Privateer Ashish Raorane overcame the challenges on his rally-prepped KTM to finish in 57th place
The Africa Eco race is an annual motorsport event that aims to match both the spectacle and the hardships of the Dakar. Small wonder, as it covers almost the same path that the classic ‘Paris to Dakar’ format of the original Dakar rally did, with the small exception that while the original Dakar race started off in Paris, France, the Africa Eco race set off from the Principality of Monaco. This year’s event featured Indian rally rider Ashish Raorane, piloting a KTM 450 EXC enduro bike on which he retrofitted a rally-spec navigation tower. Ashish is one of our country’s top privateer rallyists, with no factory backing. He nearly didn’t make it to the start having being admitted to the hospital a few days before the rally with dengue, but fought through his illness.
The first stage had a long liaison (241.28km) followed by a short stage from Kenitra to Zardal, just 23.18km long. It also saw the longest liaison in this year’s rally from Zardal to Tarda measuring 489.78km. Ashish said “it was a great start” although he made a few wrong navigation calls on the sandy terrain and got lost in the forest track. The second stage started early in chilly weather, -3 degrees to be precise. Pal Anders Ullevalsetter won the 333km stage from Tarda to Mhamid, followed by Lyndon Poskitt who came in 8:10 (mm:ss) later and Alessandro Botturi who came in 9:35 (mm:ss) later. Ashish Raorane came in 24th in the stage, courtesy of some navigation errors in the mostly sandy stage dotted by dunes. Attributing his errors to a lack of practice (as he had been participating in Bajas so far), he added that he was nevertheless happy with his progress, and was coming to terms with his bike as well.
The third stage was one of the longest in this year’s rally at 516km, going from Mhamid to Assa. It was extremely versatile in terms of landscapes and challenges, especially near Erg Chegaga, the first real dunes of this edition. Ashish Raorane came in 27th in the stage, as he admitted that he made a few mistakes in the initial dune sections, causing him to lose time. Alessandro Botturi came out on top in this stage, followed by Pal Anders Ullevalsetter, with third place occupied by Jensen Felix, who had finished fourth in the previous stage. Stage four was the penultimate day that the race would be in Morocco, and went 385km from Assa to Smara, past gravel tracks which were fairly fast on average with just a few rocky parts. That said, navigation was key in this stage with several delicate points, especially on a large and very fast chott (dried lakebed) where it was of utmost importance to stay on course. The end of this leg was rather complicated in navigation with a very difficult wadi crossing. Due to the tricky stage, Raorane had as many as three close calls, and dropped two places, finishing in 27th place. In his own words he “felt fortunate to stay on two wheels.” Both Ullevalsetter and Botturi made errors about 40km from the finish, causing British rider Lyndon Poskitt to bag the win. The race moved out of Morocco via the 473km high-speed trails from Smara to Dahkla in the south. However, this presented a unique challenge to the racers, thanks to the many parallel tracks and a lack of landform. Raorane set a stunning pace, finishing the stage in 17th place, climbing up nine positions, despite getting lost about 40km before the refuelling spot near the 247km marker. Stage 5 was followed by a well-deserved rest day, which gave crews a chance to relax and the mechanics some leeway to tune the bikes before the next stages in Mauritania.
Stage 6 started from Dakhla and went on to Shami with a total distance of 560km including a 177km special stage. The route, very sandy, evolved along the Banc d'Arguin, and even though it did not involve any particular technical difficulties, navigation was a tough exercise, and gave a taste of the Mauritanian stages to come. Raorane showed great pace again and was able to hold his position, finishing in 17th place once again. For the first time in 12 years, an Australian won the special, with Matt Sutherland besting Giovanni Gritti and Paolo Lucci. Stage 7 from Shami to Aidzidine saw the racers tackle a distance of 478km, primarily covered in sand and dunes. It required a lot of navigation due to the lack of any existing tracks. Ashish Raorane lost a few places in the last stage and finished 23rd. Alessandro Botturi won the stage on his Yamaha ahead of Pal Anders Ullevalsetter and Paolo Lucci. The eighth stage went from Aidzidine to Tidjikia with a distance of 451km. It took the racers through a mix of tarmac, stone, sand and dunes. Raorane was in for an especially tough stage after technical difficulties on his bike prevented him to go beyond 175km. He was stranded and had to spent the night of 15 and 16 January in the dunes. It took him an astonishing 31 hours to get back to the bivouac. Alessandro Botturi won the stage followed by Pal Anders Ullevalsetter.
Measuring in at 469km, Stage 9 in Tidjikia was the only loop stage this year with a similar composition of tarmac, stone, sand and dunes, as stage 8. With his bike not having returned to the bivouac, Ashish Raorane fell to 54th place picking up further penalties but staying in the standing. Alessandro Botturi won the stage followed by Pal Anders Ullevalsetter and Paolo Lucci. Tidjikja to Idini was the longest stage on this year’s rally, at 600km, dominated by sand and dunes with tarmac near the start and end of the 10th stage. Ashish Raorane started in 59th place and placed 58th after the gruelling day. Alessandro Botturi continued his dominance in first place with Pal Anders Ullevalsetter behind him.
Stage 11 from Idini to St Louis was 474km with a large chunk of tarmac on the second half of the stage along with sand and dunes in the first. Raorane got his bike back just half an hour before the start. It was important for him to start so he did, although he could not make it all the way to the end of the stage, he was still in the overall rankings. He made up one place in the stage and finished 57th. Alessandro Botturi led Pal Anders Ullevalsetter by 3 minutes and 59 seconds. The final stage from St Louis to Dakar started early with a total distance of 300km, it comprised mostly of tarmac with some tracks along with small section of sand and dunes. Ashish Raorane finished in 57th place overall with a total time of 133:02:16 (hh:mm:ss).
It is no small feat to take part in the Africa Eco Rally, let alone complete it and it is extremely inspiring when one of our own countrymen has gone on to finish the rally, without any factory backing. From being in the hospital days before the rally start, to having a difficult race — the challenges were many but Raorane managed to come out on top.