Seeing the face of death must be a hinge in the life of any person. Thierry Sabine knew it well, who at the end of 1977 was about to tell it no more. However, having lost himself in the African desert while running the Abidjan-Nice Rally, marked him forever and was the kick to stay in history. In those dramatic hours, the French rider swore that if he survived he would not stop until he organized a competition that mixed the adventure with the highest sporting demand. It was the genesis of the toughest race in the world: the Dakar, the great odyssey of motorsport that has been 41 years now.
Thierry Sabine was born on June 13, 1949, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a town in the metropolitan area of Paris. His family had no financial constraints since his father was a dentist and his mother was a recognized antiquarian. Could have had a quiet life without stress. He was always a sports lover and at first, stood out in horse racing and rugby. But he began to foster his love for motorsport by showing his versatility.
In 1973 he participated in the Monte Carlo Rally, in what was the historic debut of the World Rally Championship. With an Alpine-Renault A110 1600, he left because the radiator broke. In 1975 he organized on a beach the first edition of the Enduro Le Touquet, inspired by the desert races in the United States. Today is the most important race on the planet of that specialty with 100,000 spectators. That year he also became part of the 24 hours of Le Mans being 17th and repeated in 1976 culminating 13th, both times with a Porsche 911 Carrera. Although his great passion was motorbikes and especially off-road racing.
It was like extreme feedback. He began to participate in competitions in the desert. In December 1977 he joined to run in the Abidjan-Nice Rally that connected the south of Ivory Coast, in Africa, with the French Côte d’Azur. Away from the tools that current Dakar runners have today, four decades ago there was no guide for a GPS or roadbook (a roadbook used for navigation). At that time the orientation was with a compass, a map and the intuition of each participant. Thierry Sabine came fourth in the general classification until midway through the Dirku-Madama stage he missed the route and turned eastward to a sandy area with small mountains. A break in his life was coming…
Disoriented and having run out of naphtha in his Yamaha XT 500 after trying to regain its course, he was lost in the dangerous Teneré desert, a region belonging to the Sahara, in Niger. No food and just a little water, he spent three days and two nights.
Sometime later he recounted that experience in his book “Paris-Algiers-Dakar”: “I realize that my situation is uncomfortable, difficult. Two days later I have no compass or clock, which broke down in a fall while trying to find the lost route. It is now two days and two nights that I am lost in the desert, under a sun that begins to make me lose my mind. The total absence of shadow is an oppressive sensation, which engenders a feeling similar to that of claustrophobia. Then I decide to get away from my bike. In socks and sucking the stones to give me saliva, I realize my life is worthless and less. And that is when I promise that if I come out alive from this experience I will sweep away as much superficial as my existence contains.”
The organization set up Operation Rescue. After two days of missing the miracle came, although the Thierry Sabine also did his own thing. He built a cross with stones on the ground that was seen from the air by the plane flying by his compatriot Jean Michel Siné. “From now on start your new life,” they told him when they found him. He assured that “the desert deeply marked me and developed in me a very particular instinct and sensitivity. And above all, insurmountable desires to return. But, since then, never again alone!”.
He kept his word and returned to the desert accompanied by a caravan that made history. But to mark that milestone he had to work hard. He returned to France and dedicated himself in 1978 to realize that “greatest career in the world” he longed for. In the middle of that year, the inscription started with a cost of 4.5 francs (1 dollar). Sabine at that time was only 29 years old and organized the competition with his first wife Diane Thierry-Mieg (model and actress) and a small group of friends.
That was the birth of the Paris-Dakar Rally, whose first edition was launched in an area near the Eiffel Tower on December 26, 1978, and ended in the long beaches of the capital of Senegal. Two continents, six countries, 10,000 kilometers and 16 days of competition for that debut. They fired 90 motorcycles, 80 cars, and 12 trucks. A total of 74 vehicles crossed the finish line.
“In this test, you come to seek strong emotions, not perishable memories. I offer you all that, but I don’t want to hide the risks you’ll be taking. You accept it and you are also the ones who have to assume it,” Sabine told the 182 pilots of the first Paris-Dakar in the Trocadero Square in the French capital, warning clearly with what they were going to encounter. Years later he described the race as “a challenge for those who go, a dream for those left behind”. He also stated that “Paris-Dakar must be a competition between men, where the human element surpasses the machine”.
The bet went well and more changes came in his life. “I won a rally that year, but I lost a woman,” Sabine used to tell about the sentimental cost he had to pay to realize his dream. After a five-year marriage, he divorced Diane in 1981. His solo career did not last long as he soon began a relationship with Suzanne Fournais, a Danish rally enthusiast, who accompanied him and banked in his Dakarian adventure. It had returned love for Thierry and later regained another: in his years in charge of the race, he found the motorcycle with which he was lost in the desert in 1977.
The Paris-Dakar was a success and in its initial editions motivated the presence of star drivers such as the Belgian Jacky Ickx (six wins in the 24 Hours of Le Mans), or the Frenchman Jean-Pierre Jabouille (first winner with Renault in Formula 1). Celebrities such as Alberto and Carolina of Monaco joined in who lasted two days in 1986… At this point, Thierry Sabine himself was a recognized figure since in 1985 he had a leading role in the film “A man and a woman 20 years later” acting like himself, and where the main character armed the road map of the Dakar.
On the other hand, Thierry himself took advantage of the layout and his knowledge of Africa to develop humanitarian tasks. He had a lot of contact with the inhabitants of the nations where the caravan passed. He was also part of a group of tasks in the drilling of wells to deliver drinking water in Mali.
For the 1986 edition, there were 486 participants who had to travel 15,000 kilometers. The race was very hard and in the thirteenth stage, there were only 168 competitors left. While Sabine was the director of the competition and the head of the organization, he also dedicated himself to rescue pilots in the desert aboard a helicopter. In Mauritania, the test had to be stopped temporarily as the survivors were within a 1,000-kilometer radius.
Death of Thierry Sabina
On January 14, 1986, he went to pick up the runners who had left. But he could not complete this task since his aircraft crashed into a dune in the Gourma-Rharous area in Mali. There are some hypotheses about the causes of the crash, but none was proven. Mali, one of the countries where he spent the race, had been at war with Burkina Faso until December 30, 1985. There are those who claim he could have received an attack from the local military.
In line with an eventual attack, the idea was added that a snake was placed in the helicopter, but no evidence was found in the search. Others say there were restrictions on flying in the area and it is possible that the pilot has opted for a very low trajectory to avoid the radars. Then one of the helicopter skates would have gotten hooked with a tree. In the impact both Thierry Sabine and the other four people who traveled with him, his partner, singer Daniel Balavoine, died, who would not have been well seen by the Mali military for some statements against him (reinforces the theory of the attack); the helicopter pilot François-Xavier Bagnoud, and journalists Nathalie Odent and Jean-Paul Lefur.
“Paris-Dakar is not a game of destruction,” Sabine responded earlier to accusations of the harshness of the trial and the lives that had already been claimed before his death, four pilots (the French Patrick Dodin and Jean-Noël Pineau, the Dutch Bert Oosterhuis and the Japanese Yasuo Kaneko, all on motorcycles), three Italian support technicians, a French journalist and three local viewers in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. In 41 years of the Dakar, there were more than 60 fatalities among pilots, staff linked to the organization, journalists and spectators.
Ickx himself stated that “I once said about him that he was a sadist who organized tests for masochists. But we were proud to do the Dakar with him and the tests he subjected us to. He was a brigadier general, a sort of Rommel (Erwin) or Montgomery (Bernard). He was a different person, there are very few of those, we don’t know why, but there is one every 20 years. In his day, the instructions were to finish, no matter what, and that’s what we did.” The former Belgian driver won the Dakar in 1983 with a Mercedes-Benz 280 G.
From his experience when he was lost, knowing the hardness of the desert and having rescued several participants, Thierry was aware of what he was exposed to and said that the race should continue if something happened to him. The competition continued and then it changed its name depending on where it started and for the cities or countries that were its epicenter, for example, “Dakar 2009 Argentina-Chile”.
Sabine was also a visionary. Someone who thought on a large scale. I wanted the Dakar to reach other continents and go beyond Europe and Africa. After his death, his father Gilbert was in charge of the organization until in 1994 the French company Amaury Sport Organization (ASO) began to handle the event. The gala firm is the same that manages the traditional Tour de France cycling event. After the terrorist threats of the Al-Qaeda group that forced the cancellation of the 2008 edition, for 2009 the Dakar crossed the Atlantic Ocean and moved to South America. Three decades after the first edition, Thierry’s dream came true and his career went to other latitudes. In total, 29 nations were visited; 21 African, 3 European and 5 South American.
In 2020 it will add a new continent, Asia, as it will run in Saudi Arabia in a five-year contract of $70,000,000. Not everything is an adventure and ASO realized that South America ceased to be business in the face of the refusal to pay its fee from the countries that had hosted the race, except Peru that assumed the cost (it would have been $6,000,000) to have a full Dakar in 2019. It is also true that this event positively affects the local economy. For instance, in the decade that the race passed through Argentina its economic impact left an average of no less than 100,000,000 dollars per year, according to data provided at the time by the National Institute for the promotion of Tourism (Inprotur).
The competition is so strong that it merits the official participation of car terminals, motorcycles, trucks, and quadricycles. Even ASO is self-controlled because neither the International Automobile Federation (FIA) nor the International Motorcycling Federation (FIM) intervenes. However, both of the world’s leading motorsports entities have their own cross country rally ecumenical Championships where they usually run several teams and drivers competing in the Dakar.
This competition is still the toughest in the World. His initial work was thanks to Thierry Sabine, who at the age of 36 lost his life wanting to rescue his competitors. Today in the middle of Mali’s desert, a plaque and a tree recall the place where its ashes are. He always confessed that if he could choose where to die it would be in the desert. He kept his word. And every time a Dakar is gone is the spirit of the remembered Frenchman, the man who created the Great Adventure of motorsport and died for it.