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Syd Stelvio, Peking to Paris 24 | Day 16 – Almaty to Shymkent – 754km

Syd Stelvio, Peking to Paris 24 | Day 16 – Almaty to Shymkent – 754km

If ever there was a rest day to actually try and get some rest on, it was day 15 in Almaty, as first thing this morning the cars departed for the longest day of the event, at a whopping 754km.

It was a big day, that would contain a one big mistake, with a big consequence. But before that, the cars had to escape from Almaty, which for a Sunday morning was reasonably busy. For anyone who had ventured into the city during the day off, they would have found something quite European, with plenty of evidence of the former capital’s Soviet history as well. The suburbs though, were perhaps more reflective of Kazakh as a whole though, with less of the finely rendered glitz and international brands that adorned the heart of the metropolis.

There wasn’t too much time to ponder this though, as it was only 70 km or so before we turned sharply off of the highway and onto a sandy track, that offered up the days first and only regularity. Navigationally it wasn’t too tricky, but the extremely fine and dry sand could easily have caused problems for anyone behind a car not quite on the pace. First through were the Japanese crew of Tsuguo Shintani and Sumiko Kokonno, in the Buick Doctors Coupe. These two have been slowly getting to grips with regularity rallying, and only dropped 7 seconds on the reg, but life would get more difficult for them after the final time control, when they chose the wrong track to exit the section and ended up beaching the Buick, requiring Sweep assistance to free them.

Still, whilst waiting for International Rescue to arrive, the pair may have been able to enjoy the Eagles that soared over the largely featureless countryside or the herd of Wild Horses whose home was adjacent to the regularity. Theirs was a minor indiscretion though, that was of little consequence. Not too far behind them, there was to be another faux pas that had a much bigger impact to the competition as a whole. The regularity was a self-start, which meant that the competitors were responsible for writing down their start time, without marshal intervention. The thing about timecards, is that what is written on them is matter of fact, so if you put down the wrong start time, you have all but set yourself up to fail on the reg.

This particular clerical error was suffered by the occupants of car 37, our leaders, Richard Walker and Faith Douglas, and sadly for them they lead no more, dropping a maximum of three minutes across the reg, on a day when their nearest rivals dropped between 1 and 5 seconds. That could be their challenge derailed completely, but if it happened to them, then it could happen to anyone, so they must dust themselves down and come back stronger. Keep the faith, guys.

Just a few miles down the road from the regularity, there was a Sporting Time Control section to enjoy, across more dirt tracks that picked a path over the rolling hills of the area. Cautioned was needed, as parts of the track were treacherous, with off camber sections, tricky descents, and scrambling climbs. Often, there were multiple tracks to choose from, but choose wisely, as the wrong grooved path often petered out into car swallowing ruts, indicative of why the track had been abandoned in favour of a new line.

Caution isn’t in the vocabulary of some of these drivers though, drivers such as Mario Illien, who put the Escort into the stratosphere at one stage, reminding those who were watching of his daughters quote on the last P2P ‘Dad thinks he’s a racing driver’. One actual racing driver was also doing his best to get his pilot’s license, as British GT Championship runner up Jon Minshaw put the Prodrive engineered Mustang far above Terra-Firma, let’s just say he will need to work on his landings though before he gets his wings.

Whilst the STC required a bit of pace, the tracks after the section needed the opposite, it was very much a case of slow and steady wins the race, as they were tricky to navigate, before spitting the cars out into a village that resembled something from a famous mockumentary presented by Kazakhstan’s most infamous fictional son. The village was filled with excitable children, who had gotten their hands on some P2P stickers, and were now hounding the cars with tremendous enthusiasm.

The rest of the day was a long run into the finish, largely on multiple lane highways. It wasn’t an exciting drive, and hammered home just how flat and empty Kazakhstan is, a precursor of what is to come as we head further west. Save for the few miles that ran alongside the Kyrgyzstan border, with the seemingly never-ending peaks of the Tian Shan range towering above the manned watch towers that lined the border.

The long transit run was also an opportunity to work out the modus operandi of the local drivers, which appeared to be a mix of toddler levels of no fear, with teenage levels of aggression, a far cry from the chaotic but gentle approach of the Chinese driver. It also appears that Kazakh is where old Audi’s, VW’s and Toyotas go for their retirement, as the road is full of these in various states of disrepair. First generation Audi A6 anyone?

Once the cars were finally into Shymkent for the evening, the results showed that it had indeed been a bad day at the office for our former leaders, and that now Andy Buchan and Mike Sinclair were back into top spot, closely followed by Patrick Debussere and Lorenzo Bas in second, and best on the day performers Pierre Gerber and Alice Leuenberger in  third, with just one second of penalty from day 16. Anything can happen though, and with the longest STC of the event to look forward to tomorrow, and with us still not quite being halfway through, it is all still to play for.


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