Drivers rev up for the 6th Peking to Paris endurance rally

Hong Kong teams part of the extreme sport version of motorsport

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 June, 2016, 3:39pm
UPDATED : Friday, 10 June, 2016, 4:44pm

There will be 110 cars parked by the Great Wall near Beijing on Sunday, with drivers bristling to begin the 6th Peking to Paris Motor Challenge. Judging from past records, however, about 30 per cent of them will not reach the finish line.

Teams in the almost 13,700km endurance rally, which takes 36 days to complete, will face some of the world’s most challenging terrain, ranging from mountains to desert. They will cross their first border into Mongolia, then spend a 23-day stretch in Russia before winding through the European Alps and, with luck, end in the French capital. These are not state-of-the-art motorsports vehicles, however. The line-up comprises classics produced no later than 1975, including a category of pre-1941 models.

The rally is an extreme sport version of motorsport, says businessman and amateur racing car driver Nigel Farmer, a member of one of three Hong Kong teams taking part. Farmer and team 76 co-driver Steve Lovell will be at the wheel of a 1971 Ford Escort Mexico Mk1, which they bought two-and-a-half years ago and had extensively customised.

“We were determined to buy something British and ultimately from the ’70s, when we were schoolboys. The Mexico has a fantastic rally pedigree, having won the London to Mexico Rally in 1970, which is why it has the name. So for us this was choice No 1,” Farmer says.

“It was then a completely standard road-going Mexico. It was bought privately in UK and our only consideration was the frame, chassis and bodywork be fairly rust-free so we didn’t need major repairs.”

Nevertheless a great deal of work has gone into the car, including stripping down and rebuilding the engine, a wider replacement axle installed, and new brakes, electrics and shock absorbers.

“A 0.7cm flat sheet of steel has been put under the car to protect the underside from rocks, and the bull bars and roll cage were added. The back seat was removed and the interior designed for storage of parts and tools. Now it’s a brand new car, immaculate in every sense and better than the factory-built ones.”

Farmer and Lovell have already put the Mexico through its paces, having taken part in last year’s 10-day Sahara Challenge, from Madrid to Marrakesh.

“This was hugely valuable to us in understanding the demands that would be put on both the car and us. Afterwards, the car then had to be partially rebuilt again, but it was still worthwhile,” Farmer says.

The original Peking to Paris race was held in 1907 in a bid to prove that a car could endure any journey, and that the horse-drawn carriage was therefore redundant. It was won by Italian nobleman Scipione Borghese, driving an Itala 35/45 HP. The event was rebooted by the Endurance Rally Association in the late 1990s and takes place every three years.

Farmer says race conditions will be toughest in Mongolia and the Gobi Desert, with high daytime temperatures and freezing nights. “A lot of cars will just shake apart crossing the desert, hopefully not ours. There is also the risk of torrential rain – it was raining in the Gobi last week.”

Navigation through the dunes will add to the challenge, and all teams are equipped with satellite phones and an emergency worldwide tracking beacon in case they get lost or stuck in the sand.

Although it may be a relief to reach Russia in one piece, the focus of the race will then switch to high mileage. “We are crossing the whole of Russia and driving eight to nine hours a day, so that is tough on a modern car, let alone older ones,” Farmer says.

For the Russian leg, the association has also organised speed trials on race tracks and closed roads.

Support is crucial for the entire journey so the association has deployed three teams of mechanics to trail the vehicles in case of emergency along with medical teams and army-trained trauma surgeons.

The drivers will take along a large number of spare parts, such as carburetors, alternators, fuel and brake lines, pumps and cooling systems, which they will be able to fix themselves if the need arises.

“Any major contact with something such as a stone or another car that leads to us seriously damaging drive shafts or half shafts is a big concern because we are not carrying replacement shafts; they are just too heavy,” Farmer says. “Other than that, punctures are a big worry because tyres can easily get damaged driving off-road.”

Team 76 will be blogging throughout the race at lexyp2p.blogspot.hk, signal permitting. Farmer and Lovell, as well as other team members, can also be followed on the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge page of the Endurance Rally Association’s website at www.endurorally.com

The caption of the car conversion picture was corrected to read ‘before’