Liege-Agadir-Liege Motor Endurance Rally
The following article by Ian Hyne featured in the January 1998 edition of Kitcars International magazine and is reproduced by kind permission. All text © Kitcars International Ltd.1998. All rights reserved
Last month in a piece on Peter Davis' Liege sports car I said that he's a lovely bloke, instantly likeable and a total enthusiast. After fourteen hectic days scurrying hither and thither in keeping with the emphatic dictate of the Liege Agadir Liege route book, I can add that beneath the affable bonhomie lies a mildly sadistic streak that found a myriad outlets in the demands made of cars and competitors on this unique and historic event.
On paper the idea seemed pretty straightforward; drive from Liege across France and Spain, catch a ferry to Morocco, do a quick circuit on tarmac roads and return by a slightly different route. Things would be mildly complicated by the need to traverse three mountain ranges, each of them twice and the fact that some roads would be in less than perfect condition. Add to that the fact that the considerable distances would have to be covered in accordance with pretty strict time schedule and still the challenge didn't seem insurmountable as the time requirements were calculated on a relaxed rate of advance of just 50 kph.
But that view failed to consider the Peter element. He found mountains where the detailed Michelin maps said there were none. He found roads that were almost impassable and not just in the more remote regions of Morocco. He found roads on which progress was reduced to around 20 kph and the consequently extended time in the saddle made time controls harder to hit, brought tiredness into the equation and increased the scope for both driving and navigational errors as well as reducing the time available for vehicle maintenance.
Naturally there were low points exacerbated by heat, cold, rain and fatigue but at journey's end, there wasn't a single competitor who won't be back for the next one just as long as they get a couple of weeks break. In addition, all will be fully clued up on exactly how the event runs.
Each competitor has a number and starts in numerical order according to that number past the official start time. Thus we were number 17 so started at 9.30 on day 1 + 17 minutes being 9.47. Arrival times at control points are calculated by dividing the distance to be covered by 50, 50 kph being the average speed of the event. If you clock in bang on time, you maintain Gold Award status. If you clock in during the hour following your scheduled time, you still maintain Gold Award status but the minutes eaten into that hour are used by the organisers to vary the start order for the following days. If you miss a control either through accident, mechanical breakdown or other unforeseen occurrence you are demoted to Silver Award status. Drop another and it's Bronze after which there is only a finisher's certificate to go for. But that's still some achievement as it entails covering a set route spread over 8000 Kms (5000 miles) and makes demands of car and crew that require a number of personal and physical qualities to meet.
The event started with a bang as it involved half a lap of the Spa Francorchamps Grand Prix circuit, much of which, including the start and finish straight, is public road. I bet the traffic police have a field day down there! Richard Winter in the Banks Europa has raced bikes on this circuit and told us all the tricky bits before comprehensively buggering up the second chicane, executing a neat 360 over the grass and only failing to carry out the perfect recovery manoeuvre by failing to find second for his return to the track. But no harm done. Pen Roberts took the wheel of the Westfield for this one and following the exhilaration of a flat out blast down Eau Rouge, also got a major slide on for the same corner. Recovery was masterful at which point a wayward Lomax drifted across our bows but collision was avoided and we finished with no problems. Chris Hanley was another who came to mild grief taking to the grass and delivering a severe thump to the rear swing arm of his Lomax 223. The result was a bent arm that later cost a tyre due to rubbing on the bodywork but the situation was saved by Dave Ham and the crew aboard the Barra bus who used their welding equipment and a stout section of a steel gate to effect repairs that lasted the distance.
We were supposed to stop at the end of this little foray to be sent off on the route proper according to our start times but Norman Durban in the Teal was so fired up he just took off and nobody saw him again until we reached the first night's halt at Nevers.
As for us, day one bought problem one when hoofing down a twisting hill section, Roberts remarked that the brakes were increasingly ineffective. Matters came to a head on a downhill approach to a T junction where gave the instruction to turn left. Roberts applied the brakes, locked up and executed a half spin coming to rest facing right. I kept my cool. "I said left mate!"
Treading warily until we reached the control point at Mesnil St Plere, we took the opportunity of early arrival to pull off the road and have a look. All that had happened was the loss of fluid from a loose union on the driver's side front caliper. We then set off in search of "huile des freins" which we eventually found at a village garage which happily lent its forecourt for the ancient ceremony of brake bleeding. Problem solved we joined the rest of the cars, booked in and had a quick sandwich before tackling the next stage down to the evening halt at Nevers.
In truth day 1 was a gentle introduction to the rigours to come. We were on great roads. virtually free of any other traffic and made great time reveling in the Westfield's performance which we could use in a manner just not possible at home. After watching some interesting anatomical French TV, we had a kip and awoke to find we had moved up the board to start eighth.
Day 2 was more of the same as we slingshotted across France through the gloriously scenic Dordogne to the Hotel Formule 1 at Tarbes but the distance and time at the wheel was already taking its toll. The evidence lay in the fact that the only restaurant open was a mile away and, rather than drive, most people took advantage of the marshals' taxi service. A damn good scran though that set us up well for the morrow when we had moved up the start order to second although we were still unsure of quite how we had managed it.
Day 3 took us into Spain over the mist shrouded tops of the Pyrennes. As well as tortuous bends, rough road surfaces and wet and slippery conditions we had the added obstacle of wandering livestock that made their own contribution to conditions underfoot or wheel. Naturally the bureau de change was closed as was everything else at this lofty border crossing but the first control wasn't too far away and we arrived just as the local OAP's tea dance was reaching its shattering climax.
From there the warmth and sun returned to chase us across central Spain to the night halt at the luxury Hotel Cuidad in Cuenca. En route we were surprised at the run down nature and poverty stricken aspects of an area of Spain of which most people are unaware. The EEC's contribution to overcoming the region's problems seemed to comprise of road building on a massive scale which didn't seem terribly vital in view of the almost total lack of traffic other than crazy British endurance rallymen. Naturally our route lay over the older road sections which gave the cars a good pounding and consequently made the luxury hotel that much more welcome.
By now a serious problem had arisen. The rally was a piece of cake compared to the rigours of duff foreign fags usually selected on the basis of the daftest name. It was all to do with the fact that you had to drive miles at Dover to find the duty free shop. As we were in a hurry, Roberts joined the inevitable queue for the coffees while I took our boarding cards and got the loot only to be told that I couldn't do that so I threw my teddy in the comer and stomped off 'sans fags'. The coffee wasn't clever either especially at 80 pence a cup! But we thrived on such privations and sallied on with a pack of L&Ms.
Day 4 was a long one. 480 Kms down to an early evening halt at a cracking roadside restaurant for a damn good meal. The run down was again on first class, traffic free roads but there was a hell of a lot of right-left-right-left twists up and down hills that required a great deal of concentration as the hours rolled by especially as periodic glances at the speedometer revealed speeds around 80 even on the uphill sections.
Fed and watered we had a 324 Km hike down to Algeciras for a delightful kip on the dock as we awaited the ferry for Tangier. The onset of night increased the concentration necessary especially as the scenery was now immaterial. The only aspect that came across loud and clear was the terrific contrast between inland Spain and the hugely developed coastal areas catering for the tourist trade. Blasting up one hill we suddenly saw a car parked at an odd angle just off the road and thought someone had crashed. Turning round to investigate we found John von Scharfenberg and Jonathan Bowman in the Marlin Sportstar having a kip. For our part, we ran on to Algeciras and spent an entertaining half hour trying to get into the port where we parked up and found salvation in the lorry drivers' cafe. I can't remember what we had but we had two of them before giving the car a quick once over and having a kip.
We had an extended wait here due to the need to get all the slower cars into Algeciras in time for the ferry but the time was far from wasted. Mark Fisher had an alternator problem and took the opportunity to take it out, strip and overhaul it before putting it back to record success. Things were not quite so easy for Dick Brenton in the Bond Bug who's clutch release bearing had virtually fallen apart. On the face of it you would have thought that was it that but such events bring out the creative and inventive talent in people and all pitched in to attempt a solution. Dave Ham from the Barra bus and Richard Winter in the Europa were the stars of the show knocking up a home made release bearing from a few scraps of steel and a couple of bolts. Once welded up and fitted as the ferry headed for Tangier, it went the whole way even though the clutch was on its last legs at journey's end.
The Moroccan ferry was great. We knew we were in for an entertaining voyage when we reasched the passenger accommodation to find lots of little bugs running about all over the floor! The bogs didn't work, there was no paper and the basins were full of stagnant water containing small eco systerns of their very own. However, all was forgiven when we found Dunhill fags in the duty free, 200 of which were purchased for just £8 sterling! Bliss.
As we headed for Tangier I took a turn on deck and was surprised to see a few well laden rowing boats heading in the opposite direction. Apparently these were Moroccans so impressed with Morocco that they were willing to risk all to get out of the place.
After waiting several hours for customs and immigration formalities we eventually emerged into Tangier and immediately saw why. I was last here over 25 years ago and though I loved the place, Tangier was awful. A conversation with a Moroccan lad in the docks elicited the information that it had changed greatly in the intervening years and was now a modem city. Sadly, 2 yards outside the dock gates I knew it was, if anything, even worse.
The directions for getting out of the place were complicated by the general Morocan disregard for any attempt at traffic regulation, a situation exacerbated by the introduction of donkeys, date sellers and bewildered, disinterested policemen weaving among the traffic and an unexpected bonus in the form of rock throwing kids. The first brick hit us within half a mile and the second one wasn't long in coming. At this point we saw a long road leading out of the place and instinctively took it dodging the intermittent barrage as we went. Free of the enemy, we pulled over and consulted Michelin's fine map and planned our way back onto the set route but the afternoon was spent dodging a serious barrage of missiles such that Roberts was unable to produce his piece of cloth. "Right. That's IT! I'm getting out of this bloody place and never coming back!"
When he calmed down we carried on and as night fell, we were hit by another brick that took us off the road into the only bog for hundreds of miles in any direction.
Initial thoughts were of being sitting ducks but the contrast of the place arrived in the form of a bunch of lads who couldn't have been more helpful. A quick attempt at lifting it out failed so they sent for a car with a tow hitch and pulled us out. The bloke in charge intimated that he made his living pulling cars out of this very morass and was hugely happy when I gave him 100 Diram which equates to the princely sum of £6.50. Try giving a tip like that when you next break down on the M1 !
Back on the road or what passed for it, the final stage of the night was a tortuous section to a place called Moulay Idriss, the turning for which appeared to lead into someone's back garden. The presence of a herd of diverse livestock did little to confirm the right route but we pressed onward and upward over a twisting devilish road that was not so much bumpy as very narrow and intricately undulating such that the lights picked out a constant procession of potentially lethal potholes. The added danger lay in the broken edges of the road which offered drops of around six to nine inches if you fell off. By now, due to our navigational detour and time spent up to our axles in mud we were very tight on time and I was torn between the need to press on tempered with the necessity for caution but at least the stoning had abated and we could concentrate on the job in hand. The road seemed to go on forever but we made it into the control with minutes to spare and were grateful to follow the marshall's car to the Hotel Atlantique.
On arrival, everyone was pretty wound up following a fraught afternoon and a beer and a sit down would have done wonders but the Moroccans are masters at buggering about and mindless bureaucracy and required passports and form filling in triplicate. We had already filled them out on the ferry and at the docks and everyone thought they had filled out enough forms so, in the face of the fresh request, the required information was tinged with facetiousness.
Eventually we got the room key and set off in search of our room hotly pursued by a porter who made the fatal mistake of rushing up behind Roberts and grabbing his bag. Totally unsurprised at being mugged in a hotel corridor, our man had by now honed his response technique such that nobody again approached him from downwind!
Morocco must have once done a deal with a shower manufacturer who omitted to supply the wall brackets as the country is bereft of them but nothing could keep us from the bar where we only had to endure Morocco's answer to the pub singer for half an hour before he was carted off for humane destruction. The grub was OK though and we had a good kip before rising to visit the car park to find the local car valleter equipped with three baked bean cans and a scrubbing brush! He did good trade though and removed several pounds of mud from the Westfield.
Hugh Newhouse thought he had done well to tip a bloke to keep an eye on his car overnight. Ali Berber accepted the tip, nicked Hugh's trainers and buggered off.
Prior to setting off on the road for Marrakesh most people were getting tooled up to make spirited response to the expected onslaught of Moroccan rubble but other than a few isolated incidents, it never materialised nor did it for the rest of the trip. However, Nigel Kidby in the Bellini Special took a hit from three young shepherds who, when he stopped and reversed up, fled across the fields. Nigel's reply was to hop out and drive their flock onto the road before getting back in his car and driving off. Nice one Nigel!
The day's destination was Marrakesh via the mid way control point at a place called Kenifra. Turning off the main road to tackle the rough stage leading to the control, we soon met the marshalls coming the other way with the news that the road was blocked due to a pretty severe landslide thus the control point would be on the main road although cars could continue if they wanted to. By now well aware of how easy it would be to cause severe damage to a car with a moment's inattention on a poor road, we,along with almost everybody else, turned back but a few carried on to emerge at the other end reckoning it wasn't that bad at all.
Our decision had been influenced by the fact that it was a short 150 Km stage which, by now, had aroused our suspicions concerning the likely terrain. Anyway, with that out of he way we had a pretty straight 350 Km run down to Marrakesh the only problem being that I had picked up an eye infection from sun, dust and the noxious fumes emanating from Moroccan trucks. They seem to run on a diet of diesel and paraffin which ensures that you smell them before you see them. The only saving grace was that we didn't have to stay
behind them for long. Arriving at the hotel and being jammed into a minuscule car park like sardines, Richard Winter lent me some Optrex which improved matters no end.
The Hotel Redouane was a cracker. Normally if you get the key to room 401 it's a pretty safe bet that it's on the fourth floor. Not that simple in Morocco. We were on the second floor which was handy as the lift seemingly failed to work for foreigners. Taking the stairs I emerged onto our floor to be confronted by a hand drawn sign showing a bloke in traditional robes running up the stairs, each floor showing the rooms that were on it. The fifth floor was the bar and the sixth the restaurant after which Mustapha emerged onto the roof amid simulated flames. I can only assume the advice in the event of fire was to follow Mustapha who had jumped off the roof!
Down in the car park we, along with a good few others, needed to engage in a spot of car maintenance so naturally equipped ourselves with a few cold beers and set to. Apparently this is not the done thing in a Muslim country where drinking alcohol in public is severely frowned upon so we hid it and took furtive swigs when the policemen strategically placed ensure a full complement of cars and equipment were still in the car park in the morning, periodically popped off for a fag and a beer!
Those who reckoned their cars would be OK for another day took off to the Souk with a couple of the hotel staff as guides. Dave Low was sold a rotten dagger he didn't really want, a few eyes rolled as they took in the belly dancers but the general consensus seemed to be that you were better off in Tescos.
Day 6 was crunch day as the route reached the halfway stage with the morning's run to a control point referred to as Agadir junction. For some reason we weren't as bright as we should have been in the morning as we didn't react with any particular suspicion to the fact that the first leg to the Agadir control was a short 173 Km hop. On paper we had bags of time to do it but we had overlooked Peter's devious mind and talent for the selection of tortuous terrain.
Anyway, off we went being among the few who managed to get out of Marrakesh on the right road en route for the foothills of the Atlas mountains. Once we started climbing, we knew we were going to be hard put to reach the control in time and started to push. Running with us were Richard Winter and lan Wilson in the Banks Europa and John von Sharfenburg and Jonathan Bowler in the Marlin Sportster alias the Wall Brothers, a nickname seemingly earned when they left tyre prints quite some way up a wall on a tight bend! The previous day Dave Hammon and Cath Woodman in the other Banks Europa had taken a stone in the radiator but had kept going by periodic stops to replenish the water. The plan had been to fix it in Marrakesh but due to the lack of space in the car park, they had decided to leave it until the lunch stop the following day. Halfway through the first stage they stopped for a refill and though we all stopped to ensure they were OK, we were soon away again as time was pressing. As the road wound ever more tightly and the surface became ever more treacherous, it never occurred to us that this was where we had expected snow. The Atlas mountains are over 13000 ft at their highest point but we didn't go anywhere near the peaks. That said, the roads were quite bad enough at half that distance above sea level and at the top, instead of snow, we found a bloke selling fossils and semi precious stones! We stopped for about thirty seconds to snap a scenic pic of the route down after which Roberts got a serious move on as by now, we were running late.
Sod's Law dictates that as soon as you incur a time deficit, traffic appears from all directions and we did our dodgiest overtakes coming down that mountain. Sure, nothing is worth driving off a cliff for but annoyed by our failure to react to the information we were given and kicking ourselves for dawdling along when we should have got stuck in the blood was up. And we weren't alone. The lack of time remaining dawned on the two Johns in the Marlin as well as Richard and lan in the Banks Europa at almost the same time and we just blasted on trying to keep pace with the Marlin which had a 50 bhp power advantage from its BMW straight six, triple Weber fed motor. (210 bhp against our 160) At !east with them to follow, we could benefit by blasting past trucks behind them without incurring the time penalty of having to slow up and follow while waiting for a passing slot.
Sadly one of the most dramatically scenic sections of the whole trip passed in a blur as we struggled to hit the control. It would have been a double pain if we had missed it but we made it, albeit 17 minutes over our scheduled time.
According to the organisers' address prior to the start of the event, competitors would have done well to reach the half way stage with their Gold awards intact.
Although we, along with most of the other cars had managed that, we were still annoyed at our 17 minutes of lateness which we feared would have a drastic effect on the starting order but we were consoled to some extent by the fact that most of our closest competitors had also been late in. The only car ahead of us that was bang on time was Nomman and David Durban in the Teal. Having started in number 1 slot, they could only go backwards in the order by making a mistake and, though Norman had twice been booked for speeding adding £150 to the cost of his trip, thus far they had been spot on time the whole way.
Fortunately for us, they made the mistake on the very next section but the details will have to wait for next month's edition where you can read about reaching the edge of the Sahara desert, crazy English enduro men upsetting French hunters in the Pyrenees, how we free wheeled into an accident when almost out of fuel, how we kipped in a barn with no doors and had a shower with a frog!