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New Team New Car & New Horizons: Nani Roma talks Dakar 2017

Dec 222016

With 22 Dakar Rallies under his racesuit belt, and the enviable accolade of being one of only a handful of racers on the planet to win the event on both two- and four-wheels, Joan ‘Nani’ Roma sits somewhere between off-road royalty and legend.

Nani made his debut on the world’s toughest off road-race in 1996, at the bars of a KTM, and arguably hasn’t looked back since. Factory supported rides and drives with nearly every major manufacturer worth mentioning have yielded a near unmatched racing roll of honor in long-distance, Enduro and off road rallying.

For the 2017 Dakar Rally though – the event’s 39th edition – a big change is on the horizon. Not least the new 8500km route, which stretches through the dizzying heights and challenging lows of Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina.

Splitting from the X-Raid team, with whom Nani raced with for five seasons and recorded his 2014 Dakar victory, the 44-year-old Spaniard has now teamed up with the Belgian based Toyota Overdrive outfit, led by former co-driver Jean Marc Fortin.


Q&A with NANI ROMA

Hi Nani, thanks for talking to us. The final countdown is really on for the race start on January 2nd…

Yes absolutely - It’s always a super busy and very exciting time in the run up to the Dakar. I think it’s maybe extra pressure because it is over the Christmas holidays. My race suit and helmet arrived just last night; so the final parts are coming together! Not long now!

The Dakar is a familiar event for you in many ways, but this year represents a new challenge?

You know, I’ve been doing this event 22 years, but I still remember my very first start in 1996, and how it felt to take on this challenge. And that’s really how I see it every time – it’s a huge challenge. You challenge yourself to finish, you challenge your team, and the constant rate of learning to be competitive over the distance is a challenge. That was even true when I switched from two wheels to four. The moment I won the Dakar on a motorcycle, I didn’t want to give up the challenge – I felt like the next step was to try and win in cars. I achieved that in 2014, and now my new challenge is to help my new team - Toyota Overdrive – win the Dakar. This constant challenge is something I really enjoy, and also the best way for me to keep moving forward in my career.

What prompted the change of machinery?

After five or six years I really felt – personally – like I needed to change something. Of course I always need to say thank you to MINI for giving me the incredible car, and all the opportunities and materials necessary to win the Dakar. I had some truly amazing years in that team. However sometimes it’s necessary to change and move on.


Tell us a little about your new team?

Overdrive Racing is based in Belgium, but the Toyota Hilux we use is actually built in South Africa. The managing director of the team – Jean Marc Fortin – is a former co-pilot in international rallies. He’s a racing guy from a motorsport background – and that helps a lot; he understands my job and what’s involved. I feel really lucky to be in a team led by someone like Jean Marc, and this good feeling filters through the whole organization. This year in July I had the first opportunity to test the Toyota, and immediately I felt very comfortable. Immediately I had a good feeling about the team and the set up, and I know that to win the Dakar, you can never do it alone. A victory is never just from the pilot or the co-pilot, it’s an effort from the whole team. It’s every single mechanic, engineer, and team member. This is the good feeling I got from the start with Overdrive.

How have the preparations been going?

Very good; we completed a 20-day test in Morocco. We’ve also completed several smaller tests closer to home and the team’s base in Belgium. In addition we also competed in a race in the Spanish off-road championship. I have been in the car a lot – and we will go to South America with a really good understanding of the Hilux and feeling in the team. As everyone knows the Dakar is a very hard and long race, and it can be unpredictable, but we feel really well in our position to start this edition.

A new car means a new driving style?

Coming from driving a turbo diesel car for the last five/six years I’ve had to change quite a few things. The diesel engine had a lot of torque, and the all the gearshift points were at lower revs – around the 2500 to 3500 RPM mark for a lot of changes. In the new car, with a V8 petrol engine, you have to change at 5000 – 6000 RPM. The overall feeling is very different. The frame is shorter than the MINI, which again changes many of the characteristics of handling. I actually have more room in the cockpit of the Toyota though, and like I said, I feel good and comfortable in the car – even though there have been quite a few new points to adapt and change to, I feel this is a strong platform for sure.


Do you still get the same buzz from the Dakar after all this time?

Yes, absolutely! Every year when it gets closer and closer to the start time of the Dakar I get the same feeling of excitement and anticipation and challenge inside me. It’s difficult to fully describe. I think the day I loose this feeling is the day I will stop. I think it’s important to be nervous of a race like this. It’s part of the sport, and part of the big challenge. On the Dakar you spend a lot of days continuously racing, and you need to feel something before the start to get in the right state of mind. Racing is part of me, and so is the Dakar.

What are your impressions of the new route – there’s a lot at high altitude…

This actually has been one of the main talking points regarding the 2017 route – the high level altitude. Spending six days at 3000-4500 meters above sea level is hard on all the equipment and the pilots and co-pilots. Even the mechanics and team members that aren’t racing out on the stage will for sure find it hard. I think a lot of people are quite worried about what will happen in these conditions and altitude. In Bolivia we will go higher again to 4700 meters, and from experience things can change constantly. One day you feel ok, and the next you can feel really bad. It’s going to be a very tough race this year for sure.

You’re relishing the challenge ahead then?

Believe it or not, I actually look forward to the harder stages. When I raced the Dakar in Africa, and in previous editions in South America, I had stages where I was catching up time through the more challenging conditions, where the navigation was difficult, or the terrain was particularly hard – I enjoyed battling with the race itself as well as the competition. There isn’t one type of terrain I like best – it’s more about the challenge and defeating it!


Experience must tell you that there are parts of the rally to fear, or at least respect?

Everybody feels fear at the Dakar – even if they don’t talk about it. For me personally – I always think back to my time in bikes. 10-15 minutes before the start I was pretty afraid. The waiting was the worst part; as soon as you get going on the stage, you are focused on the job, and the feeling of fear goes. Now, racing in cars, I have fear and respect for the whole event in equal amounts.

Talk us through a driver’s mindset for a race as long as the Dakar…

It’s a mixed strategy to win an event like that Dakar. If you go flat out every day, then you are sure to make a mistake. Having a 900km stage over one day for example, it’s not possible to go at 100% for this distance without any mistakes at all. The key is to prepare well before each day’s stage, and be flexible about the strategy you take, and be able to adapt your approach to the terrain and conditions you face. The day you feel; ‘this is our day’, that is when you can go flat out, and have maximum risk. This can only really be one or two times during the race; If you try to do that all the time, then you are either very lucky if you don’t make a big mistake, or you will not finish. It’s a calculated mindset you could say.

Finally, when do you leave for South America?

I fly down to South America on the 26th, to have some time before the start to get acclimatized. The weather down there is completely different to my home. It’s winter and zero degrees in northern Barcelona at the moment, and in Paraguay it’s summer with 34°C. Of course it’s great to have Christmas at home with family and friends but my working head and focus is already in South America.

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