Rally: the motorway just isn't enough for Actros driver Simón de los Santos

Story

Uphill.

Arriving on time and a safe journey – that is what is most important to Actros driver Simón de los Santos. However, the thrill of driving at full throttle remains his passion.

Uncoupling on Friday – the haulage jobs are finished for this week.

It just isn't possible. The weather apps still can't provide them with a reliable forecast. Do they need to fit rain tyres or will the normal racing rubbers be enough? Simón has to make the decision right now. It rained during the night. Here in the valley the roads are damp, but apparently the route is dry higher up. The sky is full of clouds. It's another 20 minutes until the test drive. Five metres further on, another driver is playing with the accelerator. It's 8:15 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

Two days ago, Lesaka, Navarra province in Spain: 30 minutes south east of Donostia-San Sebastián, Simón de los Santos finishes for the day. He delivered bread in his Actros to a place close to Nantes. He uncouples the refrigerated semitrailer on the forecourt of his customer, the Bidasoa group. His family owns a small business with two Actros 1845 vehicles. He has been travelling through France since Monday. "That is part of the job," says Simón and takes off his work gloves. He jumps light-footedly back into the cab and grabs his paperwork. All that's left to do is to go into the warehouse and say bye then it'll be the weekend – a rally weekend. Simón is taking part in the Basque mountain championships as a driver.


The Actros is always there. The logo of the family-run company decorates the side of the rally car.

Navarra, located between the Pyrenees and the Ebro river, is a region with a healthy economy. The family's small company has a lot to do. Simón's older brother, Mauro, also drives for the company, while his mother takes care of the bookkeeping. Simón is single. Not coming home until the weekend is okay for him. "Usually, I sleep well in the truck," says the 26-year old. At night in the berth, he watches rally videos on YouTube.

Simón was already dreaming of driving in a rally when he was twelve years old. Really, he is the quiet type – not one for showing emotions. However, when he talks about his hobby, his enthusiasm just pours out: "As soon as I am sitting in the car, I forget about everything around me. It's great." He gets the rest of his stuff out of the cab.


Safety first: team colleague and friend, Ariel, helps Simón into the protective clothing.

"I have taught myself a lot," Simón tells us. He hasn't time for any proper driving training. "Driving a truck is my job. Rally driving will stay a hobby." At 18 and a beginner driver, most of his money went on petrol. "Others of the same age preferred to spend their money partying." He, on the other hand, got into his car at night or early in the morning when there was no traffic and drove off. "Not to take myself and the car to the limit, of course. But you do get experience on gradients and tight bends, for example. I drove those over and over again." It takes not just driving talent but a lot of money, equipment and licences to race.


Concentration before the start – Simón at the wheel of his rally car.

A difference in altitude of 300 metres.

It's his first season and the Aia Hillclimb which is the next race on the cards is his third ranked race. "Hillclimb", because it goes uphill for 3.78 kilometres. The difference in altitude between start and finish is 300 metres. The recipe for success: pedal to the metal, brake late and whatever you do, don't shift into the wrong gear. Simón: "I want to gain experience and see how well I can keep up. Nearly all of the drivers have been driving longer than me. It will be difficult."

Simón arrives in Aia a day before the race with his brother, Mauro, and friend, Ariel. On the trailer: his car; red with a 16 valve engine and 103 kW. The first hurdle: if the car doesn't get through the technical check, Simón won't be able to start tomorrow. "Approval is just as important as the race itself," he says while he sticks the number "60" on the front-passenger door. 60 is the highest starting number in the race – Simón must start first tomorrow.

The radiator grille cover and fuel line are not sufficiently protected. "I have two hours to put it right." The cordless drill whirs: Ariel drills holes into the bumper in order to fix the new grille in front of the radiator. They strengthen the fuel line with tape. Finally, one of the men in a polo shirt hands Simón a certificate.

It is now 8:30 p.m. The drivers take their cars down to Andatza in the valley. That's it for today, time for bed.


The next morning, Simón's father joins the group. "Initially, my parents didn't want me to drive rallies. In the meantime they support me," he says, looking past the roof of the pavilion under which the car is parked towards the sky. He still hasn't decided which tyres he should mount.

The main road of the small town looks like a pit lane. Even the small engines make an enormous noise – the vehicles have no exhaust silencer. The road up to Aia has now been blocked for normal traffic. Simón polishes the windscreen so that it doesn't mist up during the race. An engine revs close by. "There are cars here that cost 90,000 euros. That is a different league," says Mauro and checks the tyre pressure.


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The decision has been made: Simón won't change the tyres. The expensive rain tyres could lose too much rubber on the upper part of the route where the road is already dry.

Again and again he gets in the car and grabs the steering wheel. Mauro lets a little bit of air out of the tyres. Simón is a rookie participant. "Others will be vying for the top spots today. I am just trying to see what is in it for me." The route is short with dangerous curves. "Just one mistake and you can forget about driving a good time." The test drive is important. If he gets knocked out, the stage or even the whole season may be over.

He drives in sinuous lines up to the start in order to warm up the tyres. But first the safety car has to complete the route. Only then does the official give the signal to start.


Rally-mad Basque country.

Acceleration is better than expected. Simón makes good time. Fans cheer along the route. Many of them have already spent the night here. There are many rally-mad people in the Basque country. The mountains and serpentine bends make competitions attractive. The car after Simón has lost oil. Now the fire service has to clean the road; only then can the race continue.

Of the three races which have to be driven from now, the fastest will count for the ranking. The engine speed must remain high to ensure a good speed. That is why most of the drivers brake with their left foot whilst keeping their right foot on the accelerator. "Those driving right at the front here, brake with their left foot. I don't; I want to gain more experience first." Mauro and Ariel have come to the starting line too and knock on the car roof to say goodbye. It's now or never.



Simón gets a good start again. He speeds through the bends. He is one second faster than during the test drive: 2 minutes 28 seconds. For another driver the race is already over. His car lies on its roof next to the course. The team is already celebrating at the van: Simón and his car can hold their own at the rally!

It starts to rain. All of the men help change the tyres. in the meantime the fans have got out their umbrellas and tarpaulins. The wet road doesn't make Simón's time any better – but he stays on the course. However the race doesn't end without leaving its mark on the car: in the last bends going up to Aia the radiator fails. "There is a lot to do before the next stage," he says and still gives a satisfied grin.

The race is over. Of the 16 participants in his category, he is in fifth place! Tomorrow at 7:30 a.m. Simón will be sitting back behind the wheel of the Actros.

Photos: Sebastian Vollmert

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