Dakar 1988: The year the leading car was stolen – during the race!
…and they still crossed the line first. You won’t believe this happened!
Ari Vatanen is Mr Dakar Rally. He is the most successful racer in the car category with four wins. But as well as the ‘straightforward’ – if there is such a thing on the famously demanding rally raid – Vatanen has also experienced the downside of the event’s deserved reputation for the unexpected
The Dakar Rally is news every January, and has been since it first running 35 years ago from Paris in late December 1978 through Africa to its Dakar destination in the New Year. Adventurer Thierry Sabine’s brainchild was an instant success with not only motorsport-starved fans, but also with the newspapers and TV attracted by the spectacle and the danger of such a challenging, beautiful ‘race’.
By 1987, the manufacturers and superstars had arrived, as the marketing possibilities of winning the famous Paris-Dakar Rally Raid grew and grew. Peugeot had chosen to take on the event instead channeling its funds elsewhere. The event was newsworthy for a different reason though. Besides Peugeot’s debut, it was the first of the Dakar rallies to be run without its founder, Sabine, who lost his life in a helicopter crash on the race in 1986.
Right from the start in Paris, it was all about one man, 1981 World Rally Champion Ari Vatanen. Only 18 months before, the Finn had been in hospital on life support following a nasty crash on a world championship event in Argentina.
Now he was facing the most grueling motorsport event in the world – and he won – and beat a personal demon that had haunted him since his crash and extended hospital stay. See the previous Motorsport Retro story HERE.
If winning on his return in ’87 wasn’t headline-grabbing enough, nobody could have predicted what was due to unfold the following year. Peugeot had three works 205 T16s Vatanen being joined by a fellow Finnish world champion, Juha Kankkunen, and ex-Formula 1 driver and sportscar ace Henri Pescarolo.
While Vatanen dominated, the rally itself drew worldwide criticism, as the list of fatalities grew quickly, made worse by many of them being locals struck as the rally sped through their home regions. Even the Official Vatican newspaper got involved, condemning the race a “vulgar display of power and wealth in places where men continue to die of hunger and thirst.”
The politics were never far away – one of the reasons the event is now based in South America and not Africa.
Vatanen continued to do what he did best. Lead from the front, combining speed with caution. With victory in sight, and enough spares for Peuegot to fix almost anything the car could encounter, came the event’s most bizarre turn of events and the ensuing headline:
They had parked in a football stadium where the locals, in amazement, could observe the cars at the end of the day’s leg. Vatanen and co-driver Bruno Berglund ate in the caravan campsite and retired to their sleeping bags and tents. They woke to find their leading car was missing, last seen being driven out of the compound during the night.
Jean Todt, then Peugeot team principal, revealed that he had been contacted and the ‘kidnappers’ demanded around US$90,000 for its return. The thoroughbred machine was found intact and undamaged, and returned to the parc fermé, with minutes to spare, the crew climbed aboard and set off for what would have been Vatanen’s second consecutive win.
The drama was not over though. Having not been at the start 30 mins before their scheduled departure time, the officials deliberated the Peugeot driver’s case, and decided Vatanen had broken the rules and was thrown out of the rally, handing victory to team-mate Kankkunen.
Without that glitch caused by the robbers, Vatanen would have won five in a row. Kankkunen, was not happy with his inherited win or the circumstances of the whole competition – especially the loss of life on the event. Struggling with the moral dilemma, he did not want to take part in the victory celebrations, but reluctantly he did after for the media throng and the estimated crowd of 50,000. Even before the calamity of his team-mate’s he declared: “I feel very sad about the way the race is going. People are taking too many risks. In January next year I plan to be somewhere on the other side of the world.”
Special thanks to Peugeot Sport and McKlein Photography
By Andy Hallbery