In its 45th edition, the Dakar is certainly the best known and most followed off-road race in the world. But how much is left of the vision of its founder Thierry Sabine? In this article we are going to discover the origins of the Paris-Dakar.
On the top of a small dune in the middle of the Ténéré there is said to be an acacia with a twisted trunk, tired by the years and by an impossible climate, the dry, twisted branches reaching out like skeletal hands towards the sky as if to beg an improbable rain to relieve his unquenchable thirst. Yet the acacia survives on the edge of the track that leads from Iferouane to Chirfa, in north-eastern Niger.
The desert let me live. The desert calls me
At the bottom of that acacia today lives the free spirit of an authentic visionary. A stele and his ashes, scattered all around after his tragic death in 1986 in the crash of the helicopter he was traveling on, are all that remain of Thierry Sabine.
Not mirages or fairies morgane, but real visions that he would soon turn into reality
Nine years earlier, not far from that acacia, the young Thierry, a car and motorbike driver with a passion for adventures and extreme competitions, lost his way during a stage of the Abidjan-Nice rally. On his Yamaha XT 500 he remains isolated from the rest of the competitors and finds himself in the middle of nowhere without a compass, without water and without food. The only company is a useless map and a gri-gri, a lucky amulet given to him by a Tuareg friend from whom he never separates.
Sabine doesn't lose heart: she rubs the fetish almost consuming it, so what does she have to lose? Chance or fate, the gri-gri does her duty: after three days and three nights, the French pilot is located and rescued. Against all odds Thierry Sabine is safe. But also irrevocably changed. Those hours of solitude, spent at the mercy of a sea of sand rubbing a leather amulet, conquered him enough to make him forget the fear of death. The silence of the desert, interrupted only by the wind that shapes the dunes into ephemeral shapes like those of the clouds, made him glimpse new horizons, new goals. Not mirages or fairies morgane, but real visions that he would soon turn into reality.
Paris-Dakar, Thierry's vision
On the Algerian Air Force plane that takes him home, Thierry Sabine begins to think of a rally for four and two-wheeled vehicles like he has never seen before. A sensational competition, with a crazy route to say the least, starting in the center of Paris and arriving, after about twenty days, on the white and sunny beaches of Dakar. Two continents, a sea to cross and in between the nothingness – or everything – of the Sahara. A raid, more than a race, where the resistance and skill of the pilot, but also the performance and sturdiness of the vehicle, will be put to the test by extreme environmental difficulties. But also an unrepeatable opportunity for competitors to measure themselves against their own limits, in a mix of charm and adventure, exotic and modernity, great panoramas and impossible conditions. "A challenge for those who participate" is his creed "but also a dream for those who are watching".
Thierry Sabine's vision takes shape in a few months. Back in France he begins to get busy to find the funding necessary for the realization of his project. He knocks left and right, tireless and insistent, determined to achieve his goal. Until, miraculously, the money turns up mainly thanks to Oasis, a company that produces fruit juices. Not even a year after its planning, the Paris-Dakar can already be said to be a reality!
The first Dakar
On December 26, 1978, Boxing Day, one hundred and eighty-two vehicles of all kinds gather roaring on the Trocadéro esplanade, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. On board there are professionals and individuals, expert pilots and simple amateurs. The desire for adventure unites them, but also a good dose of recklessness. In fact, ten thousand kilometers await them to travel through France, Algeria, Niger, Mali, Upper Volta (today Burkina Faso) and Senegal. Few paved roads, many dirt roads and then kilometers – many – of sandy tracks that cross the desert. Of those that are there today and not tomorrow, erased – or moved – by the wind, and which for this reason cannot be found on the maps. Little or no mechanical assistance, scarce food, ferocious climate even in the middle of winter. The compass and the starry vault as the only guides. Adrenaline and petrol as propellants to face the adventure. The desire to arrive at all costs as an absolute goal.
Upon arrival on the beach of Lake Rosa, another man will be the one who will throw his helmet into the air
The winner of this first edition of the Paris-Dakar is a twenty-one year old from Orléans, Cyril Neveu who in the years to come would inextricably link his name to the competition, winning several editions. Tired, covered in sand and sweat, he triumphantly crosses the finish line on the saddle – coincidentally – of a Yamaha XT500. In his eyes there is the unmistakable light of someone who knows he has completed a business. Because it was actually a business.
It is immediately legend!
Started amid general skepticism, the rally magically begins to attract the interest of the mass media already after the third-fourth day of competition. First the newspapers, timidly, then radio and TV begin to speak with ever more interested tones of this incredible raid, while tens of thousands of Africans flock to the sides of the roads (where there are) to personally witness the passage of that caravan of crazy. Everywhere, from Algiers to Agadez, from Niamey to Bamako, in the oases and in the thousand remote villages bordering the desert, there is a riot of people who have never witnessed such a show. The enthusiasm of the crowd thus merges with that of the competitors.
Thierry Sabine, 1949 - 1986
Thierry Sabine (Neuilly-sur-Seine, June 13, 1949 - Rharous, January 14, 1986) as well as being famous as the founder of the Paris-Dakar was an important French racing driver.
Sabine's sporting career took place above all in the world of motor racing where he competed in touring car competitions both on circuits and in rallies. In addition to having participated in some rounds of the World Rally Championship, he also took part in various endurance races of the World Sports Car Championship including the 1975 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans where he finished 17th overall on a Porsche.
Another passion of his was racing in the desert and, in 1977, he had the adventure of being lost in Libya during a competition between Nice and Abidjan.
Thierry Sabine began his career as an organizer in 1975 by creating the French Enduro del Touquet race, which has grown from a local event into an international phenomenon. After having also organized the Croisière Verte, a motorcycle marathon from the north to the south of France, by combining his passions he decided to organize a competition open to various types of vehicles and which would take place for the most part in the desert: on 26 December 1978 he thus took the away from Paris the first edition of what has become the famous Rally Dakar. He continued to follow his "creature" also for the following years, founding the special T.S.O. (Thierry Sabine Organization), until his death which occurred during the 1986 edition of the African race, when he crashed with a helicopter. In the plane crash, in addition to Sabine, the French singer-songwriter Daniel Balavoine and three other people lost their lives, including the young Xavier Francois Bagnoud, a young Swiss pilot and aerospace engineer.