Three days and three nights in the desert without help. No food, no water and no compass. He was lost on his Yamaha XT 500, with only an unnecessary map and a gri-gri amulet he had received from his Tuareg friend.
It’s hard to say if it was the power of the amulet or pure coincidence, but the French racer was located and picked up. His loved ones had already mourned him, but he was able to return. Although he was no longer Thierry Sabine as before. Those hours of solitude, at the mercy of the sea of sand, he spent rubbing the leather amulet. In one of the interviews, he said that then he completely forgot about the fear of death. The silence of the desert, broken only by the wind that shapes the dunes into fleeting cloud-like shapes, made him think about things differently. No mirages or morgana ghosts, but real visions that he was soon to turn into reality.
Thierry Sabine returned to Paris with the idea of organizing an extremely long race through Africa. Adventurous, difficult, but as safe as possible. The sensational competition for cars and motorcycles, which would have started in Paris, led across two continents and conquered the Sahara. A competition where not only the skill of the pilot and the robustness of the technology would decide, but where much more would be at stake. It was supposed to be not only a race, but also one big adventure.
Within a few months, Sabine had a clear concept, but as is often the case, he lacked the money to implement the entire plant. These have appeared – another miracle – thanks to Oasis, a company that makes fruit juices.
At the same time, Sabine came from a rather rich family. He was born on June 13, 1949, and thanks to his parents’ money, he was able to start rally driving at the age of twenty-one with his Porsche 911 S. In 1975 and 1976 he also tried his luck at Le Mans, but in the end he was most fascinated by off-road motorcycles and long-distance competitions.
He planned the first Dakar with his wife Diane and three friends. Succeeded! On December 26, 1978, one hundred and eighty-two machines of all kinds rumbled together on the Trocadéro promenade in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. There were professionals and individuals, experienced pilots and simple amateurs. They were all united by a desire for adventure, but also a fair amount of recklessness.
In fact, ten thousand kilometers awaited them through France, Algeria, Niger, Mali, Upper Volta (today Burkina Faso) and Senegal. Few paved roads, many dirt roads and then kilometers, many kilometers, of sandy roads that cross the desert. The ones that are buried in the sand blown by the wind and that you just can’t find on ordinary maps. Little or no mechanical assistance, little food, wild climate, heat and cold. A compass and the stars were the only way to navigate at that time. But even then the competitors were driven forward by gasoline and adrenaline. The desire to reach the destination at any cost was and is an absolute motivation.
The winner of the first year of the Paris-Dakar competition was twenty-one-year-old Cyril Neveu, who in the following years will inevitably associate his name with this company and will be able to defend the victory several times. Tired, dusty, sweaty and happy, he crosses the finish line in the saddle of, what a coincidence, a Yamaha XT 500.
The truth is that the sponsors saw the competition as more of a one-off crazy venture, but four years later the Paris-Dakar Rally began to receive the media attention it deserved. As tens of thousands of Africans stare in disbelief at monsters roaming the countryside, crossing the desert, camping near oases, in no man’s land, readers, viewers and listeners begin to devour all these incredible stories of risk and courage.
The difficulty of the race increased and attracted more and more participants. In 1981, 276 crews competed, two years later already 382. In 1983, the Ténéré desert region of northern Niger was also driven for the first time, and several dozen crews were lost in a sandstorm. Some of them were rescued only after four long days. In 1984, Sabine planned a race even further to the south-east of Niger, and the participation even reached 427 crews.
But in the following years, the Dakar route began to change due to the political and security situation. And in 1994, the start of the race was also changed, because the mayor of Paris was annoyed by all the noise in the city center. First, they started from Disneyland, then from Lisbon in Portugal, from Granada or even Dakar. A total of four times in the history of the race in Africa, the destination was somewhere other than the capital of Senegal, once it even went from Paris to Dakar and back.
The competition has changed over the years, naturally evolved and professionalized immensely. It moved from Africa to South America and then to Saudi Arabia, but it is still an adventurous and extremely difficult race, where riders swallow hundreds and thousands of kilometers in special stages and crossings. Professionals meet amateurs here, stories are written in the sand of the endless dunes, which over time become legends. The spirit of Dakar is not about winning the competition, although of course everyone wants that. It’s about finishing it. Therefore, all competitors who are classified at the finish line receive a commemorative medal and the first three riders in the category receive a statue of a golden Bedouin.
It’s hard to say how Thierry Sabine would look at today’s Dakar. Four thousand people in the bivouac, 345 crews (and another 80 in the classic category), but it is still a competition for professionals and amateurs. And it’s still one big adventure.
But Sabine has been dead for thirty-eight years. He died on January 14, 1986 in a helicopter crash as darkness fell and strong winds began to pick up. The pilot appeared to be following the lights of Philippe Joineau’s Suzuki, which was headed for the finish line, but he apparently did not notice that a sand dune was rising right in front of him, the only one in the area of a hundred and fifty kilometers. None of the five-member crew survived the accident, where, in addition to the thirty-six-year-old Sabine, there were also a French journalist and a popular singer. At the same time, it is paradoxical that Sabine refused night flights and the safety of the competitors was always his first priority.