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Dakar: Adventure can be deadly

Posted: Thursday, January 13, 2005

 

  Riders continue the race past Italian rider Fabrizio Meoni ' s motorcycle, right, after Meoni crashed during the 11th stage of the Dakar rally between Atar and Kiffa, Mauritania, Tuesday Jan. 11, 2005. Meoni, a two-time Dakar rally winner, died after crashing during the stage. AP Photo/Bernard Papon, Presse S

Riders continue the race past Italian rider Fabrizio Meoni ' s motorcycle, right, after Meoni crashed during the 11th stage of the Dakar rally between Atar and Kiffa, Mauritania, Tuesday Jan. 11, 2005. Meoni, a two-time Dakar rally winner, died after crashing during the stage.

AP Photo/Bernard Papon, Presse S

DAKAR, Senegal — The race has lured drivers for a quarter century, a bone-jarring adventure through the Sahara's baking heat in one of the sport's most harrowing competitions on the planet.

Sandstorms, land mines, armed bandits and dunes so steep they can hurl cars upside down are all part of the perilous history of Dakar Rally. And, for drivers and spectators alike, this race can be deadly.

This year, there have been two fatalities: Spanish motorcyclist Jose Manuel Perez and Italian motorcyclist Fabrizio Meoni, a two-time winner who had said this Dakar Rally would be his last.

''When I was a rider, as I left my home, I thought, 'Will I return in 15 days?''' said Jordi Arcarons, the team manager with KTM Repsol. ''I never said that to my family, but I was aware of the danger and the risks.''

Organizers confirm that since the first rally in 1979 about two dozen competitors have died. The total figure, including spectators, organizers and journalists, exceeds 30. One of the worst years was 1988 when three participants and three African spectators died.

Rally authorities say they have done what they can to bolster safety — a rescue helicopter is always nearby and maximum speed in villages has been limited to 31 mph.

This year's rally covers 5,566 miles and features separate races for cars, trucks and motorcycles. Unlike the old days, each vehicle is now equipped with GPS tracking devices, allowing fans and emergency teams to pinpoint driver positions.

That's important because in many places the track — if it can be called that — is more than 4 miles wide. How to navigate is up to the racer.

But even then, it can be too late. French rider David Fretigne was first to alert authorities to Meoni's crash. A medical team arrived by helicopter 15 minutes later, but despite on-the-scene treatment, the rider died less than hour later.

The 47-year-old racer, winner of the Dakar motorcycle title in 2001 and 2002, had been in second place this year. Organizers canceled the 12th stage of the motorcycle event Wednesday at the request of riders mourning Meoni. Cars and trucks proceeded in the leg from Kiffa, Mauritania, to Bamako, Mali.

Giniel de Villiers of South Africa won the 12th stage in 7 hours, 20 minutes, 58 seconds. Overall leader Stephane Peterhansel of France was 3:01 behind.

A day earlier, organizers took the precaution of cutting off 155 miles of the 431-mile stage because of poor weather and exhausted drivers.

The rally's route changes every year, making many parts of it largely new to the riders. The trek usually begins in Europe and ends in the south of the Sahara in Senegal's seaside capital, Dakar. The 2003 race skipped West Africa for the first time — heading through Libya and Egypt instead because of fears over security, banditry and terrorism.

This year, 230 motorcycles, 165 cars and 70 trucks signed up for the race that began Dec. 31 in Barcelona, Spain, and cut a winding swath through Morocco, Mauritania and Mali before reaching Dakar on Sunday.

The off-road race has a reputation for unrivaled toughness, particularly in the more remote West African stretches where competitors zoom across rock-strewn roads to mountain passes and sand-swept desert oases filled with camels and curious turbaned nomads. Crashes are reported nearly daily and drivers often arrive at the end of each stage banged up and bruised.

In the 1982 race, Mark Thatcher, the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, got lost in the Sahara for a week when his car broke down. During the 1991 rally, the driver of a support truck died of gunshot wounds in a village controlled by the Malian army.

''It's a very testing rally, as formidable a trial for the drivers as for the mechanics,'' Belgian driver Jacky Ickx once said.

In 1999, Sahara bandits robbed competitors at gunpoint in Mauritania. Wayward drivers veering off-route have even hit land mines left over from the Morocco-Western Sahara war that ended in 1990. Last year, Saharan nations pledged thousands of troops to guard against possible terror attacks along a route that skirted the desert home of Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaida.

''When you are in the rally, you never think of the danger,'' Arcarons said, ''you think you are the fastest and the best.''



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