Africa die-hards keep Dakar Rally spirit alive
By Vincent Fertey
BOU LANOUAR, Mauritania (Reuters) - Security fears forced the Dakar Rally to switch continents but a band of die-hard Africa lovers are still braving the Saharan sands to keep the tradition alive.
"We are here for the love of the desert, for the love of Africa, that's what interests us," said mechanic Jose Palomares, taking a break from late-night repair work lit by the glare of headlamps among the desert dunes of northern Mauritania.
Palomares is a member of one of the teams supporting 27 drivers participating in the so-called "Africa Race" that has remained faithful to the old Dakar Rally route through the rugged, parched terrain of Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal.
Security worries in Mauritania, triggered by the Christmas Eve 2007 killing of four French tourists by Islamist militants, led to the cancellation of the 2008 Dakar Rally and its transfer to South America's deserts where it is currently in progress.
Deserted by corporate sponsors, broadcasters and carmakers, who are now backing the big-name event in Chile and Argentina, the diminished Africa Race put together by three-times Dakar Rally champion Hubert Auriol is for African rallying purists.
"I prefer to come here because the terrain in Argentina doesn't interest me, it's flat," said French driver Jean-Louis Schlesser, who in 1999 became the first man to win the Dakar in a buggy.
"It's important to get back to when rallies had a more human dimension, not all about big money," he said.
Compared to the massive participation of the past -- more than 500 vehicles started in 2007, the last time the race crossed Africa -- the turnout for the diminished Africa Race is much more modest: 12 cars, 10 motorcycles and 5 trucks.
The surviving trans-Sahara rally, carrying the harsh and sometimes lethal tradition of one of motorsports' ultimate tests of endurance, will end in the coastal sands outside the Senegalese capital Dakar on Sunday.
It had roared off from Marseille on December 28.
Before the start, France's foreign ministry warned its organisers that the proposed route posed "serious risks" through a region which has suffered several bloody attacks by militants linked to al Qaeda's North Africa branch.
Bivouacking for a night in the desolate dunes of northern Mauritania, competitors and mechanics shrugged off the threat.
"There's no problem with security, everything has gone well just like other years," said Jerome Broeks, who is in charge of logistics for Schlesser's team. "Soldiers are escorting the convoy, there's nothing to worry about," he added.
Mauritanian troops, backed by pickups mounted with machine guns, guarded the camp, 100 km (60 miles) from the northern port of Nouadhibou where the teams rested after hours of driving.
"In Africa, you will always have risks," said Finnish driver and record four-times Dakar winner Ari Vatanen, whose African adventures included having to abandon the 1988 race after his car was stolen.
"It's important to have a rally here because it gives hope back to the people who live here."
Mauritania's military rulers are hoping the Africa Race can help revive the country's previously expanding tourism sector, which suffered a slump after the al Qaeda-linked attacks and an August coup which deposed the democratically-elected president.
The race organisers also recognise that the global economic downturn is weighing on the number of participants.
"It's an investment to take part in this kind of race, and amateurs are thinking twice," said Thierry Scharff, director of communication for the Africa Race.
Organisers and participants alike vowed to defend the tradition of the famous trans-Sahara rally, however.
"This is the first running of the Africa Race, I'm sure that next year the rally will be bigger," said Schlesser.
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