Cyprus Team accomplishes the hardest motorsport challenge for the first time ever
The Dakar Rally is well-known all around the globe as the toughest, and most dangerous sporting event on the planet, that attracts hundreds of participants each year and keeps both staggered fans along the track and supporters in front of their TVs on the edge of their seats.
Initiated by the famous French cross-country racer, Thierry Sabine in 1978, the rally saw its inaugural edition next year under the brand of “Paris-Dakar” and encompassed more than 10,000 kilometers of off-road driving, between the capitals of France and Senegal. During the 1980’s the competition rapidly grew in popularity and eventually became the most prestigious event of the world’s motorsport rivaled only by Formula 1. However, here the comparison ends. Unlike the Formula, The Dakar is an ultimate endurance race, where cars and their pilots are put under the constant pressure of harsh driving conditions and hostile terrain for almost two weeks. The Dakar Rally therefore becomes a real endurance test for the entire team and requires an intense preparation, scrupulous training, mechanical proficiency and ability to think, react and adapt to unpleasant situations like no other rally ever conducted. The above statement is highly supported by the failure rate: on average 40% of the teams in all categories do not make it to the finish at all, as a result of technical or navigational problems and shortcomings.
In 2009 The Dakar Rally moved its traditional route from Africa to South America due to the terrorist menace, introducing new levels of difficulty and even tougher terrain, the likes of which included high-altitude deserts, mountain climbs, fesh-fesh sections, traversing salt-lakes and many more obstacles awaiting the drivers on the track. As a result the degree of public acclaim among the hosting countries and worldwide audiences rose sky high, and by 2017 The Dakar might as well stand alongside the FIFA World Cup and The Olympics as the most watched and talked about sporting occurrence.
This year’s edition will forever remain in the history books as the one that saw a contender from Cyprus entering the race for the first time, and, what is even more remarkable, finishing it without failure or disqualification. The name of this person is Roman Starikovich. A USSR-born self-made entrepreneur he moved to Cyprus in his early 20’s, and today his company, Orpheus Group, incorporates a diversified holding situated at the forefront of Cyprus travel and property markets. In 2004, Mr. Starikovich became a naturalized Cypriot citizen, and since then has been an active figurehead in promoting a positive image of the island and its business and leisure opportunities to the outside world.
Roman’s journey to The Dakar started in spring 2015, while crossing paths with two-time Dakar champion, Nasser Al-Attiyah, during Cyprus-hosted leg of the ISSF shooting championship. Mr. Starikovich was highly impressed and inspired by Nasser’s Dakar experiences and decided to pursue his own dream of entering the competition himself in the nearest future in order to persuade a new challenge and to put the island of Cyprus on the map of global motorsport.
After the purchase of The Dessert Warrior, a custom made cross-country racing automobile, tailor-made by the British manufacturer Rally-Raid, Roman undertook extensive training sessions in Morocco under the guidance of the Rally Raid’s CEO, Paul Round, where Roman was set up with Mrs. Annie Seel, the most successful female racer in history, dubbed “The Dakar Princess”, and her co-driver, the Dakar-hardened Dutch, Bert Heskes.
In February 2016, Roman invited Bert to Cyprus as his honorable guest during the Famagusta Rally Sprint. It was there and then, where the two men established their common goal and enrolled into the 2017 edition of The Dakar Rally. Thus, Autolife Dakar.Team was born.
Roman continued his training throughout 2016 on the local soil, participating in Cyprus Rally Championship and scoring first within T1.2 category. He joined forces with Bert Heskes and they led the team to the 17th place (out or 35) at the biggest European rally – Hungarian Baja in August 2016, the highest result for Cyprus flag in the history of the competition. The only summit remained unconquered was the precious Dakar itself.
“A challenge for those who go, a dream for those who stay” – this famous quote attributed to the Dakar founder Thierry Sabine perfectly describes the spirit of this truly thrilling race. The above words opened up a new chapter in the history of Cyprus as a nation of sport, when it was revealed at the official Dakar 2017 Press Conference in November 2016 as the brand new country entering the competition. Roman personally attended the conference and met with the organizing committee chairs and fellow racers, including the likes of Nasser Al-Attiyah and Stephan Peterhansel. On the next day The Dessert Warrior vehicle was assigned a racing number of “376” and was loaded aboard the vessel en route to Argentina together with the Mercedes-Benz support truck. There was just under a month left until the rally would commence.
The 2017 volume of The Dakar Rally was marked as being a unique one: it was the first time Paraguay was selected as the hosting country in addition to the usual Dakar-receiving parties of Argentina and Bolivia; also it was the first edition to have the UTV category introduced, complementing the already existing “Golden Four” of cars, trucks, motorbikes and quadbikes. In terms of the raw popularity it also surpassed its predecessors: it was broadcasted in 190 countries, across 5 continents, over 500 journalists were covering the event live, the TV and online audiences were estimated to reach the mark beyond 1 billion, in addition, around 5 million spectators attended podium ceremonies and watched the race along the track.
Cyprus Team assembled in Buenos Aires a week before the completion began and consisted of the following members: Roman Starikovich (Pilot), Bert Heskes (Co-Pilot), Kurt Keysers (General Manager), Palo Fasko (Mechanic), Lubomir Palco (Mechanic), Theo Munckhof (Electrician), Stefanos Melikidis (Journalist), Mayra Pierce (Photographer). After receiving the vehicles from the port the team undertook a two-day haul to Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, where the mechanics started scrupulously preparing the vehicle for the race. The team’s camp in Asuncion was also visited by the former President of Paraguay, Raul Cubas, who expressed his astonishment at the fact that Cyprus had made it so far and wished the team best of luck.
On the 1st of January 2017, after two days of scrutiny checks by the ASO officials and almost one and a half years of preparation, the Dessert Warrior ascended to the starting podium of the Paraguayan capital and a large flag of Cyprus raised by Roman was unleashed before the thousands of local spectators for the first time in the history of The Dakar Rally.
Next day marked the beginning of what would become a two-week adventure, where the pilots faced immense difficulties and challenges. Cyprus team was competing in the car category together with 93 registered counterparts. Every day the team had to complete stages of the average length of 800 kilometres, most of which were off-road, with the level of toughness increasing hour by hour. At first their path lied across the Paraguay river and into the Argentinean prairies. After the town of San Salvador de Jujuy the long-assent to the Andes mountains began. It consisted of the sandy and fesh-fesh sections, where the drivers had to battle through elevated dunes. This part of the route saw even the best of the best, such as Nasser Al-Attiah (who suffered a constructive damage to the vehicle) and Carlos Sainz (who experienced a dramatic and nearly fatal fall off the track) eliminated from the race, yet Cyprus team was making its way through from checkpoint to checkpoint and across the Bolivian border, where it had to pass through the narrow high-land dry river gorge. About mid-way through the competition heavy weather conditions forced the ASO organizing committee to cancel a few stages and move the participants directly to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. There the Dakar contenders were met by the local audience of 650,000 people who came out on the streets and received ovations from the crowds during the podium ceremony on the main city square, that was opened by the Bolivian President, Evo Morales. Yet again, Roman Starikovich, proudly displayed a flag of Cyprus on the elevated podium stage.
After spending the 8th of January in La Paz the team had to endure the toughest test yet, that began with the inception of the supermarathon stage where the mechanical help was prohibited from reaching to the team for two days straight. Despite significant technical failures en route, Roman and Bert managed to temporarily fix certain problems “in the field” and made it to the next camp.
After entering Argentina, the Rally presented the team with the new toll of challenges, especially while passing through the infamous fesh-fesh sections, but by the 14th of January it was clear that a team from Cyprus will qualify for the finish line, thus successfully passing the race. At noon (local time), Roman and Bert completed the Dakar Rally 2017 on the 45th position in the car category out of 93, a fantastic result for the amateur racers, one of which was having his first Dakar experience to date.
On the very same day the main street of Buenos-Aires was closed for the special Dakar parade and the final podium. Cyprus Team caught careful eye of the photographers and TV reporters, with Roman being interviewed by many local and international chanels and publishers. At the podium the pilots were awarded memorable medals and for the first time in history of the contest Cyprus flag rose in the air at the final stage of the second biggest motorsport competition on the planet.
As a result of team’s participation in The Dakar Rally, the prestige, image and recognition of Cyprus was significantly broadened within the South American and European public, since the media conglomerate gathered at the event elaborated on the story of Roman and Bert and provided and immense coverage for it to reach out to all the corners of the planet.
In the past 40 years, the island of Cyprus was misrepresented at The Dakar Rally, yet 2017 brought in a new accomplishment materialized by Roman Starikovich and Autolife Dakar.Team!