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Saturday, 30 December, 2000, 08:11 GMT
Rally hopes to dodge war zones
The Paris-Dakar endurance rally is going back to its roots this year in an attempt to rediscover some of its appeal.
A caravan of some 360 cars, motorbikes and trucks embark upon an adventure which will see them cover a gruelling 10,739km (6673 miles) comprising 6,180 special stages.
And the prime aim for the organisers will be for the race to pass off smoothly without a repeat of last year's difficulties, when threats from Algerian fundamentalist groups forced the cars to be airlifted from Niger to Libya.
And the 1999 Paris-Dakar was marred by incidents in Mauritania when rally vehicles were held up not far from Tichitt, in the Mauritanian desert.
Earlier this year, the Polisario Front, a separatist group, threatened to disrupt the rally.
They said that if competitors crossed the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony annexed by Morocco in 1975, which the group claims should be independent.
The Front claims it will resume "military activities and legitimate defence" on 7 January, when the rally is due to cross the Western Sahara.
The movement, backed by Algeria, said that to have the rally go through Western Sahara was "an insult to the Sahrawi people, a challenge to the United Nations, and therefore a violation of the ceasefire in effect since September 1991".
Morocco claims Western Sahara and controls most of it. A UN plan calls for a referendum to decide whether it should be incorporated into Morocco or become independent.
Mauritanian army commander Brahim Ould Cheibany has already made it plain that race security is a priority.
"All security measures will be assured for competitors in the Paris-Dakar rally while they are crossing Mauritanian soil," insists Cheibany.
The eight stages in Mauritania threaten to sort the wheat from the chaff with the first of them on January 8 the longest stage of all at 619km between Smara and El Ghallaouiya.
The stage could hardly present a greater challenge as they negotiate the sandy track flanked by lofty desert dunes in a real survival of the fittest.
This year, the race is breaking with recent tradition in that there will be no mass detour of the kind which saw the race finish at the Giza pyramids in Cairo last year.
Instead, the 23rd edition of the race will open at the Trocadero in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower in Paris on New Year's Day before the competitors head down through France and Spain and across the Sahara desert.
It will finish at Lake Rose in the Senegalese capital exactly three weeks later after a sweep down France and Spain via La Chatre and the ancient port city of Narbonne.
The racers will then transfer to Morocco before spending a week trekking across Mauritania and Mali before finally reaching Dakar after a gruelling 20-stage effort.
"We thought it was the right time to go back to our roots in the interests of the race," explained Hubert Auriol, a former winner of the race who has spent the past six years organising the event.
Auriol, who spent Friday ensuring that final preparations were in place, says he is all about returning to the "fundamental values" of rallying.
That means that mechanics only being drafted in by air at three specific spots.
The rest of the time they will have to keep up with the racers to lend a technical hand where required.
This is dramatically different from the World Rally Championship, which is becoming about compact events fanning out from one main service centre.
A total of 99 cars, 130 motorcycles and 34 trucks have signed up this year.
Of the 20 stages, three are in France and Spain, four in Morocco, eight in Mauritania, two in Mali and three in Senegal.
One of the features is the high number of sand stages, with numerous dune crossings.
Frenchman Jean-Louis Schlesser, a former sportscar driver, won the blue-riband auto category last year driving his own converted Renault buggy. He returns this year with a version of the Renault Megane.
Other leading contenders include 1998 winner Jean-Pierre Fontenay and Germany's Jutta Kleinschmidt.
Richard Sainct of France, who won last year, defends his title in the motorcycling category. South Africa's Alfie Cox will be riding a KTM as he bids to give the factory team a victory in the only race that has so far eluded it.
Experienced Englishman John Deacon and Spaniard Joan Roma will also pose threats.
Two stars from other sports will also be contesting the rally, with former skier Luc Alphand entered in the auto category and ex-cyclist Frederic Moncassin racing in the motorcycles.
23 Jan 00 | Africa
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18 Jan 00 | Africa
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13 Jan 00 | Africa
Terror threat forces Dakar airlift
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