Indianapolis and NASCAR racing legend Robby Gordon is to join the Volkswagen team for the forthcoming Dakar Rally, it is announced today (Thurs).
The 35-year-old American will join three previous Dakar Rally winners – Juha Kankkunen, Jutta Kleinschmidt and Bruno Saby – in a four-car Volkswagen squad on the Dakar, renowned as one of the world’s toughest rallies.
Though better known for his racing exploits, which include sports car class wins in the Daytona 24 Hours and numerous single-seater and stock car victories, Gordon is no stranger to off-road competition and is a two-time winner of the most famous US rally, the Baja 1000.
Volkswagen Motorsport director Kris Nissen believes the Californian will be a major asset: ‘With his diversity of experience Robby fits perfectly. He convinced us of his qualities during a test in September, and we consider him to be the perfect addition to our three established drivers. We now have one of the most experienced, talented and convincing driver line-ups in the field.’
Gordon and his team-mates will be driving the fearsome four-wheel-drive Race-Touareg, which is powered by a 260 PS, 2.5-litre turbodiesel engine. Successfully introduced on the 2004 Dakar Rally, the Race-Touareg has undergone a year-long test and development programme which culminated in a 14-day, 5000km endurance marathon in Morocco completed earlier this month.
Nissen says the Morocco tests went well: ‘The Race-Touareg proved to be at its best during the continuous two-week endurance and now, five weeks before the start of the Dakar Rally, our drivers and the entire team have made good use of this final opportunity to test in accurate conditions.’
The Dakar gets underway from Barcelona on 31 December and, after three short Spanish stages, crosses to Morocco for the start of the rally proper on 3 January. There are 13 special stages in North Africa, from Rabat through Mauritania and Mali, ahead of the final stage in the Senegalese capital on 16 January.
Five of the stages are longer than 500km, and the longest is 660km. In total the rally covers nearly 9000km, a greater distance than the sum of all the races held during the entire Formula 1 season.
Gordon knows what is required of him: ‘Excellent endurance qualities are a necessity,’ said Robby. ‘The car must be 100 per cent reliable and the driver and co-driver have to fend for themselves…’ Endurance is something he has demonstrated: his 1989 win in the Baja 1000 was the result of a solo 16-hour drive.
Gordon will be making his Dakar debut, but Volkswagen’s other team drivers have enormous collective experience of the event. Finnish driver Kankkunen is a four-time World Rally Champion and was Dakar Rally winner in 1998. He is co-driven by his countryman Juha Repo.
Kleinschmidt, from Germany, was in 2001 the first-ever female winner of the Dakar. Jutta and her Italian co-driver Fabrizia Pons drove their Race-Touareg to a stage victory on the ’04 Dakar and followed this up with third place on August’s Rally d’Orient.
Frenchman Saby was the Dakar victor in 1993, and his co-driver and countryman Michel Perin was aboard the winning car three years in succession between 1994 and ’96. Saby took sixth place for Volkswagen on this year’s Dakar.
All four drivers face not only some of the world’s toughest conditions but also new rules which will make their lives trickier. Automatic tyre pressure systems have been outlawed for 2005, so drivers must guess correctly before each stage the optimum tyre pressures required and, if they lose traction on soft ground, must manually adjust the tyre valves. ‘The drivers who have correctly judged the pressure beforehand, or who compensate for a lack of traction with driver talent, will be suitably rewarded,’ says Saby.
The Dakar Rally is a massive logistical exercise for Volkswagen: the team numbers in excess of 60 – drivers, technicians, management and other personnel, including a team doctor and a physiotherapist – and requires a back-up squad of nine Touaregs and nine service trucks, two of which are Race-Trucks actually competing in the rally. Backing for the team comes from O2, Castrol, Red Bull and LuK.
Nissen is quietly optimistic about the team’s chances: ‘We are really looking forward to the Dakar Rally and are intrigued by the demands. This competition is an incredible challenge for man and machine. We are well prepared for some strong competition.’