A deadly race

The Dakar Rally, the world's most hazardous motorsport event, is famous for big audiences, big names ... and tragedy after tragedy. A report on a unique sporting occasion.

Competitors and officials search near the remains of the helicopter of the Paris-Dakar rally organizer Frenchman Thierry Sabine, after it crashed 14 January 1986 near Gourma-Rharous (Mali), while trying to rescue competitors lost in a heavy sand storm. All five persons onboard, with among them French singer Daniel Balavoine, died in the accident.
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When the Dakar Rally ends in Buenos Aires tomorrow, it will mark the end of the 32nd running of the most challenging motorsport event in history, arguably the most dangerous and certainly the most insane. The Dakar has changed beyond all recognition from its inception in the 1970s to the extent that it no longer passes through the Senegalese city that lends its name to the event and for so many years acted as its finishing point. The rally moved last year to South America because of terrorist threats in Mauritania, Senegal's northerly West Africa neighbour where many of the Dakar's stages were held.

Whatever the route, it takes an element of madness to line up at the start, unsurprising bearing in mind the near tragic nature in which it was conceived. Back in 1977, the motorcyclist Thierry Sabine got lost on two wheels in the Libyan desert while competing in the Abidjan-Nice Rally. He was eventually rescued but, enraptured by the arid terrain rather than put off by nearly losing his life, he decided to launch a rallying challenge from his home city of Paris through the Sahara to Dakar.

Sabine was laughed off as crazy by many, but pressed ahead with a Boxing Day launch for the 1978-79 rally and persuaded 182 competitors to join him at the starting line. He described it as "a challenge for those who go, a dream for those who stay behind". The event's legendary attrition rate was a feature of the inaugural race, with just 74 competitors finishing the 10,000-kilometre course, which took in Algeria, Niger, Mali and Upper Volta.

Even now, the attrition rate remains high. This year's first withdrawal occurred during the pre-race scrutiny, with the amateur rider Javier Pizzolito forced to call it a day when his motorbike caught fire. The start date was chopped and changed over the years before settling on New Year's Day, a launching point that was watched this year by 800,000 people in the streets of Buenos Aires. With the Dakar's inception, a fresh wave of motorsport heroes was born to rival those from Formula One. Cyril Neuveu became the early star of the Paris-Dakar, as it was then known, courtesy of his opening-year victory, the first of five motorbike successes for the Frenchman.

After Neuveu came the F1 star Jacky Ickx, a winner of the 1983 crown, followed by the Finnish rallying legend Ari Vatanen, who bagged four overall wins in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Vatanen probably would have made it five wins had he not suffered the bizarre fate of having his Peugeot 405 Turbo 16 stolen on a rest day. It was found again but too late for the Finn to continue, and he lost out to countryman Juha Kankunnen as a result.

However, Vatanen was lucky to win in 1989 when the event was decided by the toss of a coin by his then Peugeot team boss Jean Todt, now the FIA president. Todt came up with the novel approach after Vatanen and Peugeot teammate Ickx dominated in astonishing fashion and both raised fears with Todt that either one might lose his life as they duelled for the lead at breakneck speeds. The coin toss, though, made a part mockery of proceedings as Vatanen crashed late in the but recovered, leaving Ickx to slow down and let Vatanen win following the pair's gentleman's agreement with Todt.

From the outset, the rally-raid nature of the event attracted professional drivers and riders from three different motorsport categories: motorcycles; cars (ranging from buggies to small four-wheel drive vehicles), and lorries. Vatanen and Kankunnen were the two stars to shine in the event from the World Rally Championship, and they were joined more recently by Carlos Sainz, who started in 2010 among the pre-event favourites.

The most notable career change, however, arguably belongs to Luc Alphand, who made the Dakar his life's obsession after giving up an impressive career as a downhill skier, a move that paid off with victory in 2006. A noticeable twist in the Dakar was the success of a female competitor. Jutta Kleinscmidt, who was to become known as "Miss Dakar", made her first start, on two wheels, in 1988. She went on to win a stage in a buggy in 1998 before winning the event outright in 2001.

But undeniably the biggest name, male or female, in the Dakar's history is Stephane Peterhansel. A six-time winner of the motorcycle category, he opted to switch to cars in the Noughties, going out to win outright in 2004, 2005 and 2007. Peterhansel still competes today and talks about the Dakar with rose-tinted admiration - although he admits the endurance race is not without its perils, particularly during the night sections. He said recently: "The desert is always impressive at night. You hear nothing, complete emptiness," and added that the "Dakar years are the most memorable of my life".

A predecessor of Peterhansel in the motorcycle category was Michel Merel, a runner-up in the second running of the event in 1980. While organiser Sabine barked out a motto of "come together" to highlight the diverse nature of the entry list, Merel admitted the majority of competitors were driven by fear ... and still are. "The piste is like the ocean," he said. "It is wrong not to fear it. As for me, the piste makes me scared - you don't mess around with it. You can't be an artist."

The Dakar's history will attest to that fear factor. This year's event was hit by tragedy on the first stage when the German driver, Marco Schultis, lost control of his car and barrel-rolled off the route and into the crowd, killing a 28-year-old woman and injuring five other spectators. And the Italian motorcyclist, Luca Manca, was critically injured when he crashed during the sixth stage. During last year's Dakar, motorcyclist Pascal Terry died after suffering a pulmonary oedema; he was missing for three days before being found dead by rescue crews.

Terry's was not the only death last year, with two lorry support staff also losing their lives. But perhaps the ultimate tragedy occurred in 1986, when the event he had created nine years earlier cost Sabine his life. Sabine was travelling overhead in Mali in a helicopter when a sudden sandstorm brought it down into a dune. He was killed along with the four other people on board. Organisers continued with the final stages of that year's rally, with Sabine's doctor father, Gilbert, filling his son's shoes as chief organiser the following year.

The tragedies continued, and just two years later, six lives were lost in five separate incidents. A 10-year-old Malian girl was struck and killed by a competitor's vehicle while a mother and daughter were killed on the final day in Mauritania when they were hit by a television crew's vehicle. In addition, three competitors were killed in action while the event was also blamed for starting a wildfire, which led to the loss of three further lives.

Deaths have become relatively commonplace in the Noughties. The 2003 Dakar was another bleak year with five deaths, while three more lost their lives in 2006 and two more the following year. Despite its dangers, the Dakar has attracted a motley array of celebrities over the years. The most notable early celebrity was Mark Thatcher, son of the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in 1982. Thatcher and his co-driver and mechanic became lost in the desert for six days with organisers assuming the worst until they were spotted by a plane belonging to the Algerian air force. On being rescued, he downplayed the incident saying that all he needed was "a sandwich, a bath and a shave".

Royalty has also competed on the event. In 1985, Prince Albert of Monaco lined up in a Mitsubishi Pajero, while his sister, Princess Caroline, tackled the event with her husband in an Astra BM 309. Other celebrity competitors have included the five-time Tour de France winner Jacques Anquetil (a 1986 entry with Mercedes), the French rock singer Johnny Hallyday in 2002, and, this year, the former France rugby player Christian Califano.

Most have avoided courting controversy, unlike the Dakar itself. The rally continues to be a target of global critics, predominantly focusing on the adverse environmental impact plus the overall affect it has on the inhabitants of the areas it passes through. The Dakar rejects the environmental objections, pointing out that the carbon emissions from the entire 17-day event are the equivalent of a single Formula One race - but the critics are still quick to stick the knife in,

Those opposing the Dakar have ranged from the Vatican, which called the race "a vulgar display of power and wealth in places where men continue to die from hunger and thirst", to France's Green Party, which described it as "colonialism that needs to be eradicated". Only once, though, has the rally been scrapped. The 2008 running was cancelled after four French tourists were murdered by al Qa'eda in Mauritania, which was due to host the event for eight consecutive days. Direct threats were also made against the event and its organisers, the Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO), decided it was not worth the risk to go ahead.

As an intriguing aside, one of Osama bin Laden's sons, Omar, has this year pledged to set up a 3,000-mile horse race across North Africa to replace the Dakar Rally on the continent, with funds going towards the child victims of war. The long-term location of the event remains unclear. The chief organiser, Etienne Lavigne, has said the race will either remain in South America in 2011 or switch to a predominantly east African route.

Whatever the case, the Dakar's popularity continues unabated. It is shown on television in 189 countries, attracting a viewership of 2.2 billion from start to finish. Officials of the ASO, which also runs cycling's Tour de France, are content to switch the location of the Dakar, despite its name. As long ago as 1995, it left its traditional starting point of France, instead beginning in the historic city of Granada in Spain, while in 2000 it finished away from Dakar, with the chequered flag set up at the foot of the Gizeh Pyramids in Cairo.

The starting field this year included a famous winemaker, Francois Lurton, and a French environmentalist, Andre Lenoble, who competed using bio-fuel in a bid to give the event a green profile. Those who have not fallen by the wayside will arrive in Buenos Aires tomorrow with their own unique story of surviving the perils of the Dakar. sports@thenational.ae