Hervé Cotel is a Dakar legend. The Frenchman has been building his own buggies to compete in the infamous cross-country race since 1980 and got on the podium in his only second event. We caught up with him to see what’s next for the daring dune king.
Hervé, you’re a cross country legend. Tell us how you got started in racing?
As soon as I got my driver's license when I was 18, I practiced auto cross with cars destined for destruction. As these cars were not reliable, I decided to build my own to use on all-terrain rallies in France. Then the Dakar arrived in 1979. I said to myself that I had to do the next Dakar in 1980.
You make your own buggies? 29 in total. Why do you do this and what’s the process?
The 4x4 cars are too expensive so, with a friend (my co-driver), I built a two-wheel-drive buggy on a tubular chassis that I also made, with a V6 PRV Renault engine. At the age of 32, we finished the 13th rally in the general classification out of 109 cars. That encouraged us to continue in the rallies. For the 1981 Dakar we modified and improved this buggy to finish second in the general class and first in the two-wheel-drive category out of 166 in total. The passion has always been there from the start and I’ve always wanted to continue to build and drive my cars. I have made 24 unique cars plus five modified prototypes that I’ve raced with so far. For me, it’s an immense satisfaction and pride to rally in cars made with my own two hands.
Do you use Motul oil in your buggies and why?
For many years, I have been using Motul 300V 20W60 or 15W40 oil. Why? Because before, I used oils of different brands, which were more or less effective. But after trying Motul 300V, I’ve continued using it for over 15 years. It’s a very efficient oil that works well under extremely difficult conditions like the heat and the maximum engine speeds required to keep going in the dunes, so we don’t get bogged down. Good lubrication and cooling are the key to engine reliability. On my successive buggies I’ve used three types of engine: the V6 PRV 3L, the flat-six Porsche 3.6 L and the V8 Chevrolet LS3, 6.3 L and always with Motul 300V 20W60.
You’re competing later this year in the rally de pioneers. How are you preparing for it?
I was contacted by Pascal François, the organizer of the Pioneer Rally, to compete in this with the old Dakar cars. For that, I was able to find my first buggy that I built 40 years ago. I’d sold it and lost sight of it for 30 years. I found it again, but it was a wreck that I’m in the process of restoring. It’s a sentimental crush… my first 40-year-old buggy will be reborn!
Tell us about competing in the Dakar. How tough is it?
Competition in the Dakar is not very difficult when you have a reliable car and a good team. For this, several criteria must be met: have simple and reliable technology. Have logic on the ground. Try to anticipate likely breakdowns in the workshop. Have logistics and a car adapted to your means. Constantly improve with the simplest possible solutions. And always think how you can improve for the future. A racing car is a constant evolution. And of course, there are the men, staying confined in a cabin for two weeks and concentrating between six and 10 hours a day. So, you need a very solid co-pilot relationship.
What’s your secret to going fast off road?
How to go fast in all terrain? There is no secret. It is to anticipate and quickly take the best option on the track. My motto is: "You have to know how to go slowly, to go fast".