Thatcher lost on Dakar Rally


The Dakar is but a shimmering mirage in Britain’s public sporting consciousness.

Thirty years ago, however, it was suddenly front-page news: Mark Thatcher had gone missing in the Sahara. TE Lawrence meets PG Wodehouse.

PT Barnum would have loved it.

The saga began at the 1980 Le Mans 24 Hours, where ‘Scratcher’, a motor sport dabbler, was sharing an Osella-BMW with Lella Lombardi. There, a sponsor proffered him an invitation to contest the newfangled rally-raid. As people in positions of power and privilege tend to, Thatcher accepted airily. In his defence – never thought I’d write that – La Sarthe was the rather more pressing engagement.

His yeah-whatever came home to roost mere weeks before the 1982 long-range desert jaunt. Called ‘out of the blue’ to attend a Paris press launch, Thatcher, a man unencumbered by doubt and bursting with misplaced confidence, decided to give it a go.

“I’ve now raced in Le Mans – and other things. This rally is no problem,” he reckoned. Gauche and naïve at best, cocky and arrogant at worst, the Prime Minister’s son was hard to like.

He was teamed with experienced racer Anny-Charlotte Verney – scion of the founding Le Mans dynasty and therefore French motorsport ‘royalty’ – and mechanic Jacky Garnier in a four-wheel-drive Peugeot 504. This long-wheelbase machine would give its crew a rough ride over the bumps.

Thatcher’s became detached from a small, befuddled convoy on the 334-mile section to Timeiaouine in southern Algeria when its back axle broke free. (The section, I kid you not, began in a village called Tit. Rallying comedy gold.)

The others pressed on to the finish and informed the organisers of Thatcher’s plight and whereabouts. Sort of. They got the mileage approximately right, at 25, but were 180 degrees awry: east, not west! Hardly helpful in the days before GPS.

The French-run event, this being just its fourth year, had a laissez-faire attitude. Shoulders were shrugged, fingers crossed. Only when the Iron Lady – in a right old tizzy – got involved did a search begin in earnest.

Thatcher, sipping two polystyrene coffee cups of water per day, wisely stayed with his crippled car, confident that ‘The Boss’, aka mummy, would come to his rescue. Six days after it had gone missing, a circling military Hercules spotted his stranded white 504. It was 30 miles off rally route.

Fleet Street’s finest had been scrambled unceremoniously to Tamanrasset and Thatcher greeted them with a breezy rendition of Bruce Forsythe’s famous catchphrase before admitting that he had done no preparation – “Nothing” – for the event, and that all he wanted now was a beer and a sandwich, a bath and a shave. It had been a humbling experience.

That soon wore off, as the population of Equatorial Guinea will testify. If somebody asks you to sponsor an air ambulance in Africa, don’t accept airily. It might turn out to be a mercenary’s helicopter gunship.

“The Mark problem”, as exasperated senior Tories labelled it, was never solved. When he asked Chief Press Secretary Sir Bernard Ingham how best he could help his mother to win the 1987 General Election, Mark was gruffly told: “Leave the country.”

The blunt Yorkshire civil servant might have been better telling him to get lost. For the maternal tears shed by Mrs T in her son’s sandy absence had provided the perfect PR counterbalance to her stentorian steeliness during the Falklands War. Weirdly, misdirected Mark had contributed to her becoming top of the pops.

Today’s Dakar is very different. Threats of terrorism forced it to relocate in 2009 to South America, where the terrain is challenging and remote but lacking the romantic beauty of the Saharan dunes.

That will be of no concern to BMW should a Mini All4 Racing win. Only those motorsport fans north of the English Channel are bemoaning the decision not to give the wildly talented Kris Meeke a full-time Mini ride in the WRC. For those all points south of La Manche, the Dakar is all-encompassing and engrossing. Huge.

As I write, the not-so-Minis of Leonid Novitskiy, Stéphane Peterhansel, Krzysztof Holowczyc – all of whom have taken turns at the lead – and ‘Nani’ Roma are battling against the hammering Hummers of Indy/NASCAR/Baja hero Robby Gordon and Qatar’s Nasser Al-Attiyah, the winner last year with VW.

The British mainstream press remains resolutely disinterested, of course, and Mark Thatcher will never be welcomed in Argentina – and several other countries. No, the Dakar has had its 15 minutes of UK infamy.

05/01/2012 update: Al-Attiyah has lost another 30 minutes today because of an emptying radiator. Minis 1-2-3, ahead of Gordon’s Hummer. The leader board reads…

1. Stephane Peterhansel, Mini, 9h43m20s
2. Giniel de Villiers, Toyota, +5m41s
3. Nani Roma, Mini, +6m44s
4. Krzysztof Holowczyc, Mini, +8m10s
5. Robby Gordon, Hummer, +16m23s
6. Leonid Novitskiy, Mini, +26m25s
7. Nasser Al-Attiyah, Hummer, +30m44s
8. Carlos Sousa, Great Wall, +30m45s
9. Lucio Alvarez, Toyota, +33m11s
10. Erik Wevers, Mitsubishi, +36m42s

06/01/2012 update: Holowczyc has taken his first stage victory of the 2012 event and has dramatically closed the gap to Peterhansel. Rain and snow shortened stage five by 30 miles and stage six has now been cancelled because of the bad weather. The leader board reads…

1. Stephane Peterhansel, Mini, 11h58m03s
2. Krzysztof Holowczyc, Mini,+4m18s
3. Nani Roma, Mini, +10m39s
4. Robby Gordon, Hummer, +13m32s
5. Giniel de Villiers, Toyota, +21m01s
6. Leonid Novitskiy, Mini, +30m51s
7. Carlos Sousa, Great Wall, +40m55s
8. Nasser Al-Attiyah, Hummer, +50m47s
9. Erik van Loon, Mitsubishi, +53m33s
10. Lucio Alvarez, Toyota, +59m10s

08/01/2012 update: Nasser Al-Attiyah and Robby Gordon both made up ground on stage seven aboard Hummers.

1.  Stephane Peterhansel, Mini, 15h32m53s
2.  Krzysztof Holowczyc, Mini, +11m22s
3.  Robby Gordon, Hummer, +13m09s
4.  Nani Roma, Mini, +18m05s
5.  Giniel de Villiers, Toyota, +34m07s
6.  Nasser Al-Attiyah, Hummer, +42m54s
7.  Leonid Novitskiy, Mini, +54m26s
8.  Carlos Sousa, Great Wall, +1h12m50s
9.  Lucio Alvarez, Toyota, +1h41m38s
10.  Erik van Loon, Mitsubishi, +1h48m39s

10/01/2012 update: Stephane Peterhansel’s lead has been cut dramatically after Roma and Gordon both dominate stage eight.

1. Stephane Peterhansel, Mini, 20h05m15s
2. Robby Gordon, Hummer, +7m36s
3. Krzysztof Holowczyc, Mini, +7m48s
4. Nani Roma, Mini, +12m27s
5. Giniel de Villiers, Toyota, +37m45s
6. Nasser Al-Attiyah, Hummer, +45m25s
7. Leonid Novitskiy, Mini, +1h07m33s
8. Carlos Sousa, Great Wall, +1h23m29s
9. Lucio Alvarez, Toyota, +2h04m15s
10. Erik van Loon, Mitsubishi, +2h19m04s


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