After a thrilling marathon stage, the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles reached its halfway point at Leg 4.  The route was a 160km loop with “easy-to-navigate plains, some hilly terrain and wide flat zones.”  At least teams had the main bivouac to forward to by day’s end unless things went awry. Let’s get into who had a good day and who didn’t.  This event holds environmental preservation in high regard and since speed isn’t the racers’ goal, there’s no tearing pell-mell through the countryside.

“Be careful in the villages: drive slowly, and watch out for crops growing.” – Sports Director Ludovic Taché

Most of Leg 5 would be in the Oued Bou Haiara with its long stretches, piles of rocks and occasional sand trap to avoid no matter what. At this point, exhaustion is the Gazelles’ true rival. On paper it’s been a few days but desert temperatures are brutal and they must be mentally focused as well as physically. Their vehicles are also under tremendous pressure especially after the marathon stage.  Rookies Daniela Batista and Khadra Moumni of Team 204 were “completely discouraged” at the end of L4 because they couldn’t find the first checkpoint, but at least arrived to the bivouac safely in their Isuzu DMax. Another pair of rookies, Fanny Thomas and Elodie Bodin couldn’t help but repair their Jeep Wrangler’s axle but that meant Team 193 would be unranked (HC) for the rest of the rally.

Team 102 (Marie Menozzi and Isabelle Auffret) arrived at the bivouac after a night in the desert. Although they were in time to start L4, their Jeep Rubicon badly needed repairs so they too decided to continue unranked from L5. Menozzi and Auffret said, “We were having a good Rallye, we were being gentle with the Jeep, but now, with so many mechanical problems, it’s not worth it to stay in the competition. We’re not on an equal footing with the others.” Their woes continued into L5 with transmission problems. It looks like 2016 wasn’t meant to be their year. A truth pill that numerous teams were forced to swallow by then.

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles 2016 - Day 5
Leg 4 (Day 5): Rookies Karen Hoehn and Maureen Gibbons also ran out of daylight in their #181 Land Rover LR4. After hitting the first six checkpoints, they decided to skip the seventh and return to camp before nightfall. “It’s scary when it starts getting dark out,” said Hoehn. “We decided to cut our losses and head back.” They will receive a penalty for the missed checkpoint, but are expected to continue in the event. (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

It seems like heavenly bodies aligned for the other teams that continued the hard push to victory.  Team 27 controlled the Quad/Bike class as “Queen” Betty (Elisabeth) Kraft was dead set on taking home her tenth victory on a Polaris Scrambler 1000, along with Sonia Baudoin-Guerard who’s in her third year as a Gazelle.  The top two expert class teams battled fiercely for supremacy.  Team 407 (Sylvie Freches and Carole Montillet – Toyota HDJ 80) managed to keep a small lead over Team 410’s Syndiely Wade and Claudine Amat (Isuzu DMax).  Sophomore Gazelles Viola Hermann and Vanessa Wagner (Mercedes Benz Vito) continued to show that their Crossover class Team 318 is the one to beat.

The rally’s biggest class is 4×4/Camions with originally 136 participants. That number’s dwindled a little bit but as the rally draws to a close, competition has heated up instead of fizzled out.  The Swiss duo of Régine Zbinden and Ela Steiner took a risk that helped them stay out front in their Jeep Wrangler Sport 2.8 CRD.  It also foiled Americans Nicole Pitell-Vaughan and Chrissie Beavis in their Team 180 Toyota Tacoma.  They are however the first of three team representing the USA. Team 107 (Jo Hannah Hoehn and Susanah Hoehn – Land Rover LR4) showed sister power in third. Fourth place went to Emme Hall and Sabrina Howells in their Land Rover Defender. Team 178 (The Indiana Joans) fell to fifth on Leg 5.  Here’s more on how the ladies representing the stars and stripes fared over those days:

American teams fight for position at Rallye Aicha des Gazelles
Three U.S. teams in Top 5 as offroad event reaches halfway point

TAFRAOUT, Morocco (March 28, 2016) — Monday marked the halfway point in the 2016 Rally Aïcha des Gazelles and three American teams started the day in the Top 5. While the Swiss duo of Regine Zbinden and Ela Steiner held a slight lead, Americans occupied positions two through four.

Second overall was the #180 team of Nicole Pitell-Vaughan and Chrissie Beavis. Jo Hannah and Susanah Hoehn of Hoehn Motors Land Rover were third in the #107 Land Rover LR4 and the #178 Land Rover Defender team of Emme Hall and Sabrina Howells was fourth.

The challenge of the event is to drive an as-the-crow-flies route through the course, navigating the fewest possible miles between checkpoints. At the end of nine days in the desert, the team that has driven the fewest kilometers over the straight-line ideal is the winner. And while the rally is not about speed, the top competitors are so close that it’s officially a race.

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles 2016 - Day 5
Leg 4 (Day 5): The #180 Toyota Tacoma campaigned by Nicole Pitell-Vaughan and Chrissie Beavis leave a checkpoint. At the start of Leg 4 on Monday, the Southern California duo were second in the top 4×4 division to the #179 Jeep Wrangler of Regine Zbinden and Ela Steiner, from Swizterland. (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

Only 1.91 kilometers off the lead Monday morning, Beavis and Pitell-Vaughan started the day determined to make up ground. Putting their off-road racing skills to the test early in the day, they successfully maneuvered their Toyota Tacoma straight up and over a muddy hill that other teams chose to avoid. Navigator Beavis estimated the move saved as much as three kilometers on their final tally. “Our strategy was definitely to take some chances to see if we could take back the lead, and we got lucky right away,” she said.

The third-place Hoehn sisters achieved all their checkpoints but said they struggled on Monday. “Today shouldn’t have been a difficult day, but I just wasn’t getting accurate headings and never hit a checkpoint dead-on,” said Susanah Hoehn. “There were really long stretches between checkpoints and if you’re off by even a half a degree that can make you off by kilometers in the end.”

Monday’s terrain included many wide-open plains and challenging dry riverbeds competitors call “oueds” — the French-language term for wadi. After a weekend marathon leg that saw competitors running on minimal sleep, intense Monday heat added to the challenge. “I think the organization was really mean to the navigators today,” said navigator Howells. “The entire day, no matter what direction we were going in, the sun was always on the passenger seat.”

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles 2016 - Day 5
Leg 4 (Day 5): Sabrina Howells and Emme Hall, who finished seventh in the #178 Land Rover Defender during the marathon leg, demonstrated the charitable disposition known as the “Spirit of the Gazelles” during Leg 4. Before arriving at their first checkpoint, they drove out of their way to pull two other teams out of the mud — including their closest competitors, the #169 of Veronique de Sybourg-Siffert and Emilie Kuhn. “I thought the organizers would have subtracted 20 kilometers for helping dig other people out of the mud,” joked Howells. Despite adding some mileage, they achieved all checkpoints for the day. (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

American teams dig deep in the desert
Mud, mechanical trouble for U.S. entries at the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles

MHAMID, Morocco (March 29, 2016) – The Rallye Aicha des Gazelles saw a change in fortunes for several leading American teams on Tuesday as mechanical issues and tough terrain challenged the front-runners.

In a race where advantage is measured in distance rather than time, Americans Nicole Pitell-Vaughan and Chrissie Beavis started the day narrowly in second – a scant 142 yards behind the Swiss duo of Regine Zbinden and Ela Steiner.

But a broken strut mount on the #180 Toyota Tacoma early Tuesday cost them an estimated mile and a half to their rivals as they struggled to navigate the most direct route while managing the damaged vehicle. “It was complete survival out there all day,” said Pitell-Vaughan.

Despite giving up some distance, they achieved all required checkpoints and returned to camp where mechanics are expected to make full repairs overnight. With the final two-day marathon leg ahead, the lead remains within reach. No American team has ever won the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles.

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles 2016 - Day 6
Leg 5 (Day 6): After starting the day less than a tenth of a mile off the lead, Tuesday did not go as planned for the #180 duo of Nicole Pitell-Vaughan and Chrissie Beavis. Before reaching the first checkpoint, they broke a rear strut mount on their Toyota Tacoma. They made roadside repairs and drove carefully, but navigator Beavis estimated they gave up about two kilometers to the leaders. “This rally is so physically exhausting,” Pitell-Vaughan said, after a long day. “No one back home could ever understand this. It completely wipes you out, mentally and physically. But being this close in points is making the game so much fun. I’ve never been this focused in my life.” (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

Also struggling Thursday were contenders Jo Hannah and Susanah Hoehn. They started the day in third place but lost the air suspension in their Land Rover late in the day. The #107 team continued on — slowly — and returned to camp without missing any checkpoints. It is not yet known whether mechanics will be able to repair the vehicle overnight. “We couldn’t even drive over a pebble,” said Susanah Hoehn. “The car made the most horrible sound the whole way back. Our wheels were literally hitting our car.”

Emme Hall and Sabrina Howells, who had started the day in fifth in the #178 Land Rover Defender, also had a difficult morning after being slowed by camel grass. But they recovered and successfully completed the day. Likewise, the #188 duo of Keely Sellers and Elaine Newkirk opened the day stuck in mud with several other competitors near the first checkpoint. They eventually dug their Jeep Wrangler free and continued without incident.

On Wednesday, teams will start the final marathon leg of the rally. It is a typically windy two-day stretch that will take teams 140 miles across shifting sand dunes and an enormous dry lake before the final bivouac on Thursday night. There will be no update on Wednesday due to the remote nature of the overnight stop. Final results are expected on Saturday.

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles 2016 - Day 6
Leg 5 (Day 6): After digging themselves out of the mud that caught up a number of competitors at the first checkpoint, first-time competitors Elaine Newkirk and Keely Sellers hit their groove in the #188 Jeep Wrangler. “I think we were really disappointed with ourselves earlier this week,” said Newkirk. “We aren’t here to win but we really wanted to do the best we could. Today, things really clicked.” (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

A Final Word

The Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles is officially over. Admittedly and apologetically we are behind with the updates because we weren’t able to cover the race first-hand this year. However we would be thrilled if you visit the race’s official social media channels for photos, results and more.

Live Map: