On new year's day, 602 race-ready cars, trucks and motorcycles made their way through a crowd of 100,000 cheering Frenchmen and gathered at Versailles for the first leg of the Paris-to-Dakar rally. That was the last time anything remotely resembling a cheer would be associated with the 22-day event that, from beginning to end, proved to be nothing less than a tragedy. With any luck, or common sense, this, the 10th annual running of the race, will be its last.
In the course of racing 7,979 miles, many of them over the searing wastes of the Sahara, the body count directly attributable to the competition was six. Three other deaths have been blamed on a fire started by a careless support team. A mechanic remained in critical condition last week with a crushed rib cage and a former motocross champion had broken his neck.
All this in a rally? Paris-to-Dakar bears almost no resemblance to the type of leisurely amateur road rallying carried on in the U.S., in which the driving instructions read something like "Take left at barn with weathered Mail Pouch sign, average 19.7 mph to next stop sign." For one thing, 85% of this year's Paris-to-Dakar route hadn't been used for previous rallies; for another, the average speed was closer to 100 mph.
Then, too, most U.S. rallies are clubby events, the results of which are known to few people other than the participants. Paris-to-Dakar is anything but. To European sports fans, especially those in France and Italy, the race has become something of a winter equivalent to the summer's Tour de France. It is also a huge commercial enterprise. The Economist of London estimates that the total expenditure for this year's rally—including drivers' salaries, cars, support crews, spare parts, fuel, entry fees, bribes, sponsorship contracts and television rights—was $100 million.
The question is: For what? Private entrants have almost no chance of winning and nothing to gain but the adventure. And the big auto companies aren't in it for the prize money, which doesn't begin to match the expenses of a team such as the one entered by Peugeot, with its four race cars, seven support vehicles and 62 mechanics. But a win in what's called the World's Longest Race can boost sales and become the cornerstone of a yearlong marketing campaign for the victorious company.
That explains the presence of drivers such as Jacky Ickx, the former Grand Prix star, who was driving for the French importer of the Soviet-built Lada. Or of such other big names as four-time LeMans winner Henry Pescarolo (Peugeot) and Formula One drivers Jacques Laffite and Jean Pierre Jabouille (Porsche) and Patrick Tambay (Range Rover).
Despite the heavy investment in high-priced talent and high-tech vehicles—the cost of a Porsche engineered specifically for Paris-to-Dakar is reported to have been almost half a million dollars—this year's race turned into a grotesque combination of ineptitude, greed and bizarre fate that played out before a worldwide TV audience estimated at 600 million.
After the boisterous New Year's Day send-off in Paris, the vehicles motored without incident to the south of France and the port of Sète. There they were transported by ferry across the Mediterranean to Algiers, where the serious competition began. For the next 20 days the drivers would zigzag south then west through Algeria, Niger, Mali and Mauritania to a destination on the Atlantic coast in Senegal's capital, Dakar.
On the morning of Jan. 3, the 312 cars, 109 trucks and 181 motorcycles that were competing in three of the rally's divisions blasted out of Algiers, heading for the first African overnight stop 372 miles away at El Oued. By nightfall the field had been reduced by almost 25% as vehicles got mired in dunes or lost in the desert. The drivers thought that this first stage would be a relatively easy one, but the route book provided by the race organizers was confusing and imprecise.
In the almost featureless desert, the compass headings and other information provided in the route book are the navigators' only guide to the course and the control points each vehicle must pass. Paris-to-Dakar is not organized by the Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile, the association that expertly runs 11 rallies on four continents each year, but by an independent outfit known as TSO (short for the Thierry Sabine Organization, named for the race's founder, who was killed in a helicopter crash during the 1986 rally). Italian driver Giacomo Vismara (Land Rover) complained that "in one town there was no control point, as the book said there would be. There was a lot of chaos. The organizers favored the [manufacturer-sponsored] superteams."