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Formula One


by Tony Sakkis

Along with spectacular fantasies about attending wild parties at which I am the sole male, there are other dreams which now as a married man I will never be able to fulfill.

In 1987 I interviewed ex-Formula One driver Patrick Tambay. It was at that time when I was introduced to the Paris-Dakar Rally -- at least in spirit. Tambay, who had recently retired from Grand Prix driving, had just competed in the rally and it had become his raison d'etre.

While asking him the typical dribble about why he had left F1, what he missed most about it, and so on, I happened upon the Paris-Dakar Rally, that infamous, controversial trial of man and machine over what was then nearly 3,000 miles of sand dunes and desert.

As I was asking him of the race, there was a transformation of sorts. Tambay, who is as amiable a fellow as one could find, smiled and produced the kind of grin that I might wear if I just found an extra twenty in my pants pocket.

Looking back, I have no idea where the notes I took that day have been stored, so I'll paraphrase: "There is nothing like this race in the world," Tambay said, "It is not a glamorous race. Not at all. It is dangerous and very, very difficult. But it is the most personally satisfying event I have ever competed in."

And he had me.

At that point, I was already thinking about the possibilities: how to get there, whom to write the story for, how to cover expenses and so forth. And Tambay must have noticed it because he began giving me instructions on how to cover the race, actually walking me over to a British journalist and almost signing me up for a seat in the fellow's airplane for the following season's race. And although I didn't make it to Africa the next season, it wasn't for lack of trying. Back then, I just assumed it would happen the season after, or in perhaps two years.

The rally, which this year was changed from the traditional starting point in Paris to Granada, Spain and finishes where it always has, in Dakar (if you aren't sure, Dakar is in Senegal, on the western coast of Africa below Morocco and Mauritania), is more a survival trial than a race. It is what racing was like at the turn of the century. Out there, in your car, you have almost no help, no protection, and danger that is totally unknown to modern drivers.

In the past several seasons, snipers have shot at racers, cars have been stolen, and lives have been lost. People are killed when they crash their cars and, worse still, because of the location of the race, it is hours or sometimes days before anyone finds them. A race through the hell of the African Western Sahara is not going to be all roses and goose-down comforters.

For journalists, the event is as much of an ordeal. They, too, must complete the rally. They either have to hitch a ride on a support truck -- which actually races through the desert itself in pursuit of its team cars -- or they must hitch a ride on a private plane or helicopter (which was what Tambay was trying to set up for me). Either way, they are in fact exposed to the same dangers as the drivers. And I was determined to do just that.

But as almost ten seasons have passed since I made that decision to cover the race, it is farther off than before I interviewed the enthusiastic Tambay in that press room in Detroit. I know now that like that wild party, it will never happen. I will never cover the Dakar Rally. My wife will so be pleased since it's obviously an event best covered by a journalist who is single.