French amateur's Dakar dream becomes a reality

Francois Lurton, an enthusiastic amateur, has begun his first Dakar rally. Matt Majendie finds out how the Frenchman has been able to turn his dream into reality.

Why would anybody in their right mind compete in the Dakar Rally? The event has accounted for the loss of 50 lives and boasts a high attrition rate for its entrants. This year's event started yesterday and will tackle 9,000 kilometres over mixed terrain for 16 days. But every Dakar competitor has their own reasons for lining up for arguably the world's toughest motorsport event. Founder Thierry Sabine, among those to lose his life at the Dakar, talked of the dream which captures professional and amateur drivers in equal measure.

One of those many dreaming amateurs is François Lurton, of France's famous Lurton winemaking dynasty, and he lays the blame for his first attempt on the Dakar this year firmly on the shoulders of his father Andre and the purchase of a tiny car in his youth. "Really, my passion for the Dakar and for all things in motorsport started with a [Citroën] 2CV my father gave my brother and I," recalled Lurton. "We used to race it in the vineyards at home against our cousins, which was great fun.

"And my passion for cars just went from there. I gradually made lots of different friends in the industry and have been lucky to go to the Paul Ricard circuit [in France] a number of times, to lots of Formula One and other car events." Last year, the decision by Dakar organisers to move the annual event from its traditional base in Africa to South America because of terrorism planted a seed in Lurton's head.

Rather than line up for last year's Dakar, which began and ended in Buenos Aires but also took place in Chile and other parts of Argentina, he opted initially to sponsor a team, Team Omega-Lurton. But sponsorship was not enough for Lurton, the fifth generation of the Bordeaux Lurton wine dynasty, who opted to buy 50 per cent of the team for this year and take up one of its two drives in the process.

"I've always loved the Dakar, watching it on television from when I was young but, if it hadn't move to Argentina or Chile, I'm not sure I ever would have entered the event," he said. "Last year, the event passed through my vineyards in Argentina and this year it passes by again - just ten kilometres - so it seemed the right thing to do, especially as we didn't have a driver for the team's second car."

Lurton first visited Argentina and Chile in 1992 and fell in love with the people and the landscape, as well as realising the potential of the area for winemaking long before the region became fashionable. He has off-road experience on four-wheel vehicles around the world, including around parts of the original Dakar route for fun with friends in Morocco and other parts of Africa. "I think some of my friends maybe think I'm a bit crazy to be doing the Dakar, but most of them know that I have a sense of adventure and I like to do adventurous things," he said.

"Before I was about to start working in the wine industry, I decided to do some adventures as I knew I wouldn't be able to try them again. So I visited north west Africa and drove in the Sahara. The Dakar is just one adventure I never got to do back then." Lurton and co-driver Guillaume Martineau will line up in a vehicle designed by their team but which is in essence based on the buggy driven by two-time Dakar winner Jean-Louis Schlesser.

The winemaker's biggest inspiration remains restaurateur Hubert Auriol, who lives near Lurton in France and was the first man to win the Dakar on both two and four wheels. "Hubert came to my vineyard this year and I told him about my Dakar plans and said that he was my inspiration to do it," admitted Lurton. The Dakar debutant has set himself a more ambitious target than merely finishing the event.

"Obviously the main goal is to finish first and then think about other things. But the car we have is so good that, if we finish, we could dream of finishing in the top 30 or 35." Lurton has every reason to be confident. He has competed on two rally raids in preparation, both in Spain. On each occasion, he won his category and, most recently in Zaragoza, impressed some of the world's more notable rallying names.

"The Baja in Zaragoza was tough and I was pleased how we did," he said. "It's given me a bit of confidence but made me realise how far behind we are of guys like Stephane Peterhansel [among this year's Dakar favourites]. He's just incredible and I don't know how he does it. "I've tried not to give the Dakar any thought in the day and tried to concentrate on my work but it's not easy," he said. "Every morning I wake having had a dream about driving on the Dakar or at least something to do my cars. It's taking over my mind."

His dream is now a reality. * The National

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