Rally review: Paris-Dakar Rally

Audacity and Adventure

When the marathon trail was blazed twenty years ago from London across Europe, through Iran, Afghanistan and India, across the Indian Ocean aboard the SS Chusan to Perth, and thence across Australia to Sydney, there were many who feared that the regular, annual rallies of the world would suffer depleted entry lists due to the total consumption of budgets by such a monstrous marathon lasting many weeks.

They were right, but imaginations were nevertheless fired by the immensity of the competition, the infinite variety of the terrain through which it passed and the sheer adventure of it all. After all, adventure was the element which set rallying apart from other motor sports, and the ingredient which its devotees craved.

Other long-distance events followed, to Mexico, to Munich via the Sahara, and to Sydney again; but none of them was intended to be an annual event. They were too long, too complicated and too expensive to be run each year on a regular basis.

One such event which did not come off was the Peking-Paris Motoring Challenge, originally planned to follow as much as possible the route of the 1907 race. When Wylton Dickson was running the 1977 Singapore Airlines Rally from London to Sydney he was at the same time well advanced with plans to run a Peking to Paris event in 1982 — 75 years after the epic journey by Prince Scipione Borghese the nobleman, Luigi Barzini the journalist and Ettore Guizzardi the chauffeur/engineer, driving, pushing, heaving, lifting, dragging and fettling their Itala across 10,000 rugged miles in 80 days.

Alas, Dickson's efforts came to nothing, although there can be little doubt that he would have succeeded were he not thwarted at every turn by obstructions put in his path by FISA president Balestre. Their exchange of letters and telex messages was quite amazing, and left one with the conclusion that in Place de la Concorde it was considered an affront to French pride that a London-based Australian should have the impudence to even think of running an event which was to finish in Paris.

In the meantime the French had joined the marathon bandwagon. An attempt to run an event to circle the Mediterranean failed, but a French rally driver called Thierry Sabine had got off the ground an event which started in Paris and finishing in Dakar on the Senegal coast. It was apparently not planned as an annual event, but it has nevertheless been held each year for ten years, its participants expressing satisfaction at the challenge of the trackless Sahara and its shifting sands.

In its early days the Paris-Dakar Rally attracted very little attention from FISA. It was not a gentleman's rally but a course hybrid catering for trucks and motorcycles as well as cars, and this did not fit into any convenient segment of existing regulations. But when it became an annual event and generated increasing publicity— particularly when the hopelessly inexperienced Mark Thatcher caused international news by getting lost and stuck in the desert — and when other long, French-run events sprang up elsewhere in North Africa, FISA decided that it should bring such competitions under its control.

Regulations were formulated specifically for long-distance rallies, which they called "raids", a word coined by Citroen many years before as a name for the motoring expeditions for young drivers which it regularly organised into North and West Africa.

Thierry Sabine himself was killed two years ago in a night-time helicopter crash near one of the event's night stops, but his father took over, gathered more sponsorship, negotiated financial and other deals, and generally built up a degree of pre-event ballyhoo which glorified the mystique of pitting one's wits against the desert.

The result has been an influx of competitors who, although equipped with the regulation safety equipment, have little experience of coping with the enormous difficulties of long-distance desert travel and are lacking in the tenacity required to keep going when everything seems to be going wrong. Hence the high retirement rate in the early stages.

Handsomely sponsored this year by Pioneer, the Japanese manufacturer of in-car entertainment equipment, the rally was nevertheless completely under the control of the Thierry Sabine Organisation (TSO). Service vehicles were not allowed as such, and therefore had to be entered in the rally themselves, thereby accounting for the entry list running to some 600; these included cars, motorcycles, "service" trucks running in their own category at the back, and even Press and film crews.

When FISA put an abrupt end to the Group B cars which evolved from its own regulations, some manufacturers lost huge development investments which became useless overnight. Peugeot took legal action, causing a rift between itself and FISA which has steadily widened, and to which many openly refer as "the French Civil War". Events during the Paris-Dakar Rally can only have worsened the situation . . .

When Group B cars were banned, Peugeot immediately withdrew from World Championship rallying and redirected its resources towards non-championship long-distance events such as Paris-Dakar, where vehicle regulations were far more lenient and interference by FISA not as dictatorial. When a special 205 won the 1987 Paris-Dakar, Peugeot's Jean Todt claimed that the success brought more publicity (in France, perhaps) to the company than all its World Championship victories put together!

This year a huge fleet of vehicles set off from Paris to Dakar, Britishers among them being Andrew Cowan and Johnstone Syer in a Mitsubishi Pajero and Ted Toleman and Barry Lee in a special V8-engined Metro. Alas, Cowan/Syer went out when the engine overheated and blew its cylinder head gasket, whilst Toleman/Lee, after getting stuck and losing time, decided to withdraw after their service truck got so far behind that they would be left without spares and tyres.

Peugeot, sponsored by Pioneer as was the rally itself, mounted a huge exercise with two 205 Turbo 16s (for Kankkunen and Ambrosino) and two of the new, purpose-built 405 Turbo 16s (for Vatanen and Pescarolo). Pescarolo was taking the place of Shekhar Mehta who is still recovering from a spinal injury in an accident during Egypt's Pharaohs Rally last year.

Backing them were two Peugeot P4 support cars, four 4WD Mercedes trucks, three 6WD Mercedes trucks and various aircraft. Total personnel was 60 — 33 on the ground and 27 travelling by air, including a doctor, a camping specialist and even a cordon bleu cook! It must have been a logistical nightmare keeping such an entourage running efficiently for three weeks.

After a token competitive appearance in France, the vast convoy crossed the Mediterranean to Algiers, and made a 375-mile journey southwards to the first competitive section which began at Sahan Berry near El Oued.

After this, all competitive running was by day, with rest stops at towns or temporary camp sites at night, but lateness often meant that crews ran into darkness, especially those in the tail-end trucks who were then faced with repair and replenishment work before enjoying their own rest.

The very first "special stage", for want of a more convenient phrase, threw everyone in at the deep end, although they were actually warned of this. Huge sand dunes had to be negotiated, many of them having been moved by desert winds since the roadbook was made, thus making navigation tricky. Many got stuck, and there were several collisions as competitors charged at dunes, cleared the tops, only to career helplessly into others stuck in soft sand below on the other sides.

There were more serious incidents, too. Accidents during the event caused critical injuries and ran up a death toll of six, among them both competitors and bystanders. This brought the total number killed in the ten-year history of the event to an astounding twenty.

Some have said that this points to an intolerable degree of risk which should be compulsorily reduced, but the appeal of the event is the challenge of the desert and all its myriad traps.

Adventure, after all, is rarely without its risks, as any mountaineer, sport aviator or white-water canoeist will tell you, and a driver who oversteps his limit can blame only himself — not the car, not the road, not the weather. If the competitive spirit urges him beyond his capabilities, then he should learn to keep his enthusiasm in check. On the other hand, competitors in the rally are so numerous and the stages so long and dusty that a delay of any kind will mean that a faster competitor will be faced with the dreadful hazard of having to overtake others whilst blinded and choked by their dense dust clouds. The alternative is to stay behind and lose all chances of vying for the lead.

Guy Colsoul admitted to taking risk after risk by passing 26 other competitors on one section, whilst Ari Vatanen reckoned that, after a long delay which put him a couple of hours down the field, he overtook an amazing 120 cars in one section!

Vatanen was the leader throughout most of the rally, followed by his team-mate Kankkunen, but a highly controversial incident at Bamako, in Mali, in the closing days of the rally put an end to that.

As most people slept in the small hours, his Peugeot 205 T16 vanished from the parking area, team manager Todt later receiving an amazing phone call from the "hi-jacker" demanding payment of 500,000 francs for its return. Whether that payment was actually made is not clear, but the car was later found on open ground near the town.

By this time Vatanen's due start time had long passed, well after the 30-minute maximum to stay in the rally. But under the circumstances the organisers were sympathetic and declared that if it were found in a "reasonable time" he would be allowed to start late with no penalty.

When he reached Kayes all was not smooth. There had been some communication between West Africa and Europe and the stewards of the rally declared that the organisers had no right to grant Vatanen dispensation from the half-hour lateness rule, even if it were for such a mischance as having his car stolen. He was consequently excluded from the event. Jean Todt immediately lodged a protest on the grounds of "unforeseen circumstances"; when this was turned down, he gave notice of appeal. But it was to no avail, and when a disgruntled Kankkunen finally drove into Dakar the victor, so upset was he at the treatment of his team-mate and fellow countryman that he declined the champagne, remained serious-faced and wasted no time leaving the ramp.

At the time of the discussions Jean-Marie Balestre was in Monte Carlo, where he made it quite clear that he considered the organisers had no right to modify their own regulations. In an amazing exchange he is said to have called Jean Todt a "Napoleon of the Desert". In reply, Todt quickly quipped that "it is better to be a Napoleon of the Desert than a Bokassa of Motorsport".

Whatever the outcome, the intense bad feeling between Todt and Balestre shows no sign of dissipating, and remains clear for all to see. We admire Todt's frankness about his opinion of Balestre and FISA, an opinion which we know others secretly share but are afraid to voice openly. Is it not high time that team managers who are fed up with rule-making for the sake of rule-making, and disgruntled organisers who are frustrated at having to diminish the competitive elements of their events and see their characters destroyed, got together and spoke their minds?

Finally, it seems appropriate to quote the words of Luigi Barzini before he, his colleagues and their Itala embarked for China from Naples: "Only discuss a plan long enough, and you will end by thinking it absurd; objections are the necessary food for discussions. Enthusiasm grows stronger by action, but weaker through words. Speech is too reasoning a thing; it foresees all obstacles and mishaps—it is pessimistic. If every hero were made to discuss for a moment the brave act he is about to perform, heroism would perish. In great or original undertakings, many points must be left to chance; there must always be some facing of the unknown; the adventure must always be entered upon with a certain amount of unreason. This unreason is called audacity; and audacity is too incompatible with logic and common sense to survive a long scrutiny." GP