In 1977 Thierry Sabine became lost while contesting a rally between Abidjan and Nice. The 28-year-old spent three nights alone in the Libyan desert, nearly dying from exposure before finally being rescued.
While awaiting salvation, Sabine had come to a conclusion – but this was not a religious awakening or a pledge to live a better life. In fact, he had decided that the wide-open spaces of the North African desert would be the perfect place for him to organise a rally of his own.
His reaction to the experience was typical of Sabine, a free-spirited adventurer who would lose his life in the desert within a decade.
But the event that he founded lives on. What is now known as the Dakar Rally was dreamt up as an adventurer’s challenge, but rapidly grew into one of the world’s most famous and controversial races.
AN UNLIKELY SUCCESS
A press officer from a wealthy French family, Sabine was also a motorsport enthusiast with a fearless approach to life. While still in his twenties he created an iconic motorcycle endurance event in his hometown of Le Touquet that still runs today, and competed at several major rallies and races, including the Le Mans 24 Hours. Friends recall that Sabine was fast, but threw away strong results because of his daring driving.
After his three-night stay in the desert he immediately set about organising an event that would allow others to experience its incredible magnitude. He began raising funds and, appropriately enough, the Oasis drinks company came on board as sponsors.
In December 1978 the first Paris-Dakar began. As the name suggests it took competitors from the French capital to its Senegalese equivalent, kicking off on Boxing Day and lasting almost three weeks. 182 competitors took the start for the inaugural running, with motorcyclist Cyril Neveu winning after a 10,000-kilometre trip across the Sahara.
Sabine’s experiment was judged to be an unqualified success.
THE ADVENTURER’S SPIRIT
Every subsequent edition of the Dakar has channelled the spirit of the first running. The machinery was basic, the event largely unregulated, and competitors quite literally rode into the unknown, relying on maps and celestial navigation rather than GPS.
Food and fuel had to be bought along the way and competitors slept in makeshift camps known as bivouacs. That same sense of adventure still draws people to the Dakar four decades later.
Though it became increasingly professional in the eighties and nineties, the event retains the spirit of amateurism in which it was created. Back then it was essentially a wild New Year’s jaunt for a bunch of wealthy French adventurers, the chance to escape the cold and boredom of post-Christmas Paris and blast through the much warmer climes of Africa. Sabine himself later admitted that he’d expected it to be a one-off.
But instead it grew rapidly as the Dakar came to be seen as the ultimate test of man and machine. Major car manufacturers wanted the kudos of having conquered the desert and sent some of their best drivers to tackle the event.
Sabine did not live to see the Dakar’s peak. He was killed during the 1986 event, when his helicopter crashed into a dune during a sudden sandstorm and killed all five people on board.
Nevertheless, the rally he created lived on. His father Gilbert took the reigns and participant numbers continued to grow. By the early nineties, when Sabine Sr. handed control to French media group ASO, it was firmly established on the international motorsport calendar.
THE LIVING DESERT
The Dakar has undergone significant changes in its four decades, the most fundamental being the location. While the route was frequently tweaked between 1978 and 2007, it was almost without exception a journey that began in Europe and ended in Africa.
But political tensions in North Africa had long been a problem for the rally. In 1991 Charles Cabannes was shot dead by Malian rebels, while a support vehicle driver was killed when he ran over a landmine during the 1996 event. In 2008 the rally was cancelled over safety fears in Mauritania, effectively ending the long relationship with Africa.
In 2009 the Dakar was reborn in South America, a move Sabine is said to have been contemplating before his death more than 20 years earlier. The route now encompasses Argentina, Peru and Bolivia. Africa is several thousand miles away, though the Dakar name was considered so iconic that it remains.
The Dakar’s fundamental challenge has not been diminished by the move and its allure is as strong as ever. It has a sense of history that few other races can match, though in the grand scheme of things it isn’t particularly old. Consider that the Monaco Grand Prix was first staged in 1929, and the Indy 500 as far back as 1911, and the Dakar seems like a relative newcomer.
Yet there is something pure and untouched about the Dakar. Monaco and Indy have naturally evolved over the years, but you can’t make a great deal of modifications to a desert. Be it in Africa or South America, it will always be vast and dangerous, beautiful and terrifying.
This is part of the draw. The Dakar is an adventurer’s dream, demanding that competitors go beyond their own perceived limits. Those who have raced there talk about the desert as a living thing, one that can be cruel or kind depending on its mood. The shifting dunes and sudden sandstorms help to explain this.
If Sabine had tried to create the event in 2017 it would never have got off the ground. The risk of serious injury and death is simply too high to sell to potential sponsors.
But danger is essential to the Dakar. It is an event where competitors accept that you cannot always control your destiny and instead embrace the unknown. This fosters huge camaraderie, particularly among the amateurs who continue to run alongside professionals.
It is also an event where women have competed against men from the start. Several significant female racers have tackled the Dakar and in 2001 Jutta Kleinschmidt became the first woman to win the rally. From the beginning, gender was not considered as important as a person’s outlook and love for the desert.
THE DARK TRUTH
But while there is certainly a lot to celebrate about the Dakar, it has a dark side that can’t be overlooked.
Death is still a real risk on the event, with 70 people killed in four decades. Just 28 of these were competitors – rally spectators, journalists and unsuspecting road users make up a much greater number. To make matters worse, several children were among the casualties in Africa.
Some blamed this on increased professionalisation. The arrival of GPS and manufacturer teams shifted the event’s main focus from endurance to outright speed. This meant faster vehicles with professional drivers taking greater risks.
Whatever the cause, this was a damning indictment on an event that had grown increasingly distant from its host continent.
Sabine was passionate about Africa and was keen for competitors to buy supplies locally, to experience the continent and support its people. Shortly before his death in 1986, he had been planning for the installation of water pumps in villages along the rally’s route.
But increasing professionalism in the nineties meant less reliance on locals. Supplies were provided by the organisers, cutting off a revenue stream that had helped to sustain many people. At this point the Dakar’s relationship with Africa shifted from guest to gatecrasher. With the phrase “neo-colonialism” being used to describe the rally, the departure from the continent was timely.
The Dakar remains dangerous. Five competitors and 12 others have died since it moved to South America. Ultimately, there is only so much that can be done to make an event of this kind safe.
But competitors know what they are signing up for. Protecting civilians should be the highest objective for the event as it enters its fifth decade.
Despite the obvious danger, the Dakar remains a hugely significant annual event.
This year’s running features rally legends Sebastien Loeb and Carlos Sainz, who will look to wrestle the overall win away from Stephane Peterhansel. The Frenchman has amassed a record 13 Dakar victories across the motorcycle and car classes, including the past two in succession.
The 2018 edition has also received an unlikely publicity boost in the form of former Chelsea and Tottenham coach Andre Villas-Boas, who will contest the rally aboard a Toyota Hilux.
Villas-Boas exemplifies the amateur spirit that still exists on the Dakar. He grew up watching the event and has now grabbed the opportunity to compete himself. Nothing is expected from him in terms of the result. This is a personal battle between Villas-Boas and the desert, between himself and his own limitations.
Since its foundation, the Dakar has maintained this battle as its core value. Thierry Sabine fought it while alone in the desert 40 years ago, and in 2018 his creation will allow others to do the same.