CAIRO -- It's been a long 18 days since the 22nd running of the Paris-Dakar-Cairo race started in Dakar. At that time more than 600 competitors on some 200 bikes, in 141 cars and 65 big trucks set off on the 7000-mile trek eastward across western Africa and the Sahara Desert into Egypt.
The terrain varied between smooth tracks through relatively populated western Africa and high temperatures with plenty of humidity, to the barren stretches of desert with no living creatures, not even insects, for hundreds of miles. Each day consisted of an average of driving 650 kilometers, some of it transit stages along regular roads but mostly on special stages off-road -- kind of like a Baja 500 race each day.
After the first six days there were few surprises. The race was lead consistently by Spanish rider Juan Roma on an Austrian KTM motorbike. Among the cars the main battle was among the Mitsubishis, but it was Japanese driver Kenjiro Shinozouka with navigator Dominique Serieys who held the lead. The battle in the big trucks was among the Russian truck manufacturers Kamaz and Tatra, but it was Vladimir Tchaguine and his two co-drivers who lead the truck class throughout the whole event in a giant Kamaz.
By the end of the sixth special stage the race arrived in Niamey, Niger. The competitors were ready for the toughest part of the race as the event moved out of sub-tropical Africa into the desert, but it was not to be. Dire warnings of a serious attack on the competitors by terrorists in northern Niger caused the organizers to cancel the following four days of racing. They had three choices: finish the race there and then, race back to Dakar or just airlift the whole entourage to Libya, bypassing the problem area. At a cost of about $4 million, three Russian Antonov aircraft spent four days moving all the helicopters, bikes, cars and giant trucks.
Each day the event organizers had to set up a bivouac at the end of the day’s racing. To do this, an incredible entourage of organizers, caterers, press and mechanics have to leap-frog the racers. In all there were well over 1000 people involved each day including the competitors. As someone said, it is like a small NATO operation taking place each day with people from 31 countries, a logistical exercise any army would be proud of.
Once racing got under way again in Libya, the race settled into a new pattern. First to suffer a problem was Roma, who lost an engine on his KTM which dropped him out of contention. His loss was BMW's gain -- Richard Sainct on a BMW F650 took the lead followed by his teammates. In the car class last year's winner Jean-Louis Schlesser/Henri Magne grabbed top spot in his Schlesser Megane buggy. It was a lead he was never to relinquish. Mitsubishi drivers were fastest on most stages but the wins were shared among different drivers. Shinozouka’s race came to a horrible end along with another seven drivers when they all tried to shortcut over a steep sand dune that caused them to tumble out of the race. Unfortunately, several people were also injured in this accident.
Try as they might, the KTM and Mitsubishi teams could not change the results even though they put up several fastest times. One of the stars of the BMW team was American motorcycle journalist Jimmy Lewis, who works for Cycle World in his daytime job. His skills at navigating gave him the task of leading his teammates each day as they headed off into the deserts at high speed. Lewis blazed new trails across the desert and thoroughly enjoyed running his twin-cylinder BMW R1100 flat out for mile after mile. He eventually finished third among the motorcyclists and put his name in the history books -- among the French anyway.
The other American team competing was Baja Automotive Adventures, with two Kia Sportages driven by Darren Skilton with Sue Mead, The Car Connection's regular contributor navigating and Curt LeDuc with Spaniard G. Martinez as navigator. The Kias were the least powerful cars in the event and were not well suited to the high-speed race. However both cars finished the event and had relatively few problems. LeDuc finished 41st among the 92 finishers in the car class while Skilton finished in 56th position. Sainct's winning time in the motorcycle class put him in ninth place overall, while the winning Kamaz truck finished in a time that was only bettered by 27 cars and 19 bikes - pretty impressive for a diesel-powered truck.
With 107 finishers among the motorcycles and five trucks that completed the race, the 2000 running of the Total Paris-Dakar-Cairo race had the highest finishing percentage of any of the races since they started over twenty years ago. The reason? Competitors complained that the race had been too fast and lacking in really rough terrain or tricky navigation. The five-day enforced rest in Niamey and the cutting out of the four days of racing in Niger also softened the event compared to previous years. That is, if you call 18 days of driving across the Sahara Desert easy work.