Another key term: ‘hard work’. Last season – his third driving the X-Raid MINI ALL4 Racing – proved incredibly successful, for although victory on the Dakar eluded him (he would finish fourth after problems early on dropped him out of the top ten), victories came on the Hungarian Baja, Baja Aragon in Spain, Desafio Ruta 40 in Argentina and the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge. It was a hard-fought win in the UAE, one which Nani was looking good to repeat earlier this year until illness took hold and ground proceedings to a halt.
“It’s always during endurance rallies that I have problems like this. On the bikes it wasn’t an issue, but it is in the car especially in the UAE, and I’m not sure why. This year in Abu Dhabi, I won the first stage, and on the second I stopped maybe seven times. My stomach was completely destroyed and the world was turning in my head. It’s always difficult to decide whether you should stop. A little pain is no problem: I’ve driven with broken fingers in the past. But when you are sick, you lose all your energy and you feel sleepy in the car. This is dangerous. And in Abu Dhabi, I couldn’t focus my eyes properly, so Michel and I decided to stop. I’m only human!”
It seems remarkable, given his years of biking experience over the dunes that motion sickness should prove an Achilles heel for Nani. It’s rarely the only one though. One particularly frustrating year on the Dakar came in 2000, his third from an eventual eight seasons with KTM. Having led the event from the off aboard the LC4 660 R, an engine issue struck with just two days of the event to run, relegating the Spaniard to 17th at the flag after a prolonged engine change.
For the next season Nani would depart to BMW (for his one and only year on two Bavarian wheels), a hard lesson learnt.
“That was horrible. That year was my year, believe me. With KTM, our bike was not in condition to fight Yamaha and BMW for the wins. There were too many mechanical mistakes and I stopped too many times from engine problems.
“But I learnt a lot from that, and I still do. When you drive/ride and stay in the top five, that’s one thing. When you’re leading the race for days and days, it’s a whole new pressure. So I’ve learnt to manage this position, being fast but consistent. And because of that, I think Dakar is a really interesting rally. Not just the victory – that’s already in the past – but for me, it’s nice to feel these different things. Some times it’s hard, sometimes everything goes your way, but you’re always learning.”
Bizarrely, 17th in 2000 and his victory in 2004 stand as the only classified finishes for Nani on two wheels on the Dakar. In 2005, the Spaniard made the jump to Mitsubishi for his four-wheel initiation: “I was 32 years old, and it was time to try something different.” A solid run netted him sixth straight out the bag in the Pajero as well as first place at home on the Baja-Spain. A podium came calling on the Dakar the following year, though the results wouldn’t start to roll in until 2012 (following another two fruitless seasons with BMW). In 2012, the new X-Raid MINI ALL4 Racings proved the vehicles to beat, securing Nani and co-driver Michel second behind Peterhansel. So successful has the relationship been that Nani’s 23 stage victories ties him with five-time winner Marc Coma in 13th on the all-time list.”
“When Mitsubishi stopped, I moved to BMW, but the company wasn’t really involved with rallying. MINI though is an amazing brand, and it has competition in its blood from the Monte Carlo Rally and Mr Cooper. Also the MINI guys have an open mind, and to show to the world that they can win one of the toughest motorsport races in the world with a Countryman, this is something amazing. I enjoy working with MINI, I enjoy working with X-Raid, and for me it’s a nice new challenge.”
In 2015, Nani and Michel will have their work cut out when Peugeot makes its much-publicised return to the Dakar for the first time in 25 years. With former winners Carlos Sainz and Cyril Despres on-board (the former a two-time World Rally Champion, the latter making his first Dakar start on four wheels), the competition will be tough. For Nani though, it’s just another exciting challenge.
“This is important for us, that a new factory team is coming. It’s a big motivation for us for a big team to come in with a good car, good drivers and a good budget. The value of your victory is measured against the cars and drivers you are fighting. And that’s what’s important for me. My life has to involve passion, and this is the reason I love this job. The day when my passion is gone or has slowed down, this is the day I stop. But at the moment, the desire to continue and try to win again is still there. It will be for a long time.”
– Shots courtesy of X-Raid.de