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Driven by the meaning of life

I feel like I've got my life back," Captain Tony Harris smiled.

The harsh, unforgiving landscape of the Dakar Rally will be a gruelling challenge for Captain Tony Harris, below, and Corporal Tom Neathway
The harsh, unforgiving landscape of the Dakar Rally will be a gruelling challenge for Captain Tony Harris, below, and Corporal Tom Neathway

"So I have no regrets – well, I would prefer not to have been blown up." Forty-four months after regaining consciousness in the wrecked remains of his Jackal – a heavily armed British Army patrol vehicle – in Helmand's most deadly district, Sangin, the Afghanistan veteran will tackle the world's most demanding rally, the 5000-mile Dakar, starting on Saturday.

His debut in the gruelling event, which this year starts in Lima, the capital of Peru, and finishes in Santiago, Chile, on January 20, comes nine years after Scot Colin McRae tackled the event for the first time with Nissan in 2004.

"I remember Colin doing the Dakar," Captain Harris said, "and, like so many other guys, I thought, 'I quite fancy doing that, too'."

That, though, was probably the furthest thing from his mind as he slowly opened his eyes on May 21, 2009, as the dust and debris settled around him, and the ear-shattering deafness from the blast of an improvised explosive device (IED) gave way to the muffled instructions being bellowed at him by his colleagues. As a then 27-year-old captain with A Company, 2nd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, he had been sitting in the commander's seat of the Jackal when it drove over the IED.

"The blast goes off under the wheel and the shockwave goes through the metal and shatters both my heels," he recalls. "Thankfully, that was the only injury my legs got."

He skips over the fact the blast also shattered his left elbow. Of greater consequence, though, was the infection which ravaged his left foot over the following 10 months and resulted in his leg being amputated below the knee.

Chatting with Captain Harris, he makes a casual reference to the fact "it's not a bad injury". How does he rationalise that statement?

"Compared to the injuries some of the other guys have received, then, yes, it's not bad," he explained. "Unless I wear shorts, most people can't tell I have the injury. I've worked hard to reduce the visibility of the injury in the way I walk, or the way that I do things. I'm not ashamed of it; I'm not ashamed of how I got it or what I did. The public support has been remarkable. We're so grateful. Motorsport has been brilliant: it has made such a difference to our recoveries."

Now the final piece on this part of his recovery sees Captain Harris and his 28-strong Race2Recovery team become the first disability team to tackle the Dakar, an event in which traditionally only 40% of those who start finish.

Race2Recovery – with its four competitive, custom-built QT Wildcat rally raid cars backed by Land Rover – consists of wounded service personnel, veterans and expert civilians. There are six amputees in the team, which is the brainchild of Captain Harris and 28-year-old Corporal Tom Neathway. They met at Headley Court in Surrey as part of their rehabilitation from injuries suffered in Afghanistan. Corporal Neathway lost both legs and his left arm after triggering a booby trap in 2008.

To see them, Corporal Neathway especially, nimbly ease their way into the near-claustrophobic cockpit of the Wildcat – effortlessly negotiating the restricting rollcage which left me with a bruised leg and nursing a bump on the head after I'd ungainly wrestled my way into the car – is nothing short of inspiring.

They may not win Paralympic gold medals, or receive the adulation of an 80,000-packed stadium, but what they're doing is easily worthy of such acclaim. Not only was the decision to tackle the Dakar the ultimate motivation to speed their own recovery, it was also intended to show other injured service personnel what can be achieved.

The Race2Recovery team are also raising the profile of, and funds for, Tedworth House – one of six personnel recovery centres in the UK, which is part of a Ministry of Defence-led initiative to assist with the recovery of wounded, injured and sick servicemen and women – and Help for Heroes.

But why motorsport? And, of all things, why the Dakar? "Anything less is just not worth doing," Harris, who will drive one of the Wildcats, stated matter of factly. "It had to be the toughest, most gruelling rally. It's also an incredible adventure. But we chose motorsport because it's a level playing field.

"And everyone in the motorsport world has welcomed and supported us. I've set myself quite a high goal, as have the rest of the guys in the team. Just by setting those targets, we can really drive our capabilities.

"But we also chose motorsport because you can use technology."

That statement may appear simple, after all we're used to state-of-the-art technology in the likes of Formula One. But the technical requirements of Race2Recovery – the crews will spend 10-16 hours a day in the car, often at speeds well in excess of 100mph, and cover around 500kms in a stage in baking temperatures – are somewhat different.

"Tom's an above-the-knee amputee," Captain Harris explained, "so his knees have pistons in them; he's also got an electric chip in there. So his legs lose charge, even when he's just sitting co-driving.

"So, from a number of aspects, the most crucial being safety, they need to be recharged. We need to monitor how much power we've got in the alternator; how much drain is that having?

"As a co-driver, because he only has one arm, Tom obviously can't flick through a traditional paper mapbook. So we've incorporated the electronic roller system, used by the guys who do the Dakar on motorbikes, which lets him scroll the route up and down.

"It's things like that we're pioneering, and we've had other competitors looking at it suddenly going, 'why didn't we think of that?'."

They may be the first disability team to tackle the Dakar – the ultimate test of driving, navigational and mechanical skills – but it's safe to bet they'll also be the first to complete the challenge.

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