Rally Review -- Paris-Dakar Raid, March 1991

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Citroën’s Sand Dance

Mitsubishi had its best opportunity since 1986 to win the Pioneer Paris-Tripoli-Dakar. Not only did the Sonauto squad have more experience than its rivals, it soon transpired it had the better vehicle. Nevertheless, the rookie team, Camel Citroën, started as favourite and, despite a number of major set-backs, won comfortably. Ari Vatanen even reckoned it had been the easiest of his four victories he’s achieved in the past five years. Mitsubishi entered Dakar in second, third and fourth places, and although it was a long way behind, it returned to its headquarters in Paris encouraged by the result. Others just returned to the drawing board.

His record on one of the world’s most arduous events allowed Ari Vatanen to feel confident. After winning the prologue at Clermont Ferrand, he returned to his French home to spend two days with his family before heading off to Libya, for the true start of the event which would take the 406 competitors across five violent African countries in 16 days.

He spearheaded a formidable, albeit completely new, team. The Citroën ZX Rallye-Raid had surprised few with its debut victory on the Baja Aragon in Spain. The biggest shock was its failure on the following Pharaohs when the grease in the transmission couldn’t cope with the ferocious heat and caused continual differential failures. Vatanen had been its top finisher in a lowly fourth, and while it illustrated to its raid rivals that its massive budget and manpower wasn’t infallible, the French manufacturer returned a psychological counter punch by stating that the source of the problem had not only been found, but cured. It should have made for a close and exciting event.

However, when Citroën took an immediate initiative, it was obvious it was as powerful as Peugeot ever was. Indeed many, including Ullrech Brehmer, the Sonauto Team Manager, continued to call his major rivals Peugeot, and whether it was by mistake or professional annoyance didn’t really matter. Even Vatanen agreed that the ZX and 405T16 looked similar, and although the former was an evolution of its sister PSA predecessor, it had very distinct Citroën characteristics.

When Thierry Sabine instigated the first Paris-Dakar 13 years ago, it was designed as the world’s greatest challenge for man and machine. It was an event for adventurers, modern day explorers attempting to conquer planet earth’s most inhospitable terrain. His father, Gilbert, has tried to continue that philosophy since Thierry lost his life in a helicopter accident. However, it has rapidly declined into an event purely for professionals with vast finances and back-up behind it. This year, four two-day marathon sections where introduced, each day separated by an overnight Parc Ferme halt. However, next year the marathon section will be doubled. Top teams will completely rebuild their cars eight times, not four times as this year, satellite navigation will be allowed and the unsupported privateer element will be killed off completely.

After a liaison section from Tripoli to Ghadames, competitors were thrown into the first marathon section, containing 680 miles of tortuous sand and rock tracks without a minute’s penalty free service time allowed. For many it was the end of the road, while others incurred massive time penalties. The under-financed Lada Poch team suffered badly when all its three drivers hit problems. Hubert Auriol lost an hour and a half with engine problems, ex-Formula One driver Patrick Tambay lost three hours when a front wheel fell off and Jeremo Riviere was excluded for obtaining illegal assistance from a Lada support truck which had already retired.

Sonauto Mitsubishi also had problems, albeit not as disastrous as the previous year when most of the team disappeared. Kenneth Eriksson immediately collected a puncture and then lost rear-wheel drive. “I get nearly panic,” said the Swede. “I mean, I have to do 1000 kilometres and after 20 I’ve only two-wheel drive.” As for his team-mates, Pierre Lartigue had spent a considerable amount of time up to his Pajero’s axles in soft sand, while Jean-Pierre Fontenay had experienced transmission problems.

Not only had the privateers suffered badly, many of whom were already on their way home, but such a tough start had witnessed the field scatter, which also ruined the competitive element at the front.

At Tumu, the last port of call in Libya, lckx led from Vatanen, who’d been driving well within his reserves. However, the fact that they were team-mates only fuelled their rivalry. The last time they both drove for the same team was in 1988, when Ari won the event for Peugeot in the farcical tossing of a coin. Vatanen had said before the start that he and Ickx would not be in a similar position this year. “Either I will be too far ahead or too far behind,” he stated.

However, after four days of competition both had led twice, the Belgian holding a slender advantage.

lckx was lucky to survive the following marathon section when the cam belt snapped and he had to wait for Citroën’s fast support driver, Alain Ambrosino, to appear and reset the ignition timing. Far more terminal however, was shock absorber failure almost immediately after the race resumed after the traditional rest day in Agadez. The route due west to Mali transgressed the roughest terrain ever seen on the Paris-Dakar. Virtually everyone suffered from suspension failures, most dramatically Citroën.

However, suspension failure isn’t new to the team. When Vatanen debuted the ZX in Spain last July, a rear shock absorber broke, allowing lubricant onto the brake disc and igniting a small fire. The catastrophic shock absorber failure that occurred this time was a result of the immense temperatures reached resulting from relentless pounding. lckx was the first to suffer. The middle of three rear Bilsteins exploded with enough force to blow the wheel arch off. Oil poured onto the brake disc, and possibly the turbo, and when he stopped the flames quickly engulfed the car. Both he and co-driver Christian Tarin escaped uninjured.

Björn Waldegård suffered a similar fate a little further down the road as Ari Vatanen, thinking he was first car on the road after seeing the demise of one team-mate, explained. “Twenty minutes after we left Jacky we saw smoke at 10 o’clock. I thought it must be a bike, so we went over to take a look to see if he was okay. Then I saw it was a car and two yellow chaps standing next to it.” Ari was convinced the failures were associated with speed for he’d taken things steadily and had no such dramas. “Björn said, ‘Where have you been. I’ve been here for 15 minutes,” continued Vatanen. “I said, ‘Ah yes, but your car’s on fire and mine’s not!'”

However, Waldegård hadn’t even noticed the rear of his car was on fire and was notified by an overtaking motorcyclist who pointed it out. When he stopped, the car, which had 300 litres of avgas on board, exploded into a ball of flames, leaving neither him nor his Irish co-driver Fred Gallagher any time to rescue personal items. When they both left the scene three hours later, the car was still ablaze. The loss of two cars was bad enough, but worse was to come. Before the start of the event, there had been a strong suggestion that the civil war in Mali could use the Paris-Dakar as a political platform to voice its problems to the world.

With the uneasy situation in the Middle East, it had been a gamble to start the event anyway, and it went tragically wrong in InKadeouane, just over the Malian border 40 miles north of Menaka. A Camel Citroën Mercedes support truck was flagged to a halt in the abandoned village by reportedly six gunmen dressed in military camouflage uniforms, who then opened fire at the cabin. The driver, Charles Cabannes, died instantly with two bullet wounds, while his two companions miraculously escaped uninjured.

Sabine announced that the Paris-Dakar would continue. “It needs to,” he said, just like it had done when his son was killed. But this was different. It was not only the 28th fatality on the event which was described in 1988, when six people lost their lives, as the piste Race of Death, but it was the first murder. One man, Sabine, was responsible for the safety of everyone present and despite the fact that we were in dangerous territory and about to enter Mauritania, an Islamic country which supports Saddam Hussein and would soon be allied to a country at war with the rest of Europe, the only thing that apparently mattered was the successful conclusion of the event in Dakar.

After the murder, the following crews were grouped and sent in convoy to camp Gao under military protection. The following day’s competitive stage was cancelled and competitors continued in convoy on an asphalt road adjacent to the River Niger to Timbouctou. Thereafter, stated Sabine, it was business as usual.

Lartigue had inherited second after the demise of lckx. However, a brilliant drive and hopes of victory were ruined by an amazing technical blunder by Mitsubishi. A precautionary clutch change had revealed a kinked aeroquip pipe which was the gearbox’s oil umbilical cord. Even so, it wasn’t replaced and when it snapped on the next competitive stage, the gearbox seized costing the diminutive Frenchman almost five hours.

The overall strength of the Pajeros, though, had been emphasised before Agadez. Kenjiro Shinozuka, confident with having set fastest time the previous day, left Gossololom in determined mood. The high sand dunes offered little indication of what was on the other side resulting in Shinozuka’s erg-hopping exploits coming to a violent conclusion eight miles in from the start.

At unabated speed, his Pajero was sent high into the air as the dune beneath unexpectedly dropped sharply away on the other side of its summit. It landed on its nose, with sufficient G-force to give co-driver Henri Magne temporary blindness, and commenced a series of sickening end-over-end rolls which finally lost momentum some 250 yards later. Bruised and shaken, both crew members otherwise escaped unharmed, putting their helmets on the top of the dune as a warning to others.

It was generally accepted that Mitsubishi had developed a better car on rough roads, but it soon transpired it was also significantly faster. Powered by a Group A 2.2-litre Galant engine, it could reach a maximum speed of 225 kph, about 20 kph faster than the Citroën which had a spare Michelin tyre strapped to the roof.

On the open, horizontal sections, top speed was often reached by the brave. Eriksson confessed to driving absolutely flat out for 15 minutes once without a single lift of the throttle. When he questioned the possible consequences of an accident at that speed, he slowed to 190 kph, only for team-mate Jean-Pierre Fontenay to whiz past him. Happier in the knowledge that if anything untoward was hiding in the track ahead his French colleague would discover it first, he returned to maximum speed. The high-speed pursuit lasted until Fontenay hit a bump, putting his car perilously on its nose, and both finished the section at a slightly more sedate pace.

Navigation was the only possible hope Mitsubishi had of victory as the final marathon section from Nema to Kiffa, via Tichit, was extremely difficult to follow. It contained the infamous Nega Pass, a narrow gap in a sea of sand which leads the only passageway from the top of a giant plateau to the bottom of a gorge.

A year ago Vatanen had failed to locate this and lost two hours so Mitsubishi’s team orders this year stated that its three remaining cars run in convoy and try to find the pass and pull each other out of soft sand when necessary. The plan, however, failed even before they reached Tichet. Eriksson entered some large dunes and became stuck in soft sand. From behind, Fontenay realised what had happened and turned round to find another route. It was the last time either Lartigue or Eriksson saw their team-mate until much later on that evening. The gearbox casing on Fontenay’s car cracked, allowing all the oil to come out. Before the unit seized, he stopped, took the gearbox apart and glued the crack together. After waiting for the resin to set he continued, fortunate to have been given some oil by a fellow competitor. It had cost him a great deal of time however and he was unable to follow his team-mates the following day. It had also presented victory to Citroën on a silver platter.

Vatanen did indeed get lost, but it wasn’t important. What was more worrying, though, was that for the last 200 kilometres, he and co-driver Bruno Berglund had no drinking water left, as the strict marathon Parc Ferme rules don’t even allow the tankards to be re-filled, only the fuel tanks.

They arrived on the shore of Lac Rose for the traditional African carnival finish. Vatanen lifted his glass of milk and Finnish flag triumphantly, leaving the Moet & Chandon capers to Team Manager Guy Frequelin. It was a similar picture to 1990, but this event had been extra difficult. The murder had seen the tense overnight bivouac camps protected by armed guards in Mali, while war had broken out in the Middle East when the peaceful convoy was in Islamic Mauritania. Surviving the 13th Dakar had an extra sense of achievement attached to it, far beyond the acceptable levels of motorsport. — POE