The Dakar Rally, the legendary race across the Sahara which is deemed to be one of motorsport's toughest and most dangerous competitions, has been cancelled for the first time in its 30-year history because of security fears.
The Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), which organises the race, said it took the last-minute decision following the recent murders of four French tourists in Mauritania, as well as threats from terrorist groups against the rally itself, which was due to start in Lisbon today.
"No other decision but the cancellation of the sporting event could be taken," the ASO said in a statement last night.
"[We] condemn the terrorist menace that annihilates a year of hard work, engagement and passion for all the participants." Three gunmen, who police suspect were linked to al-Qa'ida, shot dead four French tourists in Mauritania on 24 December as they had a picnic at the roadside near the border with Senegal. The killings prompted the French government to issue a security warning to the ASO.
The Dakar Rally, which used to start in Paris but for the past two years has departed from the Portuguese capital, has a chequered history with plenty of security headaches.
In 1991, a French driver for the Citroën team was shot dead in Mali in a killing that appeared to be linked to the conflict between Tuareg rebels and the national army. In 2000, organisers were forced to halt the race in Niger, in order to put in place an emergency airlift to neighbouring Libya. Last year, threats by an al-Qa'ida-affiliated group to kidnap drivers led to two stages of the race through Mali being axed, including one to the fabled desert town of Timbuktu. Until now, however, no threat was deemed serious enough to call off the entire 4,000-mile race.
About 570 teams had registered to take part in this year's event. Their support vehicles had already set off and the fuel needed to power the cars over the dunes was sent ahead. "We worked for months and invested lots of money," Andre Dessoud, the head of the Nissan team, told Reuters news agency. "I don't have a clue what we're going to do."
Cyril Neveu, a five-times Dakar winner in the motorbike category, acknowledged the race could have been targeted by terrorists. "It is a big caravan of more than 3,000 people," he told the French broadcaster I-Tele. "Providing security from the first to the last competitor is an onerous job. One cannot say there was zero risk." The cancellation will also hurt the villages and cities which enjoy an economic windfall from the rally. The head of the hoteliers' association in Senegal, where the race was due to end on 20 January, said the losses would run into hundreds of thousands of pounds and the bad publicity could hurt the country's image as a tourist destination.
Not everyone will mourn the lack of a rally this year, however. Organisers have been criticised for sending powerful racing cars speeding through the sands and savannahs of countries where some residents are not made sufficiently aware. In 2006, children in Guinea and Senegal died after being hit by rally vehicles.
Last night, the ASO insisted the rally would return next year. "Cancellation does not endanger the future of the Dakar," it said. "The Dakar is a symbol and nothing can destroy symbols."