Belgravia's adventurers head for the desert

Two young Britons will tomorrow start the Granada-Dakar Rally with a minimum of preparation and knowledge. Jeremy Hart reports
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The Independent Online
Princess Caroline barely got far enough on the Paris-Dakar Rally to get Sahara sand between her toes, Mark Thatcher and Charlotte Vernay didn't know how far they'd got (and for a week neither did anyone else) and shipping heiress Kinvara Cayzer di dn't even make it across the Channel for the start of the rally that has ensnared more socialites than a pack of paparazzi photographers.

On Sunday two more Belgravia adventurers will attempt the seemingly impossible, to finish the world's longest annual rally through North Africa. For brothers Mark and Simon Dutton, the Chelsea cruise is not challenge enough.

"There are so few competitions where you can compete against the top drivers. The thrill of the Dakar is the fact that it is still an adventure. That's why we are doing it," Mark said.

Determined to break free from the line of over-enthusiastic but under-prepared British cracks at the Sahara, the Duttons have shunned offers of advice (including taking a parapente to tow behind the car so the navigator can see where they are going) fromthe small band of Britons to have previously attempted the rally.

"The most difficult bit is going to be in the sand," the Duttons said naively. All but three days of the rally will be in deep sand. Before Mark Thatcher started for Dakar he laughed off its dangers. "Compared with racing, it'll be a doddle," he said.

Optimistically holding a glass of champagne at their own launch party at the Senegalese Embassy in London, Mark Dutton, 28, looked mortified to hear his team have unwittingly acquired the jinxed Land Rover that failed to transport Cayzer even as far as Paris for the start in 1987.

The Land Rover's life started badly. The Duchess of York failed to christen the rally car (then decorated with pink pussy cats) with a flat bottle of champagne at the star-studded launch of her friend Kinvara's ill-fated attempt. Even with a guest list that included the late James Hunt, the Marquis of Blandford, racing driver and Earl Johnny Dumfries and financier Mark Weinberg, Cayzer could not generate the £l80,000 necessary to race.

Eight years on, Dutton's glass of champagne was definitely sparkling at their star-free launch party, as bubbly as he and his brother's attitude to an event. Yet neither are completely sure what the rally has in store for them.

Financially, they have played safe and generated much of the money (estimated at £90,000) from friends and family. "Maybe they are keen to get rid of us over the new year," joked Mark in the bar at Chelsea's Harbour Club.

Wary of the almost insurmountable odds against them, the Duttons are cautious of expecting too much from their new year adventure. "We will be at the start," said Mark, 28, a former Guards officer, with the audacity needed to pull off the sporting equivalent of a couch potato finishing the London Marathon.

Mark, who will drive most of the 6,000 miles from the new start venue at Granada in southern Spain to the Senegalese capital at Dakar, tested the Land Rover briefly in a quarry in Kent but otherwise has no familiarity with a vehicle entrusted to get themacross the world's largest desert.

"I lived in Australia working for a company tearing across the desert marking mining claims, so I got a lot of practice driving fast in sand,' Mark Dutton said. His brother and co-driver Simon, 25, doesn't even own a car and, until the week before Christmas, had not used one of the crucial GPS satellite navigation systems needed to find their way through sand dunes. "We only got the GPS recently. I will have a week of crash course intensive practice before we start," he said.

Thatcher, whose navigating skills are a constant consolation to the cartographically challenged and whose exploits guaranteed the Paris-Dakar a permanent place in dinner party repertoires, made the front page for a week. Cayzer's and Fergie's flat champagne hit the headlines for a day. The Duttons have a hard act to follow.

Finishing the rally would not even be a first for a British team. The motoring journalists Anne Hope and Tony Howard completed the Paris-Dakar a year after its inception in 1979.

Even if the Duttons do finish the Granada-Dakar Rally in West Africa on 15 January, they will be days behind the winners, almost certainly one of the seven cars entered by Mitsubishi and Citroen factory teams.

After a year away from a rally he has won four times, the Finn Ari Vatanen has rejoined Citroen for the French company's most impressive assault on France's second most important sporting event after the Tour de France. Also in the team is the former world rally champion, Timo Salonen, and the leading cross-country rally driver, Pierre Lartigue, who won the rally last year. Mitsubishi's team for the Dakar is headed by the former winner Bruno Saby.

The route is shorter for 1995 than in recent years, to keep costs down and to avoid war zones in Mali and on the border between Mauritania and Senegal. From Granada on New Year's Day, the 239 motorbikes, cars and trucks will follow a route through Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea and back into Senegal.