Rallying: Unique Auriol: Paris to Dakar and back

FOR THE past 16 years, Hubert Auriol has spent New Year's Eve and over half a dozen Christmas Days in Africa, competing in the Paris-Dakar Rally, writes Jeremy Hart.

Auriol will be the only one of 400 adventurers to line up at the dawn start in Paris's Trocadero tomorrow morning who has been in every edition of the car, motorbike and truck rally in the desert.

In that period he has won the event three times, twice on two wheels and once on four wheels.

'I still get a thrill out of the rally. Every year it is different and when you begin to think that you are beginning to learn the desert, something will catch you out,' the 41-year-old said.

Drama is part of a good Paris-Dakar Rally. In 1992, the year that Auriol won in a Mitsubishi, the rally skirted war zones, traversed Africa's hottest and coldest corners and breached political barriers by finishing in South Africa.

This year the drama off the course will come in the Western Sahara, a fiercely disputed coastal strip of the desert between Morocco and Mauritania. Until this week the fastest vehicles in the troublespot have been jeeps armed with machine guns, whose need for speed comes from avoiding mines. Driving fast enough means the mine should blow up behind, not under your vehicle.

The other significant change is the finish, back in Paris, and not in the west African city of Dakar. In 16 years, the rally has crossed almost every part of the Sahara, and the organisers cited the need for a change as the reason for finishing in Paris. The 8,000-mile marathon will still go to Dakar, though, for a one day rest stop, before the return leg up the Atlantic coast through Morocco to finish at Euro Disney on 16 January.

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