Sunday, January 07, 2007

In the spirit of the pioneers

Its incredible how little modern motorsport resembles those first races as the 19th century turned into the 20th. Emile Levassor won what is generally regarded to be the first 'motor race', from Paris to Bordeaux in 1895. In the earliest years of the sport, races usually took the form of point-to-point, or city-to-city, dashes along rutted open public roads intended for horses and carts, rather than new-fangled mechanical horses. They were intended perhaps less as sporting events than as demonstrations, meant to prove that these gasoline powered carts were actually a viable alternative to the horse and carriage for travelling long distance.

This chapter of motor racing history did not last long. Levassor's 1895 win was achieved in a Panhard-Levassor with just 4 brake horse power, but by 1901, cars producing 60bhp or more were not unheard of, and neither the brakes, suspension and steering, nor the primitive roads of the time, were intended for such power. In 1903 8 people were killed on the opening day of the Paris-Madrid race were killed and the race was stopped in Bordeaux. France banned motor racing on open public roads and the short but fascinating opening chapter of motorsports history came to a close (anyone interested in reading an account of this race might want to look here). In 1907, the first purpose built racing circuit opened at Brooklands in Surrey and began to change the sport forever.

The short 10-30km timed stages of modern rallying bear little resemblance to the early road races from the turn of the century, and are more liked 'against the clock' Grand Prix racing than any kind of test of endurance (indeed, the total competitive mileage of a modern world championship rally is often less than that of a Grand Prix).

No, the closest thing we have in spirit to those earlier races, I would submit, is the Dakar rally. Taking place over 15 days, and involving thousands of kilometres of competitive mileage over some of the most inhospitable terrain that the Sahara desert can provide, it is as much of a test of endurance, of survival, as of a driver's ability to control a car at high speed, and as much an adventure as a race. While there are untimed, 'non competitive' sections, drivers will be competing often for several hundred kilometres over a single day, against the clock.

It is not really about driver ability in the sense that rallying, let alone Grand Prix racing, is. Finding those last seconds is not really important when winning margins can sometimes be measured in hours, rather than minutes. A knack for avoiding trouble is more important than really first rate car control. Sure. rally drivers like Juha Kankunnen and Bruno Saby have won the event, and Ari Vatanen pretty much made it his own for a while, winning four times between 1987 and 1991. On the other hand, though, Pierre Lartigue secured a hat-trick for Citroen in the 1990s, and he would not feature on many people's list of the all time great rally drivers. Nor would the event's only female winner, Jutta Kleinschmidt, be considered by most to rival the achievements of Michele Mouton in the 1980s

Circuit racers, too, have been drawn in by the challenge of the Dakar. Jacky Ickx won the event for Mercedes in 1983 and Jean-Louis Schlesser is a regular competitor in his eponymous buggies, having won twice. Patrick Tambay and Ukyo Katayama have also made tried their hand at the event in the past.

All have been drawn to the event by the unique challenge it offers: more adventure than race. For all but a few of the 500+ competitors, it is not about winning, but simply about finishing - Dakar or bust. Where else can the average race or rally driver try his wits against 100 foot sand dunes?

One other thing, unfortunately, that the event has in common with those early road races, is the rather high death toll. In all, 49 people have been killed since the rally began 30 years ago, of whom 24 were competitors. The most recent, South African motorbike racer Elmer Symons, died this week. Just as this kind of racing declined and eventually died out in Europe, so it is possible that the Dakar rally may one day go the same way. In common with the Mille Miglia some fifty years previously, the event has also raised the ire of the Vatican (though cynics might question exactly how helpful some of the Vatican's own policies have been in Africa...)

In the meantime, though, you can follow the event as it happens through Martin Haven's excellent Dakar blog

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