If they ever create a 12-step program for addicts of the Dakar rally, the three Canadians slated to start the 2013 race Jan. 5 in Peru should form the Canadian chapter.
Don Hatton of Duncan, B.C., is the most experienced motorcycle rally racer in Canada and he's entered the Dakar four times previously, but has never made it past the fourth day of the 15-day event.
The newest to get hooked are David Bensadoun and Patrick Beaulé, both of Montreal. They tasted success on their first attempt in January, 2012, together as driver and co-driver respectively, becoming the only Canadians to finish the race on four wheels. This year, they're on the same Aldo Racing team again, but with Beaule on a motorcycle and Bensadoun in a new car with a new co-driver.
All three share a sanity-defying addiction to the most gruelling and dangerous motor race in the world, which only eight Canadians have finished, six of them on motorcycles.
"It's a drug," Bensadoun admits.
The annual motorcycle, ATV, car and transport truck race began in 1979 as a race from Paris to Dakar, Senegal. For the fifth year in a row, the race is being held in South America, starting in Peru on Jan. 5, dipping into Argentina, and finishing in Chile on Jan. 20 after more than 8,000 kilometres racing over massive dunes, talcum-soft sand and rocky plains.
The key to finishing isn't to go fast, it's to keep the "snowball" small. The "snowball" is when one mistake leads to others that conspire to end the race early. A mechanical breakdown or driving error takes time and energy to overcome, so the racer goes faster to compensate with less concentration. That opens the risk of more mistakes, damage and delays, arriving later at the end-of-day camp, which means the mechanics have less time to repair the car, and racers have less time to eat, sleep and recover. The next day, more exhausted and with the vehicle in worse shape, the likelihood of calamity is greater.
Only a handful of elite racers are vying for a podium spot; most are just trying to be among the one-third of starters who finish the race. This year, organizers have promised the toughest Dakar yet, with three of the most challenging days right at the beginning, and the rest and repair day pushed to Day 9.
Don Hatton, happy-go-unlucky
The 54-year-old insurance-brokerage owner has completed more motorcycle endurance rallies than any other Canadian, but he's been cursed when it comes to the one rally he's always dreamed of finishing.
The first time he signed up for the Dakar in 2008, it was cancelled because of terrorist threats. The second time in 2009, he nearly died in a 140 km/h crash on the fourth day. The third time in 2010, he broke his hand in training and contracted H1N1 before the race, nearly lost his motorcycle at the start when the one next to it went up in flames, and then he rode through food poisoning only to have fuel problems end his race on the third day. Three weeks before the start of his fourth attempt in 2012, he was injured by a falling hay bale and left unable to ride.
For this, his fifth attempt, a finish is too lofty a goal. "My big focus this time is to make it past day five," he says, displaying his characteristic self-deprecation. "Anything past day five is virgin territory for me."
His bike began life as a stock Husqvarna TE449, but don't think less of if because it has street plates. The TE449 is the basis for the bikes the Husqvarna-sponsored riders will mount in the Dakar, and the bikes that won the World Enduro Championships.
David Bensadoun, the executive racer
After becoming the first Canadian to finish the Dakar on four wheels with Beaulé in 2012, coming 39th out of 171 starters and 78 finishers, the 42-year-old president of Aldo Shoes and son of the company founder has a new car, a new co-driver, and a new goal.
"If I can just drive 5 per cent faster, we should be able to get into the top 30," he says.
To help achieve that, he has as co-driver Paul Round from Britain. For the past 15 years, Round has been building cars just to race the Dakar, and he's competed himself as driver and co-driver in 13 Dakars.
Last year, Bensadoun drove a custom-built Desert Warrior 1 from Round's company, Rally Raid UK. This year, he's racing the next-generation Desert Warrior 3 prototype in a partnership between Aldo Racing and Rally Raid to refine and market the new car.
Like Bensadoun's first Dakar car, it features a custom tube chassis and frame, a six-cylinder, three-litre diesel taken from the BMW X5 SUV with an oversized turbo to produce about 300 hp, and a ZF six-speed transmission to send power to a four-wheel-drive system from a Land Rover Defender.
While most racing disciplines are built around horsepower and torque, Dakar vehicles are built around suspension to soak up the rough ground at speed and differentials that can find grip in slippery terrain. Where the Desert Warrior 1 had straight live-axle suspension, the Desert Warrior 3 has independent double wishbone suspension with eight inches of travel at each corner. The Land Rover front and rear locking differential has been replaced by a more dependable Ford nine-inch design popular in Nascar and drag racing, with independent front, centre and rear locking.
And it's shed its resemblance to a Lada, instead taking its design cues from the Land Rover Evoque.
Patrick Beaulé, living the impossible dream
He's won most of the major Canadian offroad motorcycling events, and works as a sales manager for KTM motorcycles, the Austrian manufacturer that dominates the Dakar.
But his lifelong dream of entering the race seemed unattainable until Bensadoun offered him the co-driver's seat in his car for 2012.
Before they had completed their first Dakar, however, he was plotting to return on a motorcycle. Now the 37-year-old is trying to become the first Canadian to finish the race twice, and the first to finish with both a car and a motorcycle.
As Bensadoun's co-driver, he had only had to show up and navigate. This year, he's had to organize every aspect himself, from raising the $135,000 budget to sourcing a rally-worthy ride and the parts to keep it going to the end. The funds have come from title sponsor Aldo Racing, KTM Canada and other smaller supporters, plus his own fundraising.
"I'm going there with the money of all my friend and family, who gave me money and bought T-shirts," he says. "They know that this is my life's dream."
He's still $29,000 short, which he hopes to make up from another secondary sponsor, and individual race fans who can buy T-shirts or sponsor kilometres of the race through his Facebook page.
A lot of those funds have gone into purchasing his $45,000 race bike, a KTM 450RR designed specifically to meet the requirements of the Dakar. KTM makes only 100 each year, and sells them only to registered racers. The machine is so rare that Beaulé's bike already has a second owner, who's offered $30,000 for the it once he's done with the Dakar.