Two decades of the Dakar

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It started as a new year’s jolly for high-living Frenchmen in the 1970s but became a high-tech showpiece in the ‘80s. Jeremy Hart looks at the most gruelling rally of them all – the Paris-Dakar

January 1982. Tears at Number 10, newsreaders scrabbling for a map of north-west Africa and travel agents panicking to get News of the World scribes on the first plane to Timbuktu.

Lost, for reasons still unexplained, in a land inhabited only by scorpions, camels and mirages, Mark Thatcher, the PM’s enfant terrible, brought hope to the cartographically challenged but failed to inspire many other English explorers to follow his footsteps.

Just another headline-grabbing moment in the 20 year history of what started as a bourgeois Frenchman’s New Year jolly and amazingly is still recognised, if only by the mention of Thatcher’s name, as the toughest rally on earth, and the most costly, both in human and monetary terms.

In the wake of other great motoring marathons in the 1960s and ’70s, like the London-Sydney, London Mexico and their French equivalents, the Paris-Dakar was conceived by Thierry Sabine, a modem-day French adventurer in the mould of history’s greatest travellers.

Unlike the seriousness of the Anglophone events, Sabine’s rally began as a post-festivities jaunt in the former French colonies of North and West Africa, from a Paris gripped by winter to the balmy heat of Dakar in Senegal. The only obstacles: the world’s largest desert, three punishing weeks’ travel, 8000 miles of torture and for some a lifetime’s commitment — literally.

Gregarious Gauls in 2CVs, boxy Renault 4s and even an amphibious army truck made Penelope Pitstop and her Wacky Racers look normal. With one short-wave radio for security, some foie gras sandwiches and a bottle or two of warm Sauternes for sustenance, the French drove off into the world’s biggest sandpit.

“Thierry made the rally seem like a big party, hut the minute we hit the Sahara, it was a serious business,” said Hubert Auriol, then a baby-faced BMW rider and now the only man to have endured all 20 editions of the Dakar, latterly as organiser. “The collection of vehicles looked funny, but we all wanted to get to Dakar. That’s the one thing about the rally that has not changed.”

Like the Pied Piper, Thierry Sabine led 170 pathfinders into the desert on S the final days of 1978. Making history by winning the rust ever stage of Dakar was Jacky Prive in a Range Rover. Then there were no separate classes for cars, bikes and trucks.

Through the ether, nightly radio broadcasts by HF radio linked French radio audiences to the tented bivouac, or camp, set up under the black Saharan sky. News of derring-do and danger raised goose-pimples from Calais to Cannes.

A week into the new year, broadcaster Max Meynier, transmitting from the back of his Toyota Land Cruiser, read out news of the first fatality on an event to become as well known for death as glory. Motorcyclist Patrick Dodin died after crashing near Agadez, the crossroads of the desert.

By January 23rd, after 6000 miles of competition in Algeria, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Senegal, just 74 of the desert warriors reached their goal Dakar. Incredible, that in totally unsuitable vehicles with no prior experience, one in three of the entrants reached the westernmost point of Africa.

“I think then it was easier for the bikes,” said Cyril Neveu, the first winner of the Dakar and now organiser of the rival Tunisia Rally. “Stock bikes were better built than stock cars. Except for Claude and Bernard Marreau in their Renault 4, the top finishers were all in Range Rovers or Volkswagen four-wheel drives.”

Thierry Sabine returned to Paris a hero. Film of the first Dakar, with cars banging bumpers at 80mph through mud hut villages wowed audiences everywhere. The dentist’s son from Le Touquet had no choice but to run the rally again.

“I knew it would be challenging and I knew we would have fun, but I expected this to be a one-off,” he said. “I never expected so many people to fall in love with the desert like I had.”

The Dakar bug had given French racers and adventurers Sahara fever. Yachtsman Gerard d’Aboville (later to row across the Pacific) and three-time Le Mans veteran Henri Pescarolo set sail for the Sahara in 1980.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Pescarolo, who this year entered his 13th Dakar in a American desert racing Chevy pickup. “I had seen the film and heard the stories of spending hours digging and going two weeks with no shower, but until you see it for yourself it means nothing.

“As a racing driver you expect to be looked after, with hotels and pretty girls but out there in the desert, well it doesn’t matter if you are the president, you are on your own. I learned a lot about myself on the Dakar.”

Neveu won again for the second year on his Yamaha, while the Volkswagen Iltis dominated the four-wheel brigade. The caravan had swelled from 170 to 216 in a year but still less than a hundred reached Dakar.

The Marreau brothers came back in their R4 and again finished fourth. Leaning on other cars going through corners was one of their tactics. “We can’t help it,” said Claude, aware that his days of glory would be short-lived. “It’s the only way to go round a corner at speed.”

Just three years after the fun had begun, and with the arrival of electronic news gathering, the car manufacturers spotted the Dakar as a way to market boring family saloons. Cue Citroen and their works entry of four CX 2400 GTi’s in 1981.

“It was inevitable that car makers would find the Dakar irresistible,” said Parisian Land Rover dealer Rene Metge, who (with the help of the Sahara) defeated the Citroen quartet. “They saw the Marreau brothers with the R4 and thought they could bring along an ordinary CX and win.”

If Citroen had prized open the door to the desert, within another three years the flood gates had dumped Mercedes, Range Rover, Lada, Mitsubishi, Porsche and Opel into the world’s toughest proving ground.

With the works teams came big name drivers and big budgets. Partly because of the French nature of the event and partly because it was an endurance race, Le Mans veterans seemed popular choices for the desert. Jaussaud, Pescarolo, Courage, Ickx and Jabouille all swapped the Sarthe for the Sahara.

“The trouble is, a day at Le Mans feels like running the 100 metres after doing the Dakar,” said Jacky Ickx, who won in 1983 behind the wheel of a Mercedes 280. “But to have put a Formula One driver in the car would have spelled disaster.” Sure enough, Grand Prix drivers have tackled the Dakar. But none with any great success. Former McLaren driver Philippe Alliot taking to two wheels in Africa has had more success than most, but it was a baptism of fire for the Frenchman. On a narrow track though a desert oasis,

Alliot found himself up to his axles in sand. In an instant, his wheels stopped turning and the lack of momentum threw him over the handlebars onto the desert floor.

The Frenchman scrambled, unhurt, from the sand, brushed himself down and stumbled back to his Yamaha. Full of fuel, laden with navigation equipment and red hot from three hours battling through the Sahara, the bike was unmoveable. “Then, as if by magic a Berber (nomad) came out of the palm trees and gave me a hand,” said an amazed Alliot.

The jump from the cockpit of a McLaren at the Hungarian Grand Prix to the saddle of a motorbike in the world’s most notorious rally is a huge one. The difference between Alliot and his F1 counterparts is his decision to opt for two wheels, not four.

Ferrari’s Patrick Tambay drove a Range Rover and Williams star Clay Reggazoni competed in a Mercedes, specially adapted so the paralysed Swiss driver could brake and change gear by hand.

“To do the Dakar with a car is nothing too different for a Grand Prix driver, I have driven in it twice,” said a dusty Alliot, standing in just his underwear and a pair of pointed leather sandals at a rest stop in southern Morocco. “To do it on a bike is far more of a challenge.”

The arrival of serious rally teams and some real competition sent the Dakar into orbit. Very quickly it lost its teenage innocence. The fun did not disappear, but the realities of racing in the most remote corner of the globe, over dunes 100 feet high and in sand with the qualities of a quagmire, suddenly smacked Sabine and his cohorts in the face.

Not everyone lamented the changes. The people of the region give thanks for the wealth the rally brings the Moroccans and the Mauritanians, Malians, Guineans and Senegalese. Typical are Mohammed, the taxi driver in Agadez who wanted a fiver for a one-mile fare, and Abdul, the kid who wanted a rally jacket for showing us to the hotel.

Eating in Timbuktu, the sort of African town so dusty that even the makers of a spaghetti western would look for somewhere cleaner, was virtually impossible when the rally swells the Tuareg staging post to bursting point.

The Hotel Bouctou, normally an unpretentious demi-pension for backpackers and used car dealers, was a zoo. The owner, a Basil Fawlty character with seemingly limitless energy, trotted from table to table wielding plates of couscous and frites at a frightening speed. Every hour he works when the rally is in town is a week’s wages the rest of the year.

Suddenly gone were the days when a true amateur could enter the rally in his Range Rover and stand a chance of winning. The only true adventurers left in the event are the lone bikers for whom the rally is a solo battle with the elements. Their days are often 20 hours long, spent pushing and pulling their heavy machines through deep sand, then repairing them at night for another day of lone combat with the desert.

Just five days into one of the 10 Dakar’s I have now followed, I munched on my nightly rations in the company of Michel Sanson, a middle aged Belgian painter. It was to be the last dinner and last night of his life.

“It takes a lot out of you to do this,” he said in the dimly-lit tented village that makes a temporary home for the competitors for a few short hours each night. “I have no shock absorbers and no spares, and every hole in the road shakes me to the bone. But it’s like a drug. Its appeal is the same as it must have been for early explorers in Africa.”

Six years he had spent scraping together the £17,000 it takes to prepare and race the most basic of desert bikes, and within six days of the finish his life was snuffed out in an accident in Mauritania. He wasn’t even racing. He was just riding through a local town en route to the nightly bivouac.

Sansen became another statistic in a tragic tally, but one death threatened to do more than merely add to the sad total. Just as the rally was reaching superstar status in France, upstaging even the hallowed Tour de France, Thierry Sabine lost his life on the event he had nurtured from its birth. On January 14th, 1986, while leading a rescue mission to guide lost motorbike competitors to safety, Sabine’s helicopter crashed in a violent Saharan sand storm.

His father Gilbert vowed that the rally would live as a memorial to his son. But the greying dentist from Le Touquet radiated none of the guiding light that emanated so naturally from his bearded son, and for a while the Dakar entered its darkest period.

As a tribute to Thierry Sabine, 1987 was a resounding success. Peugeot swept all before them as Finn Ari Vatanen, returning to action after an almost fatal accident on the Argentine rally 18 months before, raced to the first of his four victories in the Sahara.

In 1988, however, the rally flopped in what was meant to be another hour of glory. That year the ‘Dakar’ claimed the lives of three competitors and three African spectators, causing an outcry across Europe as to the morality of such an event.

No death was more shocking and had more impact on the rally than that of Dutch truck racer Kees van Loevezijn. Pictures of him, still Strapped into a racing seat, after being catapulted to his grisly death through the windscreen of a racing DAF truck were wired around the world. Headlines like ‘Into the Rally of Death drive the 600’ followed. The deaths in 1988 even provoked comment from the Pope, who likened the event to “Barnum selling his circus to Commerce and industry”.

It would have been impossible to cram any more drama, excitement and energy into the first decade of the Dakar. How the rally could survive a second 10 years seemed unfathomable. An simple answer came from a Belgravian adventurer, straight out of the same mould as Mark Thatcher.

“There are so few competitions where you can compete against the top drivers,” said Mark Dutton before embarking on the rally in the early ’90s. “The thrill of the Dakar is the fact that it’s still an adventure. That’s why we are doing it.”

The knowledge that the rally can still woo the armchair adventurer into the Sahara has kept the Paris-Dakar alive. For even among the dark days of the late ’80s, at least the competition was fierce.

The greatest battles were fought between Mitsubishi and first Peugeot, then Citroen between 1987 and 1994. Mitsubishi had found it hard to beat the advanced technology Porsche 959s of Ickx and Metge in the mid’80s, and then found the former World rally Champions just as tough.

Vatanen won in ’87, and was on course for a win again in 1988… until his Peugeot was stolen from outside his Bamako hotel. Not even Hollywood could have dreamed up a plot like that one.

Juha Kankkunen took advantage of Vatanen’s loss, but Ari came back to notch up his second, third and fourth wins in 1989, 1990 and 1991. Mitsubishi looked close to despair and close to chucking in the towel.

In 1992, when, for the first time, the Dakar did not finish in Dakar, but instead at Cape Town, Mitsubishi finally beat the might of the Peugeot/Citroen army. In a race to the tip of Africa, Hubert Auriol, already a winner on two wheels, won on four for the Japanese.

Again Mitsubishi won in 1993 with Bruno Saby, before Pierre Lartigue scored a hat-trick for Citroen, but Auriol had not only saved Mitsubishi from loss of face, but also saved a stagnant middle-aged event.

In 1995, the dashing desert gent took the reins of the Dakar, banning the multi-million dollar works prototypes that had dominated the rally for a decade. His plan now is to hand back some of the advantage to the amateur adventurers who have loyally supported the race throughout its lifetime.

“We still welcome factory teams on the event, but with vehicles that are closer to the ones you can buy at your local garage,” says Auriol. “It won’t make the Dakar boring. In fact it will bring back some competition and at the same time return the Dakar to the spirit of 78.”

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