The off-road race dubbed the toughest and most dangerous race on earth – the Dakar Rally, has earned its reputation very early on in Africa. People talk about the ‘Dakar Spirit’. But what does it mean? and more importantly where did it originate from? By Christophe Barriere-Varju
When Thierry Sabine participated in the early Abidjan-Nice from Cote d’Ivoire to Cote d’Azur a race much more insane than what you are watching today. The race was called the Abidjan – Nice, or Cote d’Ivoire to Cote d’Azur and had been dreamt and created by the founder of rally raids, Jean-Claude Bertrand.
Bertrand’s spirit of the race and the required spirit of the competitors was this “…you have to help each other, if you don’t you won’t make it.” That was the original spirit, plain and simple of Bertrand’s cross-country rally-raids.
Jean-Claude was a man possessed by giving competitors a run for their money, it was all about providing that once in a lifetime experience to racers. He used to organize the Bandama Rally (still going today), a WRC race that was part of the world championship. One year, the race was so difficult no one finished. There was no politics with Bertrand, it was all or nothing, there was no easing the stages. If you could not make it, tough luck and see you next year.
Bertrand then dreamt of something much much bigger. A race starting in Africa and ending in Europe. Back in its first edition from 25 December 1975 to 11 January 1976 the Abidjan – Nice or Cote d’Ivoire to Cote d’Azur was born (note the dates and race days still very valid with the Dakar Rally and the Africa Race).
Bertrand was not shy on kilometers either, the stage Abidjan-Niamey was 1,725 kilometers and competitors had a maximum time of 31 hours to complete the day – yes you read right!
The race even had mass starts where racers faced the immensity of the desert racing side by side. Several days later, the second marathon stage from Tamanrasset to Fez is 2,600 kilometers. Only four competitors complete it, Gilles Mallet, Gilles Comte, Bernard Penin and Didier Orelio. These people are the first heroes of this new discipline that would continue on for 40 odd-years later that people now refer to as the ‘”Dakar.”
The following year Thierry Sabine participated in the Abidjan-Nice and got lost. Jean-Claude found him in the Sand Dunes several days later and saved his life.
Jean-Claude was a visionary and created the 5/5 concept to organize each year on one of the 5 continents a legendary race. Today his grand vision has come to life with races such as the Africa Race from Monaco to Dakar previously known as the Paris Dakar then Dakar Rally, the Silk Way Rally in Russia and China, the China Grand Rally, the South American Dakar Rally, and the late Australian Safari.
After saving Thierry Sabine’s life, Jean-Claude gave him a job to help him out whilst he was off to Central and South America mapping his second major race. In December 1978 Thierry Sabine created the Paris Dakar independently from Jean-Claude Bertand. The rest is history.
Over the years the Paris-Dakar created more heroes, and a lot more dramas. Each year has been difficult for different reasons and the Paris-Dakar became a legendary race everyone wanted to participate in, a few actually racing it, and where many have failed.
This ‘Original Spirit’ from Jean-Claude Bertrand was a massive adventure to race across 10,000km with the help of a compass, and competitors had to help each other in order to make it to the end. To some extent, that navigational race spirit still exists today.
The spirit of the competitors helping each other is still present, but often seen more amongst privateers – albeit not as insane as covering 1,725 kilometers in 31 hours.
What has stayed constant from the early days of Jean-Claude Bertrand ‘Grand Master Creation’ is the true spirit of the desert, acting as the ultimate judge of it all whom everyone is testing himself or herself against.
In the film Dream Racer we say this:
People forget that what is most important is not the geographical location of the actual race or the event’s name. What is important is the spirit of the race, the spirit of the competitors and the spirit of the desert. The sad truth is that most competitors today have never heard of the name Jean-Claude Bertrand but his spirit is survived with the Dakar Rally, the Africa Race, The Silk Way Rally and the China Grand Rally.
All we can say today is this “Thank you Mr. Bertrand” for creating heroes with all the participants testing themselves against deserts all around the world over the years. Without you, none of this would exist today!