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Staying on course over a distance of almost 9,000 kilometres – this is one of the biggest challenges during the Dakar Rally.

On January 6 when the four Volkswagen factory drivers Mark Miller, Carlos Sainz, Ari Vatanen and Giniel de Villiers head-off to tackle 15 long and hard stages to reach the Senegalese capital Dakar on January 21, their co-drivers Ralph Pitchford, Michel Périn, Fabrizia Pons and Dirk von Zitzewitz will be superbly prepared. The four professional co-drivers prepared as a team for the challenges facing them during the Dakar Rally.

"The navigation week during which all the co-drivers work together and exchange tips and experience serves an important function at Volkswagen,” explains Volkswagen Motorsport Director Kris Nissen. "The time spent together doesn’t only allow them to benefit from each others’ knowledge, but also strengthens the bond between the co-drivers who also work together during the rally to prepare the road-book for the following day.”
 
Navigation week
 
When the rally armada sets sail for Africa on January 7, it is not only the driving abilities of the factory drivers or the technical qualities of Volkswagen’s Race Touareg 2 that count beyond the confines of signposted roads, but also the co-drivers’ perfect navigation. Because each team’s orientation skills are regarded as central factors for success, the event organizer, ASO, only provides limited information about the route.

Approximately seven weeks before the start the co-drivers are issued with a general map showing the stage destinations and a rough plan of the route.

"During the rally, we are only informed of the exact route in the evening before each stage,” explains Dirk von Zitzewitz, co-driver for Giniel de Villiers.
 
Nevertheless, the announcement of the rough route is eagerly awaited by the drivers.

"All the co-drivers assembld in Hanover at the end of November to compile possible routes,” explains Dirk von Zitzewitz. The co-drivers split the stages up among themselves, each official stage was broken-down by two co-drivers, analysed on the basis of map material available, and potential routes were subsequently presented to their team mates.

"I took old road books, old sketches, and also photographs taken during the previous years to help,” explains the German, who has already completed the "Dakar” three times on a motorbike and on four occasions as co-driver in the car classification. "The aim is to be well prepared for as many different routes as possible.”
 
Michel Périn, co-driver for Spaniard Carlos Sainz, was also impressed. "Every co-driver exchanged information and tips gathered over the previous years during the course of a very productive discussion,” explains the three-time "Dakar” winner. "During the discussion details emerge time and again from the memory. For example: if the route runs past a specific river bed in Mali, the track that leads to the right is less stony than that on the left. We can help each other with personal experiences in this way.”

However, to a certain extent the discussions remain purely hypothetical. "The organiser releases additional information before Christmas, but we only discover exactly which route the ’Dakar’ takes during the rally after the road book is distributed in the evening before each stage,” explains von Zitzewitz.
 
Although the competition vehicles are fitted with the satellite navigation system GPS, the state-of-the-art technology is, however, used more by the stewards to monitor the competitors than as an aid for the co-drivers. An arrow indicates the latest driving direction once a competing vehicle closes to within three kilometres of a hidden way point.

When a competitor closes to within 200 metres of a way point, in towns and villages 90 metres, confirmation appears and the display is extinguished. The GP system only functions as a compass between way points. New additional "Way Point Eclipse” ("WPE”) marks should assist the competitors with navigation during the particularly difficult stages – if a way point has been found correctly it will display the direction to the next hidden point.

"A good decision,” explains Michel Périn. "This extra clue prevents competitors from driving aimlessly around the desert to find a hidden way point on very difficult days.”
 
Lee Palmer – new face
 
A new co-driver also participated in the navigation week: The Andorra domiciled Australian, Lee Palmer, is coached by Volkswagen for future appearances as a co-driver and has already performed as navigator during recent tests with the Race Touareg.

The 31-year old mechanic is extremely knowledgeable of desert rallies and especially the Dakar Rally: Palmer has competed as a mechanic on six occasions in the cross country classic for the KTM factory team, including two events in the cockpit of a Race-Truck, providing rapid competition support. In addition, Palmer regularly competes himself in Cross Country Rally World Cup events with his motorbike.
 
"We are delighted to be able to welcome Lee Palmer into the team. As active motorbike rider, he already possesses excellent knowledge of navigation and huge experience in desert rallying,” explains Volkswagen Motorsport Director Kris Nissen. "During the 2007 Dakar Rally he will take the position of co-pilot in one of our Race-Trucks.”
 
"I’m happy that Kris Nissen and Volkswagen have given me the opportunity to ply my trade as co-driver in the factory team,” says Palmer. "I navigated alone for years in the desert as a motorbike rider. As co-driver in a car or truck my communication with the driver can still be improved. For this reason, the navigation week with the other Volkswagen co-drivers was very interesting and informative.”
 
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