The Dakar Rally: “A school of life”
It all grew very quickly, attracting manufacturers and star drivers and riders, and specialist machinery. The difficult terrain of the dunes and deserts took their toll, though, claiming the lives of more than 50, causing exhaustion, and drivers/riders getting lost, the most notable being Britain’s Mark Thatcher, son of then Prime Minister Margret Thatcher, who was missing for six days in the dunes.
The Dakar event has an enormous amount of camaraderie. How can you not when having a two or three-week desert adventure? The competitors, teams and media would congregate at the stage end after a long day of 500 miles in the dunes (if and when they could find the finish), and sleep in bivouacs, or just under the stars in a sleeping bag. Sabine once called the event “a school of life.’
Former World Rally Champion Ari Vatanen, four-time winner of the rally, describes it as a life-changing experience. “I marvelled at the beauty of the Sahara. Sand, sand, and more sand! In places it was as flat as the eye could see, and in others it heaped up into dunes, all exactly alike and stretching out to the horizon. Such beauty had an unreal quality.
“And the nights – we slept out, laying our sleeping bags on the sand,” the Finn remembers. “Above us the sky was black as black and sprinkled with stars. It was a thousand-star hotel that beat all the smartest five-star establishments in London and Paris!”
Then there was the small problem of eating in the middle of nowhere.
“We had a cook that came from Agades with two helpers,” says Vatanen, “and all day they had a bonfire going, and they cooked the most amazing food with fresh vegetables, 250kms from the nearest town. When the night fell, we only had light from the generator, they laid out mats for us, and you could stare at the stars while having a three-course meal.”
As well as caravans of camels that they pass on route, the Dakar competitors are also followed by a fleet of helicopters to capture the spectacular TV images. If you think the drivers are brave, then give a thought to how the footage makes it to TV each day from the middle of nowhere.
Frank Arrestier is one of the veteran helicopter pilots that helps bring the staggering action images of the desert to your screens. The Dakar is one of his favourite events, and if you watch cycling’s Tour de France, or the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, you will be familiar with his piloting skills.
He flies as close as he dares to the cars and bikes, allowing his cameraman to shoot the action and the scenery. “It is my goal to help capture that,” says the Frenchman. “It’s one of the most spectacular sports, and my aim is to show the level of what they are doing and share it with the TV viewers.
“It’s necessary for the good pictures to fly that low,” Arrestier adds. “ We try to capture the speed and excitement. From where we are we can see the perspective, the horizon and the landscape. If you fly higher, it’s not as spectacular or as dramatic.”
And then there’s a surprise. I asked the fearless pilot – who flies into gaps and at levels that are unimaginable – if his job was the best rollercoaster ride in the world… “No!!” he laughs. “I hate fun parks and rollercoasters. I won’t go on them, I get very afraid!”
With all the politics and wars in Africa, the event moved to South America, and in 2012 starts on January 1 in Argentina, heads through Chile and finishes in Peru.
Previous winners include World Rally Champions Vatanen, Juha Kankkunen and Carlos Sainz, eight-time Formula 1 and six-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner Jacky Ickx while two-time World Sportscar Champion Jean-Louis Schlesser has won it twice overall. Ferrari F1-winner Patrick Tambay has done it too.
The 2012 entry featured former F1 driver and Le Mans winner Jan Lammers, NASCAR driver and former Indycar racer Robby Gordon, two-time World Rally Champion Miki Biaison, former F1 drivers Eric Bernard and Norberto Fontana, as well as all the other intrepid adventurers, as well as the guys and girls brave enough to tackle the challenge on motorbikes.
And don’t forget the fleet of helicopters that bring the images to our screens.
Sadly, founder Sabine died in a helicopter crash on the event in 1986, but his idea and legacy has continued, and grown.