A year ago, when race organizers moved the historically brutal, long-distance, off-road Dakar Rally from Africa to South America, François Lurton, who owns wineries in Argentina and Chile as well as in Spain, Portugal and his native France, sponsored a team that completed the grueling exercise in triumph and masochism. In January, as hundreds of teams of buggies, motorcycles and trucks pulled out of Buenos Aires for the second Dakar rally to be held in the mountains and deserts of Argentina and Chile, Lurton was behind the wheel of his team’s Audi V6, with chief enologist Guillaume Martineau at his side as co-pilot. Facing over 9,000 kilometers of hostile terrain and 14 punishing stages spread over two weeks in January, the height of the South American summer, the Lurton team consisted of 14 members traveling with a fourwheel drive vehicle and a pair of buggies for racing.
Things started out well for Team Lurton, but this being the Dakar Rally, there would surely be hell to pay. On Leg 3, Lurton compressed a lumbar vertebrae while trying to jump a ditch near Fiambalá, Argentina; a trip to the hospital and a cortisone injection ensued. A couple of days later, the team’s 4-wheeler went out; but Lurton and Co. forged on. Ultimately Lurton and Martineau finished in 51st place out of the 138 buggies that started the rally. Wine Enthusiast recently spoke with Lurton about the experience:
Wine Enthusiast: Overall, was it more torture than triumph, or more triumph than torture?
François Lurton: It started out great, but after I broke my L1 vertebrae,it was very painful for the remaining days. Every morning was a strugglejust to stand up straight. I had to go to a hospital for a cortisone injection. Things were better from that point on.
WE: What was the most incredible thing you saw during the rally?
FL: It had to be the dunes in northern Chile. We have dunes in Bordeaux that reach 200 meters in height. The ones up near Antofagasta and Copiapó are 1,000 meters, all covered with this fine sandy powder that we call feche- feche in French. It’s like powdered sugar, and the car just swims in it.
WE: Who did most of the driving?
FL: I did all the driving; about 10 hours per day on average.
WE: What was the best part of the experience?
FL: The human experience; the interaction I had with Guillaume, our 14-person team, and the other drivers. I was able to look deep into myself and put things in perspective. I also saw things in both countries that I’d never seen before and may never see again.
WE: And the worst part of the experience?
FL: The pain from my back injury.
WE: Were you surprised that you finished the rally?
FL: When we left Buenos Aires I was sure we’d finish. But two or three times along the way I lost confidence and wanted to stop. But Guillaume was a great co-pilot. He motivated me to continue.
WE: What was the closest you came to dropping out?
FL: One night in the Chilean desert we had to sleep outside because we finished the stage so late [and could not make it to camp in the dark]. I was very discouraged because our tire compressor had broken, and so we couldn’t adjust our tire pressure. I met this Spanish guy who was doing his ninth Dakar. I told him I was ready to stop, but he said don’t. He said if the car won’t work, yes, we should stop. But if not, keep going. You will regret it forever if you quit.
WE: Which was the most difficult stage of the race?
FL: Probably up near Iquique (Chile) in the Atacama Desert. It was where the most people broke down. And seeing that we were near the back, we spent a lot of time helping others who were in worse shape than we were.
WE: Did you witness any serious wrecks or injuries?
FL: We saw a helicopter crash near Fiambalá, but fortunately it went down soft and slow, so nobody was hurt. And we saw a few trucks
flipped upside down, literally rolling down the dunes.
WE: It has been noted that you took wine with you? Did you drink it?
FL: Prior to the rally, we gave a bottle of Lurton Malbec Reserva to every racer. I wasn’t planning on drinking any wine during the race
because it’s so demanding and long. But the night we slept outside in the Chilean desert a truck racer stopped and offered us his bottle of my wine. I took it and we drank it under the stars.
WE:Would you do this again or was it a once-in-a-lifetime experience?
FL: I think with my back as it is I will stick to sponsoring a team like we did in the past. Also, there’s so much preparation and practice
involved; I don’t really have the time given my business.