Today, 37 years ago, one of the greatest geniuses that motor sport has ever had left us for ever: Thierry Sabine. He died in the crash of his helicopter, at night, in the dunes of Gourma Rharous, in Mali. In the accident, in addition to Sabine, the French singer-songwriter Daniel Balavoine and three other people were killed, including the pilot Xavier Francois Bagnoud, a young pilot and Swiss aerospace engineer, the journalist Nathalie Odent and the radio engineer Jean-Paul Lefur.
Had Thierry not gone, not only the Dakar, which he created in 1979 when it was still called Oasis, would still be the rally-raid phenomenon it once was, but today Sabine would probably be at the head of F1, or MotoGP.
He had charisma, as well as genius, so today we remember him with regret with this article published on that terrible January 14, 1986, written directly on a telex in Bamako after a dramatic press conference which sanctioned a rare event in the Paris-Dakar of the time: a neutralization. Too bad you left, Thierry, we would have followed you anywhere.
Everyone envied the helicopter. They could hear it coming from afar as we trudged along the trail. Potholes, jumps, dust.
Especially dust. That impalpable "fech fech" through which not only can't you see, but you can't even breathe. He passed by and, from the belly of the Aerospatiale Ecureil, an inscription in giant characters could clearly be seen - Thierry Sabine. It was not possible to mistake him. Whether it was the blond, thin, nice guy Francois Xavier Bagnoult who piloted it, or he himself, it flew very low.
He grazed the slopes, sometimes enjoying himself by targeting us. If he wanted to stop you for any reason, he did it by darting across and then hovering ahead. The other helicopters flew higher, ready to intervene in case of an accident, but he was the sheepdog of a flock scattered, sometimes, over a thousand kilometres.
If you saw him rise vertically you could imagine him staring at a distant point on the horizon. Maybe dozens of sand clouds scattered in the desert that he would have hunted, gathered, guided. If there weren't any blasphemies flying at him, they certainly weren't compliments. And the feeling that everyone felt for him in those moments was identical: hatred. But also love for what he was able to do: push you where, alone, you would never have gone. Not even if you were paid, and at any price.
We confided about him to each other at night, at the bivouac, in the few hours allowed for sleep before the inevitable six o'clock "briefing", when he would reappear faultless, sly, histrionic, to harangue the rally: all of us at the Paris-Dakar, journalists, photographers, pilots, mechanics we would have gone there even for free. And behind him we were ready to race for a month in a row. As long as Thierry showed up at dawn to give us news about the next stage, he would never leave us behind.
We didn't forgive him only the helicopter. That contraption that he made fun of, keeping him away from the dust. Far away, unapproachable, like any self-respecting god. And for this reason, at the end of every "Dakar" we punished him, we veterans, on the beach that leads from Sali Portudal to the capital of Senegal: he invariably flew into the water, as soon as he got off his helicopter.
By now it was a ritual and a tradition together. But at that moment there was also the desire for even partial revenge that would purge him of having mocked us from the skies. A purification that allowed him, every January 22nd, to leave his role as executioner of the sands to become again, on January 1st of the following year, the general of an army that for three weeks would not stop unless under he gave the order. An order that he, however, would never have given.
It was possible to neutralize a stage, it was a way of slowing down the race when the sandstorm made the caravan swerve off course and forced the riders to take shelter, downwind, of their cars or motorbikes. But stop the race, never. It just wasn't in his mindset. The good, the tough, the beastly thing about the Dakar is that the rally would continue, despite everything.
It was the only certainty of an otherwise imponderable race. And the cornerstone for Sabine, whose obstinacy in trying to level things off between private and factory competitors was expressed mainly in making the raid harder. Year after year, as if this could help the gentlemen of the race, instead of further penalizing them. But this was above all his fixation: man had to prevail over means, so in recent years the number of stages covered with the help of the compass alone had increased.
At first there was only the Ténéré. Then it was the turn of Mauritania. This year even Thierry tracked down the infernal Bilma-Agades with its 75 strips of dunes and, not satisfied, he also exhumed Guinea. At the time of the tragic crash, in which four other people lost their lives in addition to Sabine, everything was at the limit, in the Dakar. Probably even himself.
It wasn't just the competing vehicles that were tested, nor just the riders, but also his organization. And certainly he, Thierry Sabine, "le Magnifique", "Jesus", the man with many nicknames, did not spare himself. He travelled by helicopter, it is true, but it was his somewhat shrill, metallic voice coming out of the megaphone, which woke you up every morning at 6 for the “briefing”.
You might still have dust in the corners of your eyes or feel dazed. He wouldn't have been. His morning throne was the side of one of the Africatours trucks, and as the race continued, and fewer and fewer were the competitors, the more the conversation became jeering between friends. A question and answer with the competitors, on the edge of his subtle humour, typically French. Untranslatable. And not translated, even though Thierry had been repeating for years that he would also give the briefing in English.
He had mentioned it again this year, on the Tepasa, the ship that takes you from Sete to Algiers, but no one had believed him. Then he himself, later, seeing Hubert Auriol speaking with a group of journalists in the language of Albion, had confided to him “But how do you do that? I just can't manage it." A weakness, that of not speaking languages. He was ashamed of it. But also, an incredible thing that the rally, born as a French event, had managed so relatively quickly to expand, to make itself known as the only, the last adventure of the 80s. One thing that the people loved. The people of the street, not just the riders. Who knows if it will survive him.
(from Autosprint n. 4 of 21/1/86)
Note: The fact that after 37 years a Dakar is still being run - it might no longer be the Dakar, but it still bears this name even if the epic event wanted Paris in front of the name of the Senegal capital - says it all really.