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Canadian team conquers Dakar - on four wheels

What do you do after becoming the first Canadians to finish the gruelling Dakar rally in a car? If you're driver David Bensadoun, you take a nap.

"I'm exhausted," he said Sunday after 15 days, more than 8,500 kilometres of off-road endurance racing – and only a few minutes of shuteye.

With co-driver Patrick Beaulé in the navigator's seat, they overcame mud, rocks, rivers crossings and kilometres of massive sand dunes through Argentina, Chile and Peru to finish in 40th place among the cars in their first attempt at the Dakar, among the top rookie teams.

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Over the previous 33 years of the rally that features motorcycles, ATVs, cars and transport trucks, only six Canadians had finished the race, all of them on motorcycles. Lawrence Hacking, the first Canadian to finish on a motorcycle, tried to repeat the feat in 2010 in a car, but didn't make it past the first day. Novice racer Connor Malone entered a car in 2010, but mechanical issues and conflicts with his co-driver ended his race on the eighth day.

Montrealers Bensadoun and Beaulé are the first Canadians to finish in anything but a motorcycle. Along the way were brushes with death, mental anguish, temperatures over 50 degrees C, mechanical breakdowns, improvised repairs in the middle of the desert, countless tire punctures; and lots of giving and getting help among the competitors.

"It really doesn't have much to do with motorsports. It has to do with adventure, problem-solving and preparation," said Bensadoun, a 41-year-old Montreal father of three, who's a senior executive at Aldo shoes and the son of the company founder. "I think it has more in common with a mountain climbing expedition than it does with a car race."

And the analogy is apt, as finishing the world's most difficult and dangerous motor race is a rarer feat than climbing to the summit of the world's highest mountain. Only 430 people reached the finish line of the 2012 Dakar, compared with 445 people who reached the top of Mount Everest in the most recent year that records are up-to-date.

Originally an African race from Paris to Dakar, Senegal, this was the fourth year it has been held in South America. Each day consists of a timed section as long as 600 km, bracketed by connections as long as 400 km to get from the previous night's camp to the day's race course, and then to each night's rest stop. Instead of a map, competitors follow a list of turns, landmarks and compass headings to pass through checkpoints verified by a GPS tracker in each vehicle. Miss the start of the timed section or too many checkpoints, take too long to finish, and face disqualification.

Only a handful of elite racers are vying for a podium spot; most are just trying to finish. Of the 171 cars that entered the race this year, only 78 made it to the end. "It's like they design every day to break cars," Bensadoun said. "They're totally diabolical."

That day, for Bensadoun and Beaulé, came on the seventh stage with 419 kilometres of mountainous dunes to cover. "It's like going up and down Mount Tremblant, made of sand, over and over again."

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They managed to complete almost 400 kilometres in 11 hours before darkness fell, but the last 20 kilometres of dunes had to be navigated in the night, and took them another four hours. "It was like war. Every crest of the dune we'd come over in the dark, we'd look down into the next valley and there were trucks flipped on their side. Cars on their roofs. Competitors shaking and crying, totally exhausted."

Faced with such adversity, Bensadoun and Beaulé sought humour amid the chaos, and on this day, the levity would be found in the packed lunch provided by race organizers to sustain competitors through the toughest day: a tiny tin of pale beans swimming in pork fat. "We were laughing in the car," Bensadoun said, "because it was the day the organizers gave us the worst lunch."

But there was more than sand and soggy beans to contend with. The Dakar is known as the most dangerous race in the world, and a motorcyclist who died on day one this year was the 25th competitor killed in the race's history. Although both Bensadoun and Beaulé are accomplished motorcycle racers, the Dakar's deadly reputation meant a car was the only option for them.

"I wouldn't go on a motorcycle because of my daughter," said Mr. Beaulé, 36 and also from Montreal, who is a sales manager with motorcycle maker KTM and recently retired from off-road motorcycle racing after winning most of the major Canadian events.

Even in the safety of the car, Beaulé suffered through the last four days in a neck brace and on pain killers after they struck a rock at speed, and they were lucky to dodge further injury when another competitor sideswiped them, and they nearly rolled twice going too fast over the top of dunes.

Their $150,000 Desert Warrior car, custom built for the Dakar with a Land Rover 4x4 system and a BMW six-cylinder, three-litre turbo-diesel engine, took the brunt of the damage but soldiered on, although it did require a mid-race steering arm replacement, and fresh power steering and water pumps due to the heat, dust and rigours of racing.

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But what got them through the race was the help they provided others, and received in return. "If we could help someone without endangering ourselves or getting stuck, we would always help," Bensadoun said. "It really paid off." The team they assisted one day would be the one who would stop the next day when they were stuck.

The key to finishing, Bensadoun said, is avoiding what racers call downward spiral, in which one mistake leads to others that compound to end the race. A mechanical breakdown or driving error takes time and energy to overcome, so you drive faster to make up for it, and are less alert. That opens the risk of more mistakes, damage and delays. The team arrives 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 car in worse shape, the likelihood of calamity is greater.

So the key to beating the odds, finishing the race and doing well isn't about speed. "It's not how much you go fast," Bensadoun said. "It's how much you don't go slow."

But the racer in Bensadoun is already thinking about how to go faster. He's eyeing a return to the Dakar with Beaulé, perhaps in a faster car that would allow them to improve their position.

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