Sunday, June 23, 2024

Masahito Watanabe, Masahiro Ozeki bring Ural Gear Up to AXCR

Cross-country rallies are long and arduous adventures, so one has to hope their steed can complete the trip. While your average rally raider races on four wheels in a car and quad or two wheels via bike, Masahito Watanabe and Masahiro Ozeki decided to buck the trend for this week’s Asia Cross Country Rally by showing up with three wheels.

Watanabe and Ozeki are racing together on an Ural Gear Up, a sidecar motorcycle manufacturered by IMZ-Ural. The effort comes under the Rising Sun Racing banner with support from the Japan Racing Sidecar Association, which sanctions sidecar pavement racing but has also backed AXCR entries since 2017.

Their Ural Gear Up has a 750cc air-cooled flat engine with two cylinders. It is a two-wheel-drive bike with the drive coming from the attached sidecar.

In 2022, the Watanabe/Ozeki duo received a thirteen-hour penalty in the first stage that prevented them from gaining any ground for the rest of the race. Tetsuo Iwamoto and Takeshi Sakamoto won the sidecar class in another Ural. Although not racing for 2023, Iwamoto is working with Watanabe and Ozeki as a mechanic.

While they are grouped together in the overall classification with the twenty-one bikes, Watanabe and Ozeki are considered part of a separate Sidecar category.

After two days, the team has already experienced a spate of misfortunes. They rolled their sidecar on the first leg afer hitting a piece of concrete hidden in bushes, causing Watanabe to hit his head on the ground while Ozeki hurt his knee. While both were not seriously injured and continued, Stage #2 brought more trouble when they got stuck in the sand after spinning the rear wheels, damaging the clutch plate and necessitating more repairs.

Despite their difficulties, the team remains in the race. After two stages, they sit fifteenth overall.

Even if overshadowed by their two-wheeled counterparts, sidecars have somewhat of a history in rally raid especially at the legendary Dakar Rally during its infancy. However, only two sidecar teams officially completed the Paris–Dakar: Ronny Renders and Herman Verboven finished twenty-fifth on an EML/Suzuki 1000cc in 1983, while Daniel Mocquart and Marc Fèvre on their Suzuki GSX 1100 ran out of time the following year but was classified anyway in fifty-third. In 2022, Vanessa and Alex Ruck raced the O Nosso Dakar adventure rally in Portugal on an Ural Gear Up, completing the event’s full course despite sidecars being allowed to take detours.

Scooters are another unorthodox vehicle to have competed in cross-country rally bike categories. Most notably, two Vespa P200 scooters completed the second Paris–Dakar Rally in 1980 with Marc Simonot and Bernard Tcherniavsky. In May, the Taklimakan Rally in neighbouring China saw Wang Shanshan attempt to take part on a Royal Alloy 300 but switched to a standard rally bike after the scooter failed pre-race scrutineering.

The Asia Cross Country Rally began on Sunday and runs through 19 August, taking competitors from Pattaya, Thailand, to Pakse, Laos.