March 2015 sees Eurosports’ World Touring Car Championship pitlane reporter Alexandra Legouix - plus 3 other women - fly the flag for the UK.
There is an event that is positively changing attitudes towards women in some of the hardest worn parts of Africa, helping the poor and needy live better lives; is covered by the world’s media; has 30 countries taking part with the support of native royalty and the Royal Family of the UK and is the only all-female rally raid across the Sahara desert. This event is called the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles. (www.rallyeaichadesgazelles.com) Never before have we had a UK entry – until now.
One would possibly be inclined to assume that as an 'all female rally' there may be an element of ease to this event. They couldn't be more wrong.
The women: two apiece in a vehicle, have the task of navigating 60 checkpoints hidden in 10,000 square miles of searing hot and inhospitable desert landscape in the shortest possible distance, armed with very basic, out-of-date maps and a compass. It is essentially 320 women engaged in a colossal game of ‘Hunt the Flag’.
It is physically and emotionally grueling. The girls do around 635km of driving over 8 days, with very little sleep and no creature comforts -each day lasting around 10 hours. One of the toughest stretches sees the women faced with two back-to-back marathon legs surmounting in 'Erg Chebbi' - the highest dunes in Morocco.
In 2013, there were 60 checkpoints - 150 cars started the race, only 5 cars managed to get all the checkpoints and in 2012, only 3. This is not a trip for straighteners and mascara!
The goal of the race is to complete all checkpoints in the shortest distance travelled - not on speed. However, if you don't drive fast enough you don't get to the last checkpoint before the cut off. So you have to drive hard.
In March, I travelled to Morocco to find out more about the rallye, spend time with the 2014 competitors and find out what it would truly take to be competitive in 2015. What I discovered was that in any country that has heard of the rally the women who compete are beacons of hope for women’s rights and equality. They spread the word that women are capable of extraordinary things and through the charity – the Coeur des Gazelles’ (www.coeurdegazelles.org), they show that womens’ love and care can enact real change - a change so wonderful it is impossible not to be inspired. I decided that I not only wanted to compete but I wanted to create a dream team and be as competitive as possible.
So, upon my return, I enlisted the aid of some key people including one of the UK's most successful off-road racing teams - Race2Recovery - to help begin my journey of creating the winning formula. (www.race2recovery.com)
I also realised that not only would it take a good support team but also top training, a great car and a perfect combination of girls. Thankfully, with Race2Recovery came the offer of two incredible V8 Dakar spec Landrover based Wildcat cars. Modified to develop 283bhp and an enormous 292lbft of torque these beasts were perfect and essential for traversing the varied and unrelenting conditions we would face on the rally.
All that was missing now were the best female teammates. This sparked an idea: create a UK Wildcats Gazelle Hunt Bootcamp to put a selection of gutsy female contenders through their paces and find the best women the UK had to offer.
As the owner of the production company Monsterfeet Media Ltd I also decided to create a TV show to document the journey and so in September, judged by Race2Recovery owner and top rally raid driver, Ben Gott; Rally veteran and advisor, Alberto Goncalves; and Rallye Aicha des Gazelles UK Co-ordinator and 2 times RDG competitor, Benedicte Clarkson: 23 hopeful women and I were pushed to our limits.
Day one consisted of tough, physical challenges that mimicked elements the desert would throw at us. This included a 5K military style assault course forcing us to work together in teams, all the while knowing that only twelve would get through to day two. Twelve tearful contenders were sent home very late the first night whilst the remaining 12 camped in 2 tents. Mentally and physically exhausted, these women were rudely awoken at 430am by explosions and smoke before being thrown straight into a tough navigation challenge then demanding off road driving tasks. Think Hunger Games meets Top Gear meets Big Brother and you get the idea.
It was an impossible task for the judges given that the 24 women consisted of the likes of Shelley Taunt - one of our most successful females in British Rally ; Jo Polley - a supremely successful female racer with over 30 career podiums across oval and circuit racing; Britains Next Top Model contender Annaliese Dayes; and Lowri Davies – best known for her work in WRC as well as presenting for Motors TV and irally... but the core girls were chosen.
What I also realized on my recce in March is that this rally is not won by driving skill alone. Navigation knowledge is imperative and mental strength is vital. "This rally is long and grueling. Every instant you have to believe you can do it...don’t ask each other any questions – if we get stuck, we just get out and dig. If we have to change a tyre, we do it." Jeanette James, 2014 winner.
As a result of the bootcamp, I definitely have a team of excellent women with the winning spirit but we now need the right training and knowledge to boot. So the next step is to convert ourselves into true UK Wildcats. This training starts with an insitu navigation and driver training mission with Race2Recovery in Morocco before heading to the McKenna’s Ice Driver School (www.icedriver.com) all the while getting top tips and advice from the likes of World Rally Champions Sebastien Loeb and Petter Solberg.
Nothing comes for free though and I have the mission of finding not only the funding for entry fees and transportation, but also the television production costs. The Worldwide media coverage of the rallye is huge and I – so far – thankfully have the support and help from: award winning director, David O Sullivan; The Moroccan Office of Tourism; World Touring Car driver Mehdi Bennani and family; Race Vinyl Ltd; Berkshire 4x4; VMI; Duck Tape; not to mention Race2Recovery and IceDriver and everyone involved in the bootcamp. However I do need more to help make the UK Wildcats a reality.
The UK is a country where we are lucky enough to see equality between the sexes. As a country I feel we therefore have a duty to show our support to the women and countries still trying to achieve this. Please show your support.
Please follow their Twitter account at www.twitter.com/RDGazellesUK and “Like” their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/rallyedesgazellesUK?fref=ts.
To keep up to date with any of the latest news and developments on their journey, please take a look at their website, which you can find at http://riseoftheukwildcats.com.
My reasons for doing the Rallye des Gazelles originally was because life had changed for me recently freeing up the mental and physical space in my life in order to do it. I have always wanted to do something challenging and something that takes me away from normal life... I really wanted to do something that flew the flag for Women in Motorsport and also i really wanted to do a big thing for charity...and I felt the rallye ticked these boxes.
Well... That it does but in more ways than I ever, ever anticipated. The rallye isnt just tough, its epically gruelling. Our guide was an organiser for this and for Dakar and he said this was as tough, even more so in some ways, mentally...the rally not only flies for women in motorsport but also for women in general.
The oppression is still very high in morocco and this rally is not some feminist act created commercially, it is genuinely changing the countries perception of women and their capabilities....finally, I was taken to the mobile medical centre that is the Coeur des Gazelles - the heart - and I have NEVER, EVER experienced anything like it. Desperate people are given clothes and toys and are sobbing with happiness at the most simple of gift. These people have NEVER had medical treatment - during the rally the centre goes to each village and it has doctors, optometrists, dentists, gynaecologists, teachers and is fully equipped to deal with everything. We were taken to film each section and learn and report. I witnessed people getting eye sight for the first time; Seeing their children properly for the first time; Children learning about how to be healthier, safer; elders having fillings; just so much stuff and the gratitude from these folk was the most overwhelming thing I have ever seen. Nothing prepares you for that experience. So emotional. So humbling. And now - THAT is my main reason why I am not only going to compete in the rally next March but we are also going to produce the best fricking tv documentary on it and the journeys of the first UK teams to EVER enter too!
I intend to make sure that after next year, the UK fly a flag every year more to help such a good deed. Please follow on here, on our Monsterfeet Media FB page and our @rallyedesgazellesuk twitter.
We went out this time as a skeleton crew of myself, Jack Ford and David O'Sullivan with little budget. We have had one of the hardest weeks we have ever experienced physically and mentally. We faced the most mental of challenges from the actual act of the rally driving to getting lost at night in the sahara for hours with no gps to getting taken in to the police station to driving mad epic dunes to breaking down in the middle of nowhere in a major sandstorm to dancing and singing with moroccans and camels in the centre of the desert... every step was AMAZING, and the best thing too is that we have it ALL on film The journey has begun in a monster sized way!