You heard me right: a Mercedes-Benz Viano has scored a class win at the 19th Rally des Gazelles, the world's only all-female off-road rally.
This ain't no namby-pamby dirt track sojourn either: it's nine full days of hard slog through the axle-swallowing sand of the Morrocan desert. Taking a relatively unmodified Mercedes people-mover to victory in the SUV class is a pretty impressive feat.
Irishwoman Jeanette James and French?woman Anne-Marie Ortola crewed the Viano during its first-ever rally outing. What's even more remarkable is that not only did they beat some far more capable machinery, but this was their first attempt at the Rallye des Gazelles.
Little surprise then that they also won the 'Best Newcomers' trophy.
James and Ortola's Viano was remarkably close to factory standard, with the only rally-specific modifications being a roll cage, racing seats and a pair of six-point harnesses. The engine was standard and the 4MATIC four-wheel-drive system was unmodified.
"Some people probably under?estimated us when we took the start with the Viano and its all-wheel drive," Ms James said.
"But the Mercedes-Benz van proved incredibly robust and reliable, whether we were driving over hardest rocky tracks or ploughing through extremely soft desert sand."
Stuttgart - It was a perfect premiere.
The first time a Mercedes-Benz Viano was entered in a rallye competition, straightway the MPV took first place in the SUV category.
Seated at the wheel of the vehicle (for the most part a production model) in this 19th Rallye des Gazelles were Irishwoman Jeanette James and French?woman Anne-Marie Ortola.
The two also won the special prize for first-time competitors in their class.
The world's only women's rallye went through the Moroccan desert, as in previous years. The only difference between the desert Viano and its series counterpart was a roll-over cage, racing-style bucket seats and the six-point seat belts.
The 2009 Rallye des Gazelles began on 17 March in the royal city of Meknes and finished on 28 March in Essaouira on the Atlantic coast. In between, the 119 international women's teams had to master a prologue and six stages, including two two-day marathon legs, on nine competition days.
Starting time each day was 6 a.m. The minimum daily time scheduled between the start and finish of each stage averaged eleven hours in which the teams had to pass as many as eight checkpoints.
"I'd always dreamed of competing in the Rallye des Gazelles," said Viano winner Jeanette James, who works as an off-road driving trainer in southern France.
"This year's race was very tough ? more gruelling than the past races. This was the assessment made by the seasoned team. Some people probably under?estimated us when we took the start with the Viano and its all-wheel drive. But the Mercedes-Benz van proved incredibly robust and reliable, whether we were driving over hardest rocky tracks or ploughing through extremely soft desert sand. Like everyone else, of course, we had to shovel our vehicle free at times or change tyres. That's a part of the deal! But all the stress and strain were forgotten when we crossed the finished line as winners."
The Rallye des Gazelles is different from other competitions. Navigation with map material, by coordinates and with compass ? entirely without the help of GPS ? counts above all.
The winner is not the fastest team, but the one that finds the shortest route from point A to point B.
Anyone who makes detours or doesn't find the checkpoints gets penalty kilometres.
Repair jobs such as the daily changing of the air filter also are among the tasks of the women's teams.
During the two marathon legs the teams spend the night in the desert. Mutual assistance is entirely in the spirit of the rallye. The rallye organisers support environmental projects to compensate for the CO2 emissions produced during the rallye.
The prize money goes towards aid projects in Morocco.
Comprehensive safety features
The Electronic Stability Program (ESP?), fade-resistant disc brakes all round, anti-lock braking system (ABS), electronic brake force distribution (EBD), acceleration skid control (ASR) and the hydraulic Brake Assist (BAS) are obligatory equip?ment, as are airbags for driver and co-driver.
Thorax sidebags (standard equip?ment in the Viano Ambiente) and windowbags are available as optional extras. Adaptive brake lights further enhance the already exemplary safety level.
The Viano is exceptionally safe with a trailer in tow too: trailer stabilisation as an additional function of ESP detects dangerous fishtailing of a trailer or caravan and reduces it by selective braking action.
A factory-fitted trailer coupling is a prerequisite. ESP? trailer stabilisation recognizes a trailer when it is connected to the towing vehicle by means of the electric connector plug during the coupling procedure.
CDI diesel engine: lots of power but low fuel consumption.
The proven four-cylinder CDI diesel engines with a displacement of 2148 cc have two output levels, 85 kW and 110 kW. These engines are distinguished by lower fuel consumption, low exhaust emissions, high flexibility and good responsiveness.
Responsible for these qualities is, among other things, a fuel injection system featuring common rail technology (CDI) and rapidl and precise piezo injectors borrowed from Mercedes-Benz car engine technology.
The V6 diesel power plant with a displacement of 2987 cc attains outstanding power and torque, with output of 150 kW and maximum a torque of 440 Nm at 1800-2400 rpm.
Permanent four-wheel drive in the Viano 4MATIC
The Viano already comes with good traction owing to its rear-wheel drive ? in laden condition too. For special requirements it is available in mnay markets with all-wheel drive (not available in Australia).
In normal operation on surfaces that provide good grip the Viano 4MATIC transfers driving power to the wheels in a 35:65 split between front and rear axle.
What makes 4MATIC so special is that it dispenses with mechanical differential locks. Instead the all-wheel drive teams up with the electronic traction system 4ETS, which already has proved a success in the M-Class of Mercedes-Benz and other series.
If one or more wheels lose traction on a slippery surface, 4ETS automatically applies brief pulses of brake pressure to the spinning wheels while increasing the torque to wheels with good grip.
For this purpose, 4ETS uses the ABS wheel sensors. This automatic brake actuation by means of 4ETS can simulate the effect of as many as three differential locks.