Duttons driven on by desert madness

Jeremy Hart reports from Zouerat, Mauritania, as a pair of British brot hers battle through the Paris-Dakar rally
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The Independent Online
There's nothing like that feeling of sand running through your toes on the beach or the smell of Ambre Solaire on pink British skin. Mix the two, and toes end up looking like breaded fish fingers. Roll in the sand and you'll look like Martin Dutt on, onehalf of a fraternal British entry in the Paris-Dakar Rally.

Four days into the 6,000-mile rally through the Sahara, Dutton and his younger brother Simon had been permanently coated in sand and oil (of the lubricating variety) and were half a day behind the ever-clean and eminently suave rally leader, Ari Vatanen.

"According to all our doubters we'd have been out of the rally by now," said Mark, whose more regular brush with motorsport involves wooing image-conscious sponsors to the spick and span world of Grand Prix racing.

Dutton is not the only transplant from Formula One. Jacques Laffite, who drove for Ligier and Williams in the 1980s, entered the Paris-Dakar with sometime McLaren driver Philippe Alliot. The pair swapped four wheels for two, competing on Yamaha motorbikes, traditionally the hardest mode of desert transport.

The Britons took heart from Laffite's short-lived taste of the Sahara. "I fell and hurt my back and my knee so I stopped," Laffite said two days into the two-week competition.

Almost still within sight of the Mediterranean, the Duttons managed to roll their trusty eight-year-old yellow Land Rover, nicknamed "Thelma". "I thought we'd really buggered it up," Simon said, "but we managed to drive it out."

Wednesday was typical of their slog across the Sahara. Seven hours after Vatanen pulled into the camp-site at Goulimine (famous for its camel market), the Duttons crept in under cover of darkness. Parked just feet away from the well-oiled machine of the Citroen and Mitsubishi teams, who have over 100 mechanics for seven cars, the brothers looked compact, so compact they had no mechanic and not even a tent.

The brothers admit they have little knowledge of how to repair a serious problem with "Thelma" so, for this week at least, advice on which way to hold their spanners comes from Gary Warr, the organisers' man in Britain and a competent mechanic.

Half an hour's flight east of Tenerife, the ever dwindling numbers in the rally have a day's rest tomorrow here in the iron-ore rich sands of northern Mauritania. The country is no resort and is famous only for housing Saddam Hussein's family during the Gulf War.

Thirty per cent of the 239 starters have dropped out of the atrocious adventure and the second half, through the deep sand of Mauritania and into the jungle of Guinea, will prove just as decimating.

Not even the biggest teams are immune to breakdown and punctures. On Thursday Vatanen almost lost his first place when he had three punctures in as many hours. Carrying only two spare tyres he had to wait for his Finnish rival, Timo Salonen, to arrive with another.

Vatanen's return to the rally he has won four times has spiced up the battle for victory. Now hotter than ever as the rally hits the Tropics, for most of the first week his Citroen team held the first three places but the Mitsubishis of the 1993 winner, Bruno Saby, and Jean Pierre Fontenay have crept into the top five.

Unlike last year, when the rally was decided days before the finish, the Paris-Dakar will stay alive until next Sunday when it finally reaches the finish line on the beach near Africa's western-most point.