Does the 18th version of the event created by Thierry Sabine mark a return to its roots? In view of the route officially presented on November 29th by Hubert Auriol, one can reasonably ask the question! The former driver, who has been in charge of the event's destiny since last year, has devised an itinerary which will give the competitors (of whom there are 309, many more than in 1995) bitter memories.
Aided by Patrick Zaniroli, who has compiled the roadbook, Auriol hasn't hesitated to include plenty of sand on the road leading to the Senegal capital, by planning no fewer than five legs in the Mauritanian dunes. If, by extraordinary bad luck, an ill wind gets up around Tichit or Kiffa, we can be sure of re- living the greatest exploits of the Dakar, from the days of the Sabines, father and son, or Rene Metge- or certainly of 'Fenouil'-since the day in January 1994 that four men in Mitsubishis became the heros of the dunes of Mauritania.
Well, a real, tough '96 Dakar, a Dakar that forms a true gallery for the many competitors who will never see the Rose Lake, let alone the Atlantic? To be quite sure, it's enough to look at the map.
The true start will be on December 31st, after disembarking at the Moroccan port of Nador, for a new stage finishing in Oujda, right next to the Algerian border. That's where the organisers, competitors and support crews will hold a dignified celebration of the new year. The next day, another completely new stage winds between Er Rachidia and Foum El Hassan, and air assistance will be forbidden. these three days in Morocco form a kind of "Atlas Rally mark 2" in the words of Ullrich Brehmer, the Team Mitsubishi Team Manager. There won't be any insurmountable problem then, but tracks that are often narrow, twisty, rocky, sometimes very rough, with a washboard surface and stony outcrops of flowers. Already, there will be sand-and oasis, to complete the postcard, before the event heads for the real south, for the ancient holy town of Smara.
On January 4th, the sixth leg, which is also new, crosses the Mauritanian frontier and heads for the mining town of Zouerate. Crews will have to conquer the first dunes- the first real 'off-road' kilometres, the first real piece of desert...Yet this is only an 'hors-d'oeuvre'; the two-day, Zouerate-Antar-Zouerate loop promises all this and more: sand, more sand, ergs to clear, ditches to cross and the climb of El Beyet, again on sand, naturally. The organisers have described it as 'memorable'! That's worth remembering...
The rest day on January 7th (a Sunday conveniently enough) at Zouerate will therefore be welcome. But who will be resting? It certainly won't be the mechanics, who will be required to make the machines like new, nor the co-drivers, who must decipher the maps and prepare for the worst.
The days that follow will be the worst. Crews face endless stages in Mauritania, without service,without a roadbook, cliffs, ergs and huge ditches that are all but impassable, forgotten lands in the middle of nowhere, the mineshaft of ElMreiti, the lost oasis of Tichit struggling vainly against the inexorable advance of the desert, the Iguekkateme pass, which promises to become as famous as the Nega. Welcome to trouble!
The scenery changes between Tichit and Kiffa, and the route returns to the laterite tracks of the Sahel. It also returns to Mali, for a short incursion in the far west of the country, the only region to escape serious political unrest. The Dakar includes one leg there, reaching Kayes on January 11th, without mechanics.
The Southern Cape is next, towards tropical Africa and Labe, the capital of Fouta Djalon, and its well- watered mountains. If the numerous rivers are low, it's not risky! The soil is so well-watered that tracks through the bush of Guinea often become daunting quagmires.
January 13th brings the last long stage (620 kilometres) before reaching Senegal. There will be deep fords, undulating roads or car-breaking tracks, depending on the weather, passing through the forest and the savannah dominated by the strange shadows of the huge baobab trees.
The day of deliverance is next! There is only a short stage (35 kilometres), but an endless link section on which it pays to be careful and then, at the end of the last straight, the Rose Lake, the Atlantic, the beach and finally, welcoming sand. There is the podium at Dakar, the drums and balafons to welcome the survivors. But how many will there be after this exhausting trek through the desert?
In view of this highly charged programme, one of the novelties proposed by Hubert Auriol may seem incidental: it's a 300-metre acceleration test, held at night in the middle of Granada, like a drag race. Don't forget that results of this first test will dictate the starting order for the Spanish leg the next day.
The fact that 70% of the route of this 18th Dakar is new is a good indication of the efforts of Auriol's team to restore the old, unforgettable taste to an event that has seemed shaky. It's a new direction of which Thierry Sabine, up there on his white cloud, will certainly approve. It's also guranteed to ensure the rally's press appeal. The media coverage of the 1996 Granada-Dakar will be exceptional. In France, in Europe, in Asia, in Japan certainly, in Africa, in America, millions will follow the adventures of the 'convicts of the sand'.
Copyright 1995 by Mitsubishi Motors Corporation.