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Syd Stelvio, Peking to Paris 24 | Day 24 – Baku to Qakh – 507km

Syd Stelvio, Peking to Paris 24 | Day 24 – Baku to Qakh – 507km

Today the rally recommenced after a three-day break, to allow the vehicles to be transported across the Caspian Sea to Baku. It ought to have been a fairly routine day on the road, after such a decent amount of time to reset and pamper cars, but it wasn’t. There would be several misplaced bags, missed MTC’s, umpteen wrong approaches, competitors getting lost, one broken fan, one jettisoned wheel, several electrical issues, chassis problems, brake problems and much, much worse.

Perhaps the three days of non-transit had caused people to relax a bit too much, perhaps Baku’s bars and restaurants had been a little too hospitable, who knows, but for whatever reason today was a bit of a day. But for anyone’s problems, mechanical or route based, nobody but nobody experienced a day like Tomas de Vargas Machuca and Ben Cussons in the American LaFrance.

They began the morning like everyone else, full of excitement about this next part of the journey, looking forward to what was to come. But life doesn’t always go according to plan, and during the morning smoke began to billow from the behemoth of a car. The LaFrance was on fire, and not a small fire either, this was huge. The machine was engulfed, luckily with both of the crew well clear as the blaze took hold, helpless onlookers as their hopes and dreams disappeared into the atmosphere.

It was cruel, it is cruel. Peking to Paris isn’t your normal rally, and the LaFrance isn’t your run of the mill car. I’ve seen the car go from a pile of bits on a workshop floor, to a restored car designed to take on the toughest event of them all. The effort and resolve that had taken them to where they were was monumental, as it is for anyone who takes on this event. To have that snatched away is a terrible thing but thank goodness that no physical harm came to the two friends who have spent so much time sat next to one another in that machine. Their rally is over, but cars and dreams can be repaired and revived, and I’ve no doubt that at some point the Phoenix will rise.

Whilst car number one’s rally was unravelling, the rest of the event was continuing, on a day that would feel very long in the end, and a day that would see a big shakeup in the leader board. There was a return to test action, as well as two DTC’s to contest, and it would be the first of these that would shake things up.

Baku had certainly been kind to the rally, hosting the cars in the F1 Pit Lane and throwing a huge party for the competitors, with entertainment, videos of the event and a massive gathering of enthusiastic locals, all enjoying the cars and the spectacle. The hospitality continued this morning, with a ceremonial re-start in the shadow of the Heydar Aliyev Building, the contemporary Cultural Centre contrasting completely with the classic and vintage motor cars.

There was more contrast to come, as the route to escape Baku took us through the flotsam and jetsam of the oil fields to the north of the capital, quite a departure from the clean and modern city centre, and perhaps a glimpse into the reality for many of those that call this part of the world home.

The first DTC was up in the hills, some 150km away from Baku. It was still fairly arid, but as the 29km time control section continued, the scenery began to develop a bit more greenery, although there was still plenty of rocks, sand and dust.

The scenery wouldn’t be the talking point here though, as it was the map reading that was causing the biggest stir, with several of those at the top of the table suffering navigational nightmares. Suffering the most amongst those at the sharp end of the field was car 100, the Porsche 911 of Lars and Annette Rolner, that has until now been almost faultless. But a wrong turn would cost them time, lots of time. They weren’t the only ones to get it wrong in this section, but their peers realised and corrected more quickly, and the spectacular Porsche would clock up 7 minutes of penalties on one control.

It had been a tough morning, for lots of people, but the news of the LaFrance that began to spread around the camp at lunch would perhaps put things into perspective, and there was still the afternoon DTC to get after. That would occur 436 clicks into the day, as we sought to cover a lot of ground, with the border crossing into Georgia in the morning. The route had left the hills and mountains by now, and the sporting time controls were sighted on the shores of Ajinohur Lake, with a backdrop of the Republican Mountains. It was a fast run, in almost safari type conditions on a long and flowing track that whilst bumpy in places, was a joy to drive. Just the right balance between grippy and loose, the corners were encouraging slides, just ask Steve Gray, who was throwing plenty of shapes in the Volvo 122S.

Post DTC and there was a run into the hotel through increasing greenery, a real treat after so much desert. The sun was getting low now, but the roads were full of spectators, villagers who had come to see the spectacle, with groups of excited children waving P2P stickers and screaming and cheering as the cars came by. This is what it’s all about, these kids don’t care about lost seconds or who’s winning, they’re simply captivated by the display before them – cars the like of which they’ve never seen before. Even those who had endured a sub-optimal day couldn’t help but have their heart warmed by the excitement and wonder in these children's faces.

At the close of play there were new leaders in the Classic and Vintage categories. First up the reign of the Rolner’s was over, for now, dropping to third with Matt Bryson and Mike Pink now in top spot with Martin Belvisi and Andy Lane in second, and Lars and Annette in third. Matt and Mike had gone best on the day out of anyone, picking up 3:30 of penalty. Matt has plenty of experience of winning, but Lars and Annette are no stranger to success either, and whilst they have lost a lot of time, anything can happen.

Testament to that is the fight for the overall win in the Vintageant Category, as Richard Walker and Faith Douglas have now reclaimed top spot, after it had all looked quite futile just a few short days ago. Their performance was fourth best on the day, and they have pushed Andy Buchan and Mike Sinclair back to second place.

Tomorrow is a border day, as we leave Azerbaijan and head to Georgia, our fourth country of the event and one we will only spend one night in. I look forward to seeing just what gems we uncover on what will be a whistlestop tour.


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