There is a saying: if you finish at Dakar, you’re already a winner and for Nesterchuk and his team, that finish came in a respectable 26th place in the fifth South American edition of the rally in January. Watching TV reports about Dakar, I get the impression it’s a nightmare – heat, dust, sand and danger! Nesterchuk has a different take. “For me Dakar is a perfect combination of man and machine, the complexity of people’s reactions in an extreme situation, on top of that of course it’s a great adventure,” says the pilot.
Dakar is an event that allows amateurs to compete and it was as amateurs Nesterchuk and his team first applied to take part back in 2008. Recalling those times, Vadym says it could have been an incredible adventure, but the rally was cancelled that year.
Nesterchuk’s nightmare on Dakar continued in 2009 when he decided to compete on a quad. But when he showed up at scrutineering in Buenos Aires, he was told he couldn’t start because he didn’t have the necessary licence to compete. He returned to the race a year later – this time in a car. Unfortunately, his rally ended due to engine problems in stage eight. But his persistence paid off and behind the steering wheel of a L200 Mitsubishi, Nesterchuk managed to finish last year in style, becoming the first Ukrainian to do so, capturing 35th position.
With new French co-driver Laurent Lichtleuchter who finished 12th of the last Dakar, the goal in this years’ rally was to better that performance, although disaster always keeps things interesting. “This last Dakar we drove very professionally,” says Nesterchuk. “Fans started complaining, saying they were bored – our car didn’t break down and didn’t flip once. I usually answer that professional sport is kind of boring.” However, he concedes a smooth performance is hardly compelling viewing. “The most amazing shots on TV we see are those when either a pilot or a navigator make a mistake!”
Oil in His Veins
Dakar has become a passion and serious professional sport for Nesterchuk. When I suggest he must have been keen on cars since childhood, he contradicts me. “My parents were saving money for many years to buy a Zhyguli (Soviet car), but could never do it!” Instead, his petrol-head tendencies would only emerge later. “The first ‘rally’ in my life was in 1990 when I was a student and went to buy a car in Kazakhstan. Those were my first 5,000 kilometres of off-roading. Back then, I could not imagine I would be passing the same route in 2009 while driving in the Silk Way rally.” Despite his late start in the sport, motoring and Nestarchuk still have led parallel lives.
It was before his rally ambitions that Nesterchuk ran out of petrol in the middle of nowhere in Germany and he had to call on a roadside-assistance service: “In 15 minutes, the assistance came to me and refuelled my car. I thought it was an excellent service which we did not have in Ukraine at that time,” says the motorist. A business idea was born and in addition to the car-service and car-rental business he already had, Nesterchuk introduced a new one – full technical roadside assistance. When it came to marketing the new venture, he went to extremes choosing Dakar as the best way to demonstrate how his engineers are able to assist those in need in the most extreme conditions like the rally. “Kyiv roads,” Vadym adds, “are quite similar to Dakar, especially lately, so the rally promotes our roadside-assistance service well.”
Taking part in Dakar costs on average 400,000 Euro, but Nesterchuk does not regret the spending, and sees it as him doing his bit to lift the image of Ukraine internationally. For many people, Ukraine now is not only Chornobyl and corruption, but also the orange racing machine sponsored by Sixt rental cars in the Dakar Rally. Aiding him in his cultural exchange mission is, surprisingly, traditional salo. Nesterchuk always manages to source a quantity of the cured slabs of pork backfat to treat fans and fellow competitors in between stages of the rally.
Not that there is a lot of downtime, the schedule of the rally is tough – 15 stages and each stage takes place on consecutive days, leaving nights for technical service and repairs to the vehicles. The lack of sleep, difficult roads, heat and constant stress can have a battle-like impact on a person’s psyche, and as pilot he is at the front-line. However, he finds solace in the feedback he gets from seeing so many people come to support the teams and the challenge of overcoming the inhumane conditions. Extreme conditions lead to extreme measures and many drivers adhere to various beliefs and superstitions to get them through the race, says Nesterchuk.
As for luck, the Sixt Rental Car roadster says he has dabbled with all manner of superstitions and is now sure none of them have any basis. “I’ve tried the unlucky numbers of 13 or 6, checked the black cat crossing the road – it’s all nonsense. What matters for me is to monitor my tempo of driving – if I’m driving and enjoying it, it shows in the result.”
Despite the success of German woman Jutta Kleinschmidt, who in 2001 became the first woman to win the endurance race after a podium finish the year before, Nesterchuk is blunt in his assessment of women drivers. In his view, they should only be supporters. “I don’t mean to discriminate women, but Dakar is for men only! Girls and women should think more of themselves and children – it’s a male trait to compete, show their bravery, be strong and take risks. Generally, women are more careful drivers, and that’s a good thing.”
For future competition, Nesterchuk has clear goals: when it comes to the super-production class (the orange car produced specifically for races), Nesterchuk aims for a podium finish; as for the production class (a white Toyota slightly upgraded for rallies), he wants to be in the Top-10 finishers. The next competition the Sixt Ukraina team will be taking part in is the World Cup Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge in April. And although Nesterchuk says the driving itself is more rewarding than trophies, we wish him success and hope to see Ukrainian vyshyvankas and the yellow and blue flag at the finish!
Little Known Facts
• Vadym Nesterchuk has participated in Dakar six times. This year proved his best performance yet, finishing in 26th place
• The T1 (super-production) 6-cylinder 520-litre SIXT rally care was made here in Ukraine from start to finish
• The biggest Dakar winner of all time is Stephane Peterhanselwho has won the rally 11 times be it by motorbike or car