This Saturday a small team of British and American drivers and navigators will set out in a fleet of Land Rover Defender-based QT Wildcat off-roaders to compete in the Dakar Rally, the world's most gruelling long-distance race. It's a deadly serious affair that has claimed more than 50 lives since 1978, cuts across three countries in 15 days and has become a symbol of full-throttle adventure. But not any of this seems to worry the Race2Recovery team, made up of six former soldiers who lost limbs or suffered serious injury while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The idea for a team of disabled veterans came about in 2009 when the Race2Recovery co-founder Anthony Harris, a captain in the Royal Fusiliers, met Tom Neathway, a corporal in the Parachute Regiment, at Headley Court, the army's rehabilitation centre in Surrey. They had both lost limbs to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan and were looking for a "challenge" to give themselves a "goal for the future".
"There was an opportunity to try rallying and we both wanted to show what was possible and the idea of tackling the Dakar sprang from there" Harris, 31, says. He lost his leg after an IED exploded under his Jackal armoured vehicle in 2009 and now leads a team of walking wounded drivers and navigators. They include: Neathway; the Army medic Andrew Taylor; US Marine Mark Zambon; Royal Fusilier Matt O'Hare; Irish Guardsman Philip Gillespie; and several professional drivers.
The Dakar Rally, which is actually held in South America after fears of terrorism forced a move from West Africa in 2009, is probably the world's most challenging endurance race and in an age of dull Formula One processions, it runs 4,970 miles of the most inhospitable terrain Peru, Argentina and Chile have to offer. To tackle this extreme route the team's four Land Rover Wildcats will be supported by a team of mechanics in South America and on-call experts back in the UK to help maintain the team's prosthetics.
"There's no denying it will be a real challenge for us," Harris says. "But there's less of us to damage so we're a lot harder to injure. In all seriousness though, seconds count in motorsport but it's a sport where nobody cares if you are disabled or not. In fact, you're positively encouraged to use the latest technology, whether on your car or on your prosthetics, to get the best result."
A case in point for Harris, who lost his left leg below the knee after an infection from an IED blast, was the clutch on his Wildcat. He was unable to feel the biting point until the team's mechanics fitted a special warning light system to let him know when the pedal was depressed. An even greater challenge faces Neathway, though, who lost both legs above the knee and his left arm after triggering a booby-trapped sandbag in Helmand Province in 2008.
"My prosthetics are not built to withstand the condition on the rally, by which I mean shocks, knocks and extremes of temperature," he says. "They are meant to last about five years in normal conditions, but with all the punishment I'm putting them through, mine will probably only survive two years." He is taking two spare sets of legs with him to South America and, like the other above-knee amputees, will need to make sure his limbs are free of sand and fully charged from his car's on-board power supply.
"The real challenge for the Race 2 Recovery team will be the natural South American sand," says Chris Evans, a Dakar veteran who helps organise the event and has followed Race2Recovery's progress in training and test events in the UK and at the Tuareg rally in Morocco. "Everyone is behind them, but the sand is soft and it will be really tough for them if they get stuck and need to dig out one of their vehicles in the searing heat. That's a challenging prospect that beats many people who are fully able."
Martin Colclough, head of sports recovery at Help For Heroes, agrees the Dakar will be a new challenge for the team. "Modern prosthetics are very robust," he says. "But the conditions on Dakar will test the team's limbs to the limit because, as with all modern technology, sometimes prosthetics trade off robustness with function." He says the biggest challenge will face Neathway: "The drivers mainly have below-knee amputations so fairly simple prosthetics they can maintain with their personal maintenance pack of Allen keys, grease, oil and grub screw. But for the amputees with more complex needs like Tom, the biggest risks are the kinds of shocks they are going to experience over rough terrain and the extremes of temperature."
All the drivers and navigators are also likely to face exhaustion and pain related to their amputation sites over the course of the rally. Limbs removed surgically, in the treatment of cancer for example, tend to have very clean stumps, but limbs lost in combat are often irregular and can still have shrapnel embedded in them. Socket technology is advancing and organisations like Help For Heroes and British Limbless Ex Service Men's Association are working on thearapies, while researchers at MIT are working on biomechatronic limb sockets, but this will still be a major area of concern for the team.
"Their sockets are made of carbon-fibre material and shock-loading on those can result in cracking and discomfort. There's also the risk of fungal infection to worry about, so the guys need to be meticulous about caring for their stumps" Colclough says.
The Dakar Rally is an expensive undertaking and Race2Recovery would not have got this far if it hadn't been for technical and logistical support from Land Rover, donations from the public and sponsorship from Google (among others) and The Royal Foundation Endeavour Fund, the charity created by The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry. It was only last month that the team confirmed they had enough funding to go ahead. "We hope to raise as much as £1m for Help For Heroes and Tedworth House," Harris says.
As well as raising money for Tedworth House, one of the five recovery centres set up in partnership between the Ministry of Defence, Help for Heroes and The Royal British Legion, the team are working to rebuild themselves for the future in line with its tagline "beyond injury, achieving the extraordinary".
Alone that's a fantastic story, but says Colclough, it's not the only amazing thing Race2Recovery could achieve. "All of the mechanical equipment, from their Land Rover engines to their sockets and prosthetic limbs, are going to be tested to the limit out there, so we're going to get excellent feedback for the development of future technology and sports rehabilitation."