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 which 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 Rally Championship. One year, the race was so difficult that no one finished. There was no politics with Bertrand, it was all or nothing, and he was not one to cut down or reduce the racing 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 that started on 25 December 1975 and ended on 11 January 1976, the Abidjan – Nice or Cote d’Ivoire to Cote d’Azur was born (note the dates and race days are still very valid with the original Paris-Dakar organised by Thierry Sabine, today’s 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 was 2,600 kilometers. Only four competitors completed 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 wanted to create the 5/5 concept which was 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 of the 5/5 concept. In December 1978 Thierry Sabine created the Paris-Dakar Rally independently from Jean-Claude Bertand, and 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, with a few having the courage or the finance to actually racing it, and where many have failed or sadly perished.
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 but has a lot more safety around it including the constant monitoring and tracking of competitors.
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 ultimate judge of the desert, the desert itself — where everyone is testing himself or herself against in those massive desert events regardless of the continents where those races are held.
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!