-wheel support trucks through a strop yesterday and will play no further part in the rally. As Joy, O'Hare and Gillespie left for the stage start, the rest of the team was busy re-packing all the team's equipment.

The Renault Kerax race truck is now looking a lot less racy as a packhorse. Everything that wouldn't fit into the truck has been loaded into the team's Land Rover Discovery support vehicles. The team now has a super-slim look, but tonight the mechanics will go to work as normal.

Time for some reorganisation
Time for some reorganisation

Argentina has been a great friend to the rally. Everywhere we go, we're mobbed. The team's mechanics have had to perfect their autographs, even signing body parts on occasion. This afternoon, the cameraman filming a documentary about the team looked somewhat bemused to be handed a baby for a photograph.

The drivers and co-drivers, though, are the undoubted stars of the Dakar. O'Hare was even described as 'lindo' (handsome) by an attractive Argentinean. Maybe she would have thought him marginally less cool if she knew that he and Gillespie completed the road section today singing along to country and western.

Tomorrow's stage takes the teams from tonight's bivouac in La Rioja to Fiambala, where the rally returns to the dreaded dunes for a 481km special stage. Don't think for a moment that the Dakar gets any easier as it reaches its climax.

Monday 14 January

As if to punish the drivers for having a rest, the organisers made the ninth stage of the Dakar the longest in this year's event. This was an 852km epic, from Tucuman to Cordoba, that included a 593km special stage.

For the Race2Recovery team and their one remaining Wildcat, 'Joy', it would present another fearsome test.

Back in action after a brief pause for rest and repairs
Back in action after a brief pause for rest and repairs

Yesterday, the team's mechanics spent the 'rest' day trying to solve the cooling and fuelling problems that have blighted Joy since the beginning of the rally. Everyone went to bed knowing their handiwork would be tested in the 40-degree heat of Argentina.

Matt O'Hare and co-driver Philip 'Barney' Gillespie left the bivouac at 8.30am to begin another marathon adventure. Today's stage would focus on tight, gravel tracks, the sort of terrain used by the World Rally Championship when it visits Argentina. The special stage was split into two parts, linked by a section of road.

It was the hottest day of the rally, but the intrepid trio – O'Hare, Gillespie and Joy – emerged from the first stage in buoyant mood.

"Joy hasn't overheated once," said O'Hare. "We've actually been overtaking other cars. It's a fantastic feeling."

Gillespie, an amputee who lost his right leg serving in Afghanistan, was equally ebullient: "It might just be that we can complete the stage without driving through the night."

Joy meets her fans
Joy meets her fans

They are also having to get used to superstar status. Joy was mobbed when she pulled into a filling station to refuel. It's doubtful that even Argentinean golden boy Lionel Messi would have received as much attention as the two guys in dirty overalls and a tired old car.

After completing the rest of the stage, Joy finally rolled into the bivouac just before 1am.

"This was supposed to be the longest stage in the Dakar, but it wasn't for us," said Gillespie. "I'm off to bed."

At this point, you might be thinking that was the first trouble-free day the Race2Recovery team has experienced in the Dakar, but you'd be wrong. Both of the team's giant support trucks broke down on route, leaving the crews stranded by the roadside. The supporters now had to become the supported.

It's not just competing vehicles that take a pounding
It's not just competing vehicles that take a pounding

An improvised roadside clutch change got one of the vehicles mobile again, but the other truck had to be towed by the team's T4 race truck for almost 300km to the bivouac. It finally arrived after midnight.

These trucks contain the team's infrastructure and spare parts. All the team's support vehicles, including the Land Rover Discoverys that carry team members from stage to stage, have a critical role to play. If the trucks can't be fixed, the Dakar mission will be seriously compromised.

At first light, they must find some sort of solution. For the exhausted team members, this is yet another extraordinary twist in a crazy story.

"It's been a tough, tough day again," says Charles Sincock, who drove the T4. "But the great news is that Joy's doing well. That's what's keeping us going."

While Sincock tries to fix his truck, co-driver Tom Neathway is trying to mend his right prosthetic leg, which has broken down in the heat and dust. He's currently attempting to recharge it using one of the Discoverys. If Race2Recovery was a Hollywood script, no one would believe it.

Sunday 13 January

Today was the Dakar's only rest day and the drivers and co-drivers had a decent night's sleep for the first time in a week. For those still left in the rally it was also a chance to reflect on the hard work done and to look ahead to another challenging week.

Monday is the longest stage of the rally, an 852km epic to Cordoba that includes a 593km special stage. In temperatures that are likely to hit 45 degrees Celsius, it will be another extraordinary test of endurance.

The team working on the Wildcat
No rest on rest day

For the mechanics, today was anything but a rest day. The team's mechanics have been working all day to fix the problems that have blighted the team's remaining Wildcat, 'Joy', since the first stage.

"We've had a huge list of things to do," says mechanic Sean Whatley.

"On the Dakar you've got limited resources so you need some lateral thinking. We've done everything we can to improve the cooling for the fuel system, even scavenging parts from our retired cars to improve the efficiency of the radiators.

"Joy has new oil and new tyres and she's ready to go. The next few days are going to be tough for all of us, but we're ready for the challenge."

Saturday 12 January

Today was supposed to be another monster for the Race2Recovery team, but then the rain came and washed away the jeopardy.

The special stage was cut short by flash floods and the team retired to the bivouac in Tucuman, Argentina, in spirits as high as the altitude.

Tomorrow is the Dakar's only rest day. It's an opportunity for the drivers and co-drivers to catch up on sleep, but the mechanics will be hard at work prepping the car for the week ahead.

Taylor updates the media on Race2Recovery's rally
Taylor updates the media on Race2Recovery's rally

"Calling it a 'rest' day is a bit of a misnomer," reckons team manager Andrew 'Pav' Taylor. "For the mechanics, it's probably the busiest day of the rally."

Taylor is an impressive guy. An army medic who was injured in an attack by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, he has led Race2Recovery through an extraordinary week.

"Introductions to the Dakar come no tougher than this," he admits. "It's been hard, but we've kept going.

"These were exceptional guys even before they were injured and they've all shown incredible character.

"Our first target when we arrived was to get to the rest day. We achieved that with one of our Wildcats. Now the next target is to get to the finish in Santiago de Chile on January 20th."

Friday 11 January

Today, the Dakar got high. After six days of dune bashing, the exhausted crews were asked to travel 751km across the Andes in Argentina.

Altitude is a strange companion. You can be the fittest person in the world and still get whacked by an irrational sickness at the mountain top.

This stretch of the Dakar features extraordinary altitudes
This stretch of the Dakar features extraordinary altitudes

According to the satnav system in my Land Rover Discovery support vehicle, we reached a peak altitude today of 4853m, or just under 16,000 feet in old money. At this height, you really can sense and even taste the thinness of the air.

For hundreds of miles, we drifted through a vast, craggy wilderness, crossing from Chile to Argentina and ultimately descending to a bivouac near the characterful town of Salta. For the support crews, it was a day to crack out the cameras, but the competitors had little respite.

Having travelled through the night, Matt O'Hare and Philip 'Barney' Gillespie only just made it to the start of today's stage.

"To be honest, I don't know how we're keeping going," said Gillespie, "but on we go."

Their resilience and determination has been incredible to behold.

Their troublesome Wildcat, 'Joy', suffered fuelling problems en route but they made it to the bivouac in Salta at 2am.

Race2Recovery crosses the border
Race2Recovery crosses the border

The mechanics immediately went to work to fix the problem and the intrepid duo will this morning start stage eight to Tucuman.

Last night, the mood in the bivouac was also lifted by the return of Ben Gott, who crashed out of the rally on the previous stage. X-rays revealed no broken bones and ace mechanic Gott will now work to assist the remaining Wildcat.

"We were cruising and the ditch just came out of nowhere," said Gott. "It was a big accident but we're OK. It's a shame because we going really well, but that's the Dakar."

Yesterday, a French rider, Thomas Bourgin, 25, was tragically killed as he made his way to the start of the seventh stage. He collided with a Chilean police car travelling in the opposite direction on a road section.

The Race2Recovery team wish to express express their great sadness to his family and friends and offer their most sincere condolences.

Thursday 10 January

"We'd just crested a dune and we heard this truck coming towards us," says Gott. "He was hooting his horn but he kept coming and smacked into the back of us."

The left rear corner of the Race2Recovery Wildcat was left bearing a sizeable war wound, but there was no serious damage.

"It could have been much worse," admitted Gott. "In a single smack, your Dakar dream can be over."

Sadly for Gott and Zambon, his words spoken at the midway point of the sixth stage proved prescient. On the following section of special stage, Gott hit a ditch and rolled the Wildcat. A Dutch support truck helped them to escape the car and neither have suffered serious injuries.

The damaged Wildcat
The damaged Wildcat

"We were travelling about 60mph," explained Zambon. "It was a big accident but we're OK, and there was a funny moment. When the Dutch guys pulled me out, one of my legs fell off and the guy panicked. I had to tell him they are prosthetic."

The retirement of a third Wildcat is a disappointing blow for the team.

"Ben has been with the team a long time," said Captain Tony Harris.

"His Dakar experience, driving prowess and undoubted skills as a mechanic have been invaluable."

Mark Zambon is one of two US Marines on the team. He's an inspirational character with a great sense of humour, who really understand the spirit and ambition of Race2Recovery.

The fourth Wildcat, 'Joy', driven by Major Matt O'Hare, got stuck in the dunes and only managed to make it back to the bivouac this morning. They immediately turned around and headed back out onto the next stage.

"Our car, 'Joy' overheats in the sun, so we're having to do the Dakar in the dark," said co-driver Philip 'Barney' Gillespie. "It's frustrating, but we won't give up."

The morale of everyone was buoyed by the news that the team members injured in a road traffic accident are making good progress in Lima, Peru.

"They'll be kept in hospital for a few days," said team manager Andrew 'Pav' Taylor, "but they're doing well and are following our progress. It was a horrible accident and our thoughts are with the families of those who were less fortunate."

The Race2Recovery truck
The Race2Recovery truck

The incident also underlined just how much of a team game the Dakar Rally is.

Race2Recovery comprises 28 people. The mechanics have a nocturnal schedule, working through the night to prepare the cars for the next stage.

Then by day they sleep in the team's support trucks and Land Rover Discoverys, which are driven from bivouac to bivouac. It's a strange, nomadic and hugely demanding existence.

Today the whole team must cross the Andes to the Argentinean town of Salta, reaching a height of almost 3900m. For the Wildcat, this will be a 751km day, including a 218km special stage. For everyone, the rest day on January 13th still feels a long way away.

Wednesday 9 January

Late last night some distressing news reached camp about a road traffic accident involving one of the team's support vehicles. Justin Birchall, who retired from the rally during stage 4, Lee Townsend, a team mechanic, and the team's logistics expert, John Winskill, were involved and have been badly injured.

They've been transferred to a hospital in Lima. Two other vehicles were also involved in the accident and two people received fatal injuries.

In the bivouac, there was an obvious sense of shock. Race2Recovery is a close-knit team who have been through a lot together. Team Principal Quinn Evans gave everyone the news and the team agreed that they'd continue in the rally. Everyone went about their business in a professional manner and this morning, Race2Recovery's two remaining Wildcat's left the bivouac to begin the 6th stage across the Atacama Desert.

Captain Tony Harris, one of the founders of the Race2Recovery team said: "Our hearts go out to the families and relatives of those who have died in this tragic accident and we offer them our condolences and sympathy.

"Our entire team has been struck by the friendliness and support we have received from the Peruvian people since arriving for the Dakar Rally."

* *

"We're going back-to-back, this is badass," yelled US Marine Mark Zambon as he and Ben Gott left for the fifth stage. They'd been heavily delayed by a broken propshaft on the previous morning and had had to drive through the night to complete the 708-km day.

They arrived at the bivouac just in time to start the next stage, not even stepping out of their car as the mechanics replaced a punctured spare wheel. Visibly exhausted but high on adrenaline, the duo were pushing on.

An exhausted Ben Gott
An exhausted Ben Gott

They were not the only ones battling fatigue. Matt O'Hare and Philip 'Barney' Gillespie had also driven heroically across the dunes in the dead of night.

"We're exhausted and it's tough to keep going," said O'Hare, "but I keep thinking about the charities we're supporting. That's what's driving me on."

"I've been able to rest my eyes on the road sections but Matt can't," said Gillespie, who lost his right leg serving in Afghanistan. "He's been amazing."

O'Hare and Gillespie's enthusiasm was tempered by the confirmation that the Wildcat of Tom Neathway and Justin Birchall had been forced to retire from the rally. Climbing a dune in the darkness they had suffered terminal damage to their gearbox and transfer box. The car had to rescued by Race2Recovery's support team in the early hours of this morning.

Neathway and Tony Harris were the key founders of the Race2Recovery project. For both to out in the first week of the rally has been tough on the team.

Gillespie's Wildcat
Gillespie's Wildcat

"It's hard to take because we'd been doing really well," reckoned Neathway. "I'm gutted but being here and taking part in the Dakar has been an amazing experience and I hope we've inspired others to do extraordinary things. Some people said we'd never make it this far, but we proved them wrong."

As I write, the car of Ben Gott and Mark Zambon has returned safely to the bivouac after a great run in stage 5.

O'Hare and Gillespie are currently en route to camp. There'll be a chance to grab some sleep before another challenging day tomorrow when the teams tackle the Atacama Desert. The special stage is 358km long, plus an extra 410km on the road. Stand by for more drama…

Tuesday 8 January

For seven hours the film crew following the Race2Recovery team watched cars descend a mighty dune, cross a wadi (dry river bed) and then scramble up the other side. Some powered on through, some got stuck and had to dig themselves out, and others bore the scars of battle. Rally favourite Robby Gordon arrived with the front of his Hummer missing.

Robby Gordon's damaged Hummer
Robby Gordon's damaged Hummer

It was entertaining stuff, but as the sun set there was still no sign of the team's Wildcats. Darkness fell and just as the cameras were being packed away, the telltale cry of a Land Rover V8 was heard across the valley. Two headlights and then four were spotted tracking down the dune and across the wadi. Minutes later the two cars roared into view.

"It's not over yet," yelled Barney Gillespie as he guided Matt O'Hare passed the crew. Following in convoy was the Wildcat of Justin Birchall and Tom Neathway. Birchall was being typically phlegmatic. "You've just got to get it done, you've just got to get it done," he exclaimed as they sped off into the night.

As I write it's gone midnight and both Wildcats are still battling their way to the bivouac. For the injured servicemen inside, it's a huge mental and physical challenge. "The last couple of days have been incredibly tough," admitted Team Manager Andrew 'Pav' Taylor. "But this is the Dakar. We've come here for the ultimate automotive challenge, so none of this is a surprise."

While Birchall and O'Hare were making decent progress, the Wildcat of Ben Gott and US Marine Mark Zambon was having a tougher time. Mechanical problems had left them lagging behind their team-mates.

Another challenging day for the crew
Another challenging day for the crew

"They've had some troubles but Ben's an exceptional mechanic and has fixed the problems as they've occurred," said Taylor.

"Ben's got the Dakar logo tattooed on his arm and both he and Mark epitomise the spirit of this event."

As the cars motored on, there was some cheer for the team with news that the support truck has been repaired in the desert and is also en route to the bivouac.

It's been quite a day and there'll be no respite tomorrow as the Dakar leaves Peru and heads south into Chile.

Monday 7 January

"At 50km we thought we were out of the rally," reckoned Marine Staff Sergeant Mark Zambon. "We had a major gearbox problem but we worked with the other Wildcat of Justin [Birchall] and Tom [Neathway] and we fixed it in the stage.

"Then the power steering broke. For 250km Ben [Gott] drove through the dunes using only the strength of his forearms. Thankfully, he spent a fair bit of time in the gym over Christmas." Both problems will be fixed overnight.

The day-three scenery
The day-three scenery

After the travails of yesterday, these mishaps seemed almost routine for the team. On a day when many more experienced outfits suffered terminal problems, all four Wildcats made it safely to the bivouac.

As I write, the cars are being fettled by the team's mechanics, while the crews work on their notes for tomorrow's stage, a 717-km epic that includes a 288-km timed section.

The third stage has not been without difficulties for the team's race truck, though, which broke down and is currently being repaired in the dunes.

Everything about this event is epic. There are 459 vehicles in the rally from fifty-three countries and each night, the bivouac is home to 3,000 people. There's a designated canteen, a handful of mediocre showers and sinks that sometimes contain water. Under the lights at night, it looks more like a scene from a Mad Max movie than a motorsport event, but that's all part of the Dakar's charm.

At the end of the day, there was even a moment of light relief when a typo in the official results had Tony Harris leading the rally. A souvenir print out will no doubt be making its way back to the UK at the end of January.

Sunday 6 January

Day two on the Dakar brought more drama for the Race2Recovery team. The Wildcat of Tony Harris and Cathy Derousseaux suffered technical problems on the 242km stage and was assisted by the team's race truck.

The car was repaired and the duo drove on into the night through some of the toughest dunes they'll face in the rally. They made it back to the Bivouac but were concerned they'd missed some way points. The team consulted the rally organisers and although they have incurred significant time penalties, the car has been given a start number for today.

Day two was full of drama
Day two was full of drama

"The last 48 hours have been an emotional rollercoaster," said Harris. "It's been an incredibly tough start for us, but the car's fixed, I've snatched some sleep and we're off to the startline. The team's doing an amazing job. We still have all four cars running and we're learning all the time."

For Matt O'Hare and 'Barney' Gillespie, this was another day of quiet endeavour in their beloved Wildcat 'Joy'. Regular followers of Race2Recovery will appreciate that 'Joy' has often been a troubling cat and today was no different.

Rumours circulated in the Bivouac this evening that the duo were in trouble, but at 21.20, 40 minutes before the official cut-off, Joy rolled into camp.

"She kept overheating every 30km," said Gillespie. "So we'd stop, take a break and let her cool down.

"Matt did a brilliant job and she kept going. The last few kilometres were incredible. I've never seen dunes like that and we were navigating through them in the dark. This is everything I thought the Dakar would be, and then some."

By contrast, Ben Gott and US Marine Mark Zambon had a trouble-free day in their Wildcat.

"It's the mental exhaustion that's the biggest challenge," says Zambon. "You're watching three different instruments for a seven hours during the stage, while also trying to watch the terrain.

Race2Recovery
Race2Recovery machine at full speed

"The Dakar's everything I expected, it's pushing my limits time and again but I know that Ben and I can handle this as a team."

The Anglo-American partnership were joined on the stage by the Wildcat of Justin Birchall and Tom Neathway, who also escaped with no major issues.

Team Principal, Quinn Evans, said: "This was one of the most challenging first days we've ever seen in the Dakar with extremely tough dune sections that caused many experienced competitors a headache.

"As I go to bed many of them are still fighting their way back through the stage. All our teams have done a great job – for Matt and Barney to navigate back through the night was an awesome achievement. "

Today the rally moves south from Pisco to Nazca, which includes a 243km special stage.

Click here for AUTOSPORT's Sam Tremayne's Dakar Rally blog

Saturday 5 January

Dakar veterans will tell you that the rally can bite at any time and on the very first day, it bit the Race2Recovery team.

Just before start of the first special stage, the Wildcat driven by amputee Tony Harris developed a problem with its front differential. The support team sprang into action, removing a propshaft that allowed the car to continue in two-wheel drive.

Today's stage, just 13km long, was designated a prologue, an hors d'oeuvre for the challenges to come. But in the Peruvian desert, there's no such thing as an easy ride.

Running repairs in the desert on stage one
Running repairs in the desert on stage one

Four kilometres into the stage, Harris telephoned the team to report a problem with the rear of the car. For now he was stranded in the desert, reliant upon the assistance of the team's race truck, due to enter the stage in a couple of hours.

The Renault Kerax truck's role in life is to support the quartet of Wildcats. It carries an array of spares to fix the cars on the fly, and can even be employed to tow them to the end of the stage.

In the dunes, the truck's crew of Mark Cullum, Charles Simcock and Chris Ratter replaced the Wildcat's rear differential, allowing the car to continue. With the help of a team from Renault trucks, together they worked their way back to the bivouac, finally arriving at 11pm.

Safely back at base
Safely back at base

"We knew the Dakar was going to be tough," said Harris, "and today we learnt just how tough. It's been a long, long day, but everyone's been fantastic and it shows the spirit of the Dakar that we were helped by another team.

"Tomorrow is another day and we're still in the event. There's a reason they call this the world's toughest rally."

The three remaining Wildcats successfully completed the stage and are looking forwards to tomorrow's challenge, a 327km loop that includes a 242km special stage. It promises to be another epic day.

Friday 4 January

Today has been true to the old cliche about the calm before the storm. With the cars in parc ferme, the team have had a day to wash some clothes, take a deep breath and prepare for the extraordinary challenge that is the Dakar.

Tonight will be their last in a proper bed until the cars reach Santiago de Chile on 20 January, by which time they'll have raced over 5000 miles.

Final preparations before the start...
Final preparations before the start...

"This moment's been a long time coming," says Tom Neathway, a triple amputee who'll co-drive in one of four Wildcat rally raid cars, based on a Land Rover Defender.

"Right now, my main emotion is excitement. Tomorrow there'll be nerves; then there'll be fear. But it's not the rally that I fear; I fear not finishing."

Off-road expert Mark Cullum has led the team's training over the past few months.

"The first special stage is only 13km long so it's a chance to bed in," he explains. "Everyone will be excited but we've drilled into the drivers that they must be restrained, sympathetic and alert. The smoother you are, the more efficient you are. That's how we'll get to the finish."

Mark Cullum has been training the crew
Mark Cullum has been training the crew

Cullum will drive the team's race truck. He'll compete in the rally, but his main focus is to support the rally cars, should they hit trouble.

Tomorrow the rally leaves Lima and tracks 263km south along the Peruvian coast before the start of the stage. The first bivouac of the rally will then be erected in the town of Pisco. By the time the team clamber into their sleeping bags late tomorrow night, they'll at last have a proper understanding of what it means to take part in the toughest rally of them all.

Thursday, January 3

For the Race2Recovery team, today marked the end of the beginning. After almost two years of hard work, four Wildcat rally raid cars past scrutineering, climbed a ceremonial ramp, took the applause of the Peruvian crowd and officially began the world's toughest rally.

The cars have now entered the parc ferme compound and won't be returned to the team until the rally begins on Saturday. The mechanical prep is over: now it's time to dust off the jetlag, repack the bags and look ahead to an event that will span 15 days and over 5000 miles.

Race2Recovery crew
Race2Recovery crew

Since arriving in Lima on December 31, the team has been based at the official rally headquarters on the Pacific Coast.

Looking more like a scene from Mad Max than a traditional motorsport paddock, it's an extraordinary sight. In the heat and the dust, eccentric beach buggies vie for attention with giant trucks, motorbikes and crazy quads.

And in the middle of it all has been a team of injured servicemen trying to grasp the scale of just what they're taking on.

"We've just two days to go before the start, but it's still not really hit me that it's about to happen," says Tom Neathway, a triple amputee who's a co-driver.

"It's all a bit surreal. We've had so much attention: spectators want our autograph and just about every news agency in the world wants to talk to us. It's nuts; it's a hell of a lot bigger than I thought it would be."

Come Saturday and the start of the rally proper, it's only going to get bigger.

  FEATURES FROM JAN 17, 2013 - JAN 23, 2013
Race2Recovery: A different kind of battle
AUTOSPORT's Dakar Rally blog
By Sam Tremayne
Adam Parr turns the page
By Dieter Rencken
HRT: Always doomed to fail?
By Edd Straw
How good was John Surtees?
By Mark Hughes
Bamber's Week
By Jim Bamber
Problems on the Monte - for those able to watch
By David Evans
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