The Paris-Darak is one of the Motorsport’s toughest events. Yet the 1985 edition was even more so. Many fell, many were left to fend for themselves. But John Davenport talks to a good Samaritan
When it comes to long-distance rallies, few have a CV to match that of Andrew Cowan. A double winner of both the London-Sydney and the Australian Safari, there was one event he was unable to nail during his distinguished career: the Paris-Dakar. The closest he came was in 1985 when he finished second, but it could have been very different.
“I had done the Paris-Dakar twice before and had got a bit of a feel the the desert. That year, it was an extremely tough event. It was the longest route ever, with something like 12,000 km of timed stages. And the entry list was just incredible.”
It was indeed. Rene Metge’s win in 1984 with the Rothmans-backed four-wheel-drive Porsche 911SC had brought the event a great deal of attention. Metge and Jacky Ickx were back with prototype Porsche 959s. Then there were the more conventional 4WDs: Mitsubishi Pajeros, Toyota FJ60s, Range-Rovers, Land-Rovers and works Mercedes 280GEs. Jean-Pierre Jaussaud had a 280GE with a 5-litre V8 capable of 220kph, while Jean-Luc Therier drove a Citroen Visa 4×4. Finally, Opel had entered a brace of 2WD Mantas for Guy Colsoul and Erwin Weber.
In France, Bernard Damiche led with an Audi Quattro. Once the event reached Africa, the biggest surprise was to find Colsoul leading and Mitsubishi towards the bottom of the top 10.
“It was not a good start for us,” says Cowan. “We had a problem with the turbo pipe blowing off a couple of times, and then we came upon Patrick Zanirolli in a sister Pajero. He had found a patch of fesh-fesh. It’s just like talcum powder and hard to spot. You know, I very nearly didn’t stop. It would be easy to pretend not to have seen him. You are in the open desert, on the piste, and you can actually be running up to a mile apart. It is not like being on the same road. Anyway, we saw him and I thought, ‘Well, I’m a Mitsubishi man’, so we stopped to get him out, but it cost a fair bit of time.”
With about a third of the event gone, the Paris-Dakar passed through Iferouanne and Agadez before turning back east towards Dirkou. To this point, the rally had comprised single daylight sections, but now there was to be a flat-out race through one day and one night, up to Chirfa, then back to Iferouanne and south again to Agadez in the dark. This was the infamous Raid Santos through the Tenere.
“It was just unbelievable. They started the 80 or so motorbikes first. Thierry Sabine [the organiser] stood on the back of a truck and fired a Very pistol and they all went off together. Thirty minutes later, he did the same thing with the trucks. And then 30 minutes after that, they set off the cars in groups of three at 30-second intervals.
“We were in the third group of three, lying about seventh at the time. Away we went towards Chifra and we saw just a couple of the slower trucks — nothing else. Everyone had their own idea of which was the best way. And in those days, it was all dead reckoning with a compass. GPS was not officially allowed until 1991. We came to one place where Johnstone [Syer, his co-driver] was urging me to go right of a mountain, and all my instincts said that was wrong. Just then we saw Henri Pescarolo in a green Land Rover go across our bows about two miles away, heading left. I said, ‘He must know something’. Johnstone just said, a bit louder, ‘Go right!’ So we did. And we were second car into Chifra!”
The only car ahead of them, in fact, was the Porsche of Metge; everyone else had gone wrong. Then came the expanse of the Tenere, where landmarks are scarce.
“For 20 minutes, you could be sitting at 120mph carrying on a conversation, so smooth was the desert in places. And then you would find sections with dunes filled with rocks. Every kind of condition. You had only the compass to navigate with, and it was unnerving driving for up to 50km without anything to confirm that you were on the right heading. We did see a few bikes, but we never saw another car or tuck.
“Going into Iferouanne, we backed off the turbo boost to economise. We had started out from Dirkou with almost 100 gallons of fuel, and there was just over a gallon when we refuelled.”
The final part of the timed section was from Iferouanne to Agadez. This was at night, and over a road the rally had traversed just two days earlier.
“Metge was only a few minutes ahead of us here and, in places, the dust was a problem. But we took care not to rush into anything; Zanirolli hit some rocks so hard that he broke a wheel. The most important thing was not to get lost, which is so easy to do at night.”
This was precisely what happened to Colsoul, Metge and a few of the leading contenders. Cowan and Syer won that timed section and moved into second place, just behind Zanirolli, and Andrew won a prize for winning from Dirkou to Agadez — a beautiful watch from Cartier, sponsors of that leg.
Incredibly, this was only the halfway point. The rocky sections of Mali and Mauretania lay between the competitors and the finish on the Atlantic coast of Senegal. Cowan had some more minor problems with the turbo pipe, and once more came upon Zanirolli in trouble, this time with an electrical fault, which he was able to fix for him. There was carnage in the ranks behind them — Pescarolo retired his Land Rover within sight of Dakar, while both Opels and the remaining Quattro of Xavier Lapeyre stopped. And so the two Mitsubishis sailed on to finish first and second — the Cowan/Syer car behind.
“Well, Johnstone always said that we should never have stopped to pull Patrick out that first time. But on that sort of rally, you help people because people will help you. It would have been nice to win the Paris-Dakar. It was a great event — and that 1985 rally was one of the best.” II