Rally drivers have a saying: 'You have to be braver in the Paris-Dakar...'

It's 5,300 miles of sand, sun and screaming engines. And, says Alistair Weaver, last month's Paris-Dakar Rally was the most dramatic yet
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The Independent Online

In an oversanitised world, the Paris-Dakar Rally is one of the last bastions of organised, regulated derring-do. This is an event that covers 5,314 miles across North African deserts, in which lone motorcyclists navigate with route maps that look like toilet paper, and where press releases list the injuries beside the leaderboard. It is, more than ever, a rally unlike any other – and this year's event, the 25th, which finished a couple of weeks ago proved one of the most dramatic yet.

In an oversanitised world, the Paris-Dakar Rally is one of the last bastions of organised, regulated derring-do. This is an event that covers 5,314 miles across North African deserts, in which lone motorcyclists navigate with route maps that look like toilet paper, and where press releases list the injuries beside the leaderboard. It is, more than ever, a rally unlike any other – and this year's event, the 25th, which finished a couple of weeks ago proved one of the most dramatic yet.

The rally was the brainchild of a Frenchman, Thierry Sabine. In 1977 Sabine got lost in the Libyan desert while competing in the Abidjan-Nice Rally. This desert proved to be his road to Damascus, and he returned to France determined to lead others in his quest for sand-dune salvation. He launched the Paris-Dakar the following year.

The event retains a few Gallic eccentricities. For example, this year's rally set off from Marseille and ended up in Sharm El Sheikh, a tourist trap on the Egyptian edge of the Sinai desert. Not once, in 19 days of competition, did the participants get within 450 miles of either the French or Senegalese capital. And yet still the tacky trophy proclaimed the winner of the "25th Paris-Dakar".

The switch of venues owes much to the power of the sponsors' euros, but the Dakar still retains the organisational structure of Sabine's original concept. It's a stand-alone event not affiliated to the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies, in which these vehicles usually compete. Although there are a myriad of different awards and categories, competitors essentially fall into three classes: cars, bikes and trucks, the last-named 900bhp monsters which trundle across the desert with a crew of three.

When the event started in Marseille, 162 bikes, 130 cars and 51 trucks were cleared to compete. By the end, 98, 61 and 27 respectively were left. The winning car's time was 49hr 08min 52sec. The slowest truck, by contrast, took 80:27.47.

The rally's progress through North Africa was not without incident. On the Libyan/Egyptian border, one of the support vehicles for the KTM motorcycle team hit a landmine and the explosion destroyed the left rear corner of the truck. A diplomatic incident was avoided only when an investigation revealed that the landmine was a leftover from the Second World War.

None of the three occupants was injured, but some competitors were not so lucky. Press releases in the first couple of weeks contained a "concerning injuries" footnote which detailed the condition of participants whose injuries included facial trauma, fractures and a ruptured spleen.

The last injury was incurred by Patsy Quick, a British motorcycle rider for Team RallyRaid UK. "The bike cart wheeled and landed on top of her," the team manager, Paul Round, explained. "She was fortunate that a medical helicopter was above her at the time, or she probably would have died. They operated on her in a military hospital next to the bivouac. It could have been a terrible story."

Bruno Cauvy was not so fortunate. Cauvy, the co-driver of a Toyota Land Cruiser, broke his neck after the car rolled over. It took the medical staff 27 minutes to reach him, only to pronounce him dead at the scene. The driver was uninjured.

Miki Biasion, the '88 and '89 world rally champion, was competing in a Dakar car for the first time. "The event was too dangerous this year," he said. "In normal rallying, if you make a mistake you have an accident, but here even if you don't make a mistake you can just hit a rock and have a very bad accident.

"You don't know what there is beyond the dunes, but you have to go speedy so you don't get stuck at the top of them. In normal rallying the medical crews are very quickly on the scene if you crash. But if you have an accident when you're out on your own in the desert it can take a long time to reach you, as we saw with poor Bruno Cauvy. You have to be much braver in the Dakar. You have to be much braver than in normal rallying."

Biasion spoke to me after I arrived in Sharm El Sheikh to witness the final stages. Even for a spectator, the Dakar throws up some logistical challenges. Our imported Mitsubishi off-roaders, which we had intended to drive into the desert, were impounded by Egyptian customs officials, and an appeal from the German ambassador failed to secure their release. In the end we were forced to hire local guides with their own 4x4s.

Sharm El Sheikh is nothing more than a gaggle of western resort hotels, but beyond these artificial oases tiny shantytowns litter the roadside, dwarfed by the electricity pylons that criss-cross the desert. Against this backdrop, the £250,000 Dakar cars look more than a little incongruous.

After driving about a kilometre into the desert, our guide, Nabil, announced that we had arrived. Stepping out of the off-roader, we were greeted by a vast open plain, framed by some orange mountains. There were no marshals, no flags, no advertising banners and no obvious sign of a track.

After half-an-hour, the putt-putt of an engine and a trail of dust signalled the arrival of the first bike. It's hard to know whether these riders are brave or simply reckless. While riding across rock-strewn terrain at huge speed, they must navigate using a combination of a GPS system and a rotating route map that resembles a bog-roll.

"You need to balance the speed with making sure you're in the right place," says Derrick Edmondson, a British rider. "Some days start at 1.20am and go on till three in the afternoon. Few events are so demanding. But a lot depends on the skill level of the rider. If you approach it properly, you'll cover the ground more easily than someone who's erratic."

After the rigours of the bikes, the car drivers appear to have it easy. Ensconced in a roll-cage and with a co-driver for company, they are in less immediate danger, but the accidents tend to be bigger when things do go wrong. Mitsubishi have dominated in recent times, and their cars were the first to arrive. The Dakar cars aren't conventionally quick – their top speed is only around 110mph – but they remain an extraordinary sight, mixing elegance with brute aggression.

Our vantage point was about 150 miles from the end of the rally, but the real drama was yet to unfold. After stopping to fix an overheating problem, the leader, Stéphane Peterhansel, was making up time when he pulled out to overtake a Volkswagen Tarek buggy. Blinded by the dust, Peterhansel hit a rock. The impact destroyed his rear suspension and he was stranded in the desert for over two hours until his recovery truck arrived to effect a repair. The man who had led for over 4,500 miles would now finish in third place; he had handed the win to his Japanese team-mate, Hiroshi Masuoka.

Compared with the real human tragedy that had occurred just a few days before, Peterhansel's plight seemed small fry, but it was still an excruciating twist in a bizarre tale. No man – or woman – is bigger than the Paris-Dakar.

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