Guillaume Vauthron will not be among the 963 grocers, accountants, movie stars, models, Formula 1 drivers, celebrities and unknowns of every brand who will hurtle across the Sahara and the Sahel this year in 323 cars, on 133 motorcycles and in 71 heavy trucks in the eighth annual cross-country race from Paris to Dakar, Senegal.
Instead, he will be watching tomorrow's departure from Versailles on television in the comfort of his Paris apartment, far from the roar of the engines, the clouds of gray exhaust and the 100,000 spectators who will swirl around the Sun King's palace.
This year, the annually changing route of the race winds through Algeria, Niger, Mali, Guinea, Mauritania and Senegal. The distance of 15,000 kilometers takes 22 days to cross -- over some of the worst terrain known to man. Terrain where even camels fear to tread but which Vauthron, a 30-year-old antiques dealer, has three times tried to drive at speeds exceeding 100 mph.
According to precedent, only a third of this year's entrants will reach Dakar. Vauthron the veteran tells it this way: After two days in the desert, they will feel more like pot roasts than humans. Pot roasts reheated every day and put in the refrigerator at night. When they stop at the end of each day's run, they will have to work on their cars into the wee hours. Once they finally close their eyes, they will jerk awake in terror that they've fallen asleep at the wheel.
Those will be the lucky ones. Drivers who break down during the day or get lost may not wander into camp until 7 a.m., only to have to leave again at 8. Day after day, the fatigue, the speed, the heat, the lunar landscape will accumulate until the race becomes a hallucination. Cars churn up such wakes of sand that passing them is like driving with your eyes closed. Hardware store owners in family cars smash into potholes and flip over. Salesclerk motorcyclists fill up their canteens with extra gas instead of water and wander off in the wrong direction into the heart of the desert . . .
Last year, Vauthron's engine exploded on the fifth day of the race when his car bogged down in sand outside Tamanrasset, an oasis in southern Algeria. Half of the other cars in the race collapsed in the desert with him.
"Twenty-five people were seriously injured during the race with broken bones and fractured vertebrae," says the rally's medical chief, Dr. Hubert Lanier. "One person was killed, a child struck by a Range Rover in Mali. And we saved two people who had been lost for three days in the desert just in time. They had decided to hang themselves rather than die of thirst."
All told, 1985 was a better-than-average year. Since the race began in 1979, 10 people have been killed: three drivers, three spectators and four journalists trying to cover the event.
In just eight years, the Paris-Dakar has grown from an amateur race for extreme rally enthusiasts into one of the biggest sports happenings in Europe. All the effort leads to a first prize of only about $4,500, with lesser prizes awarded in various categories. Violent and chivalrous, brutal and beautiful in a primeval setting, it is open to anyone with a modicum of driving ability and navigational skill.
"A poll last year showed 100 percent of all French adolescents and adults have heard of the Paris-Dakar," says Dominique Cellura of V.S.D. magazine, a Paris news weekly that cosponsors the race. "The only other sports event equally well recognized was the 75-year-old bicycle Tour de France."
The race has made its creator Thierry Sabine -- whom the French press has labeled "the megalomaniac of the sands" and lauded as the genius of amateur racing -- very rich. The 37-year-old Parisian ex-athlete and sports promoter has added a new term to the European sports vocabulary: the adventure-rally.
At the same time he has created a booming business that last year spawned its first offspring. In 1984 he staged the first motorboat race down the Niger River in northern Africa. Now he has scheduled an event for the Western Hemisphere, a motorboat race down the Amazon in July. It had to be postponed due to Sabine's overwhelming workload -- the price of his success.
"Sabine has found a magic formula that captivates France and much of Europe," says Stephane Roux of Auto Verte, a four-wheel-drive magazine that sells about 90,000 copies during the race, about twice its normal number. "He has combined adventure, danger and spectacle in a way that attracts both the average people as drivers and big advertisers as sponsors."
The amounts of money floating around the race are dizzying.
"An absolute minimum budget is $13,000 to prepare and enter a motorcycle," estimates Roux. For cars it is $50,000.
Amateurs like Vauthron raise money from any business eager for publicity. "We found a major sponsor last year in a fishing rod and reel maker," he says. "We mounted the reels on the roof to show they would work even on fishing trip to the Sahara."
Car and motorcycle manufacturers and distributors, such as Honda, Mercedes, Porsche and even Lada, the tiny Russian import, field their own professional drivers.
"Porsche alone spends some $2.5 million a year on the race," says Roux. The company builds prototypes for the race and sends forth three cars, with two backup trucks and a plane full of mechanics and spare parts. Even if the company loses, it makes sure that millions will root for it. Two of its drivers are Jacky Ickx, the ex-Formula 1 champion, and copilot Claude Brasseur, a popular French actor.
Last year, French television devoted about 54 hours to the rally. Planeloads of reporters engaged in their own race to photograph the oncoming vehicles. By day they searched for wadis and potholes that would cause the horde of speeding metal to momentarily fly into the air. By night they interviewed the drivers around the campfires.
The spectacle has proved as irresistible to brand-name cigarettes, liquor and shoes as it has to car companies.
Says Anne Bourel, Marlboro's sponsoring director, "In the motorcyclist alone in the desert, we have found the perfect replica of the Marlboro cowboy out on the open plains."
When Sabine staged the first Paris-Dakar in 1979, no one dreamed his rally would reach such heights.
After all, rallies have been a common sight in Europe almost since the invention of the automobile. Most cities in France have auto clubs that stage weekend raids on the countryside for amateurs, a continental version of the English fox hunt. Professional races like the Monte Carlo rally in the Alps have satisfied spectator interest for years.
But Sabine, a man who spent 10 years himself behind the wheel in rally and standard races, saw room for growth. A superb athlete who at 14 was invited to join the French national junior equestrian team, he traded horses for horsepower while studying public relations at the prestigious Ecole Nationale des Attaches de Presse. After winning dozens of trophies, including the title of French circuit champion in 1974, he decided races on set courses could not hold his or the public's attention.
"I have always wanted to go beyond my limits and to take other people beyond theirs," says Sabine. "I wanted to develop a car rally that would be a true adventure, like sailing across the ocean, which would let people truly encounter themselves and their abilities. I wanted an experience that would be open to everyone and which would inspire towns and cities to send off contestants like heroes."
Since transatlantic boats were too expensive for most people, he adds, "I thought in terms of crossing oceans of sand."
When Sabine was 25, and successfully promoting a ski resort and rock group, he launched his first adventure-rally. It was a 24-hour marathon for motorcycles on the beach at Touquet in France. This year, the race drew 300,000 spectators.
But the first "Touquet Enduro" was just the first tremor of his new concept. The full manifestation came the following year when Sabine -- like Moses on a motorcycle -- rode into the desert of southern Libya and got lost.
By all accounts, the experience nearly cost him his life.
"I was riding in a earlier amateur rally from Abidjan in the Ivory Coast to Nice on the French Riviera ," he says. "About three days from the end, in fourth place, I took a wrong turn among the hills. The tracks I was following, which I took to be the leader's, came to a sudden stop in front of a mountain of sand."
It was a classic desert trap. The tracks, perfectly preserved in the stillness, were weeks or even months old. Sabine had nothing but a crust of bread, a sugar cube and a survival blanket. He had lost his canteen and compass earlier.
For three days he tried to drive and walk his way out of the hills. But each time he circled back on his tracks. "Each time," he recalls, "I saw my earlier long strides were shrinking as I weakened."
By the second day of his adventure, he says, "I was face to face with my mortality and the meaning of my life. I decided that if nothing happened after six days, I would commit suicide like the Touaregs by exposing the back of my neck to the sun."
A search plane was moments from turning back when it found him the next morning. "The whole experience was so intense," says Sabine, "that ever since that day I have only thought of how to get back to that moment of absolute truth and to share it with anyone else who wanted it."
Sabine's three days in the desert are legend today in France.
"He has gone to great lengths to cultivate that story to project a mystical allure to his race," says Cellura. In turn, the French press has given Sabine the nickname "Jesus."
But if Sabine meant his first race to be an existential challenge to his countrymen, the idea was largely lost on the small crowd of journalists and spectators who watched the first 167 Dakarists -- most of whom were Sabine's race circuit friends -- set out in 1979.
Several reporters wrote that the rally was simply a gross excess of playboyism in one of the poorest parts of the world. The course zoomed right through the worst drought areas of the Sahel.
Sabine has since worked hard to still that criticism by distributing tons of food, and this year water pumps, in the most impoverished regions along his routes.
The fact that the race encourages Monsieur Tout-le-Monde, the French John Doe, to risk life and limb going flat out in the family car has never been a media issue.
"No one can stop people from going into the desert and getting lost," says Roux. "That's a personal problem." The African countries they traverse permit it while Sabine recommends an insurance broker, provides 22 doctors, evacuation and search helicopters and planes, and food and water. After that, individuals are on their own.
Or, as Sabine puts it: "I simply provide the universe in which the drivers are the actors. They can discover new talents and meaning within themselves or do nothing at all, as they wish."
What really interested the media in the first race was a pretty motorcyclist named Martine de Cortanze. She fascinated Paris-Match, one of the race sponsors, by managing after each killing day to wash up, make up, put on earrings and smile. When she returned to Paris, the magazine posed her in a lame' dress, lounging on her bike like a siren.
"After that first race, Sabine had two moments of inspiration which made the race a success," says Cellura. "The first was to reschedule the departure from the original date of Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, a dead day for news. The second was to squeeze every ounce of publicity possible out of the 'Thatcher Affair' of 1982."
Mark Thatcher, son of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, entered the fourth Dakar in a Land Rover with his copilot Charlotte Verney and disappeared forring with some of his work. The Algerians searched and sent a bill to the British to recover their costs. But it was Sabine who found them, parked in the middle of a nomad village.
"Sabine presented the whole thing to the public in the most romantic images you can imagine," says Cellura. "Lost in the desert! It was right out of the movies. After that everyone wanted to enter."
Last year Princess Caroline of Monaco set out in a $800,000 super truck provided by Astra Trucks of Italy -- a truck that would make a low rider jump for joy. The chassis was designed to pop up on hydraulic shocks if it became stuck in sand. Instead, it flipped over in an accident at the very gates of the desert and had to turn back.
The first French spationaut, Jean-Loup Chretien, entered in 1984 backed by a truckload of redundant parts in the best space-going tradition. He, too, had to abandon the race just outside Algiers when he learned his backup truck had missed the ferry from France the first night.
French President Franc,ois Mitterrand's chauffeur raced one year accompanied by the son of the secretary of state for public security. Their Range Rover burned in Guinea when the electrical system ignited.
Were the contestants disappointed?
"One of the odd things about the Dakar is that the worse you do, the better your chances of publicity," says Roux. "Unless, of course, you win."
Some people just can't wait to have a misadventure. Roux recalls that one year a car sponsored by Leica was lost for two days in the desert. The very first day the company's public relations men were distributing photos of the car with hair-raising press releases about vanishing in the Sahara.
The growing presence of big business, big budgets and big names in the Paris-Dakar jades some observers.
"Who are the real winners of the Paris-Dakar?" asks a recent article in Vogue Sport. "The cars, the motorcycles, the helmets, the jumpsuits, the organizer's helicopters, everything is sold down to the square centimeter to sponsors."
So much money has come into the race lately that some people feel it is driving the race out of the reach of amateurs. "Each year the cars go faster and faster as the big teams fix their cars at night and set out with virtually brand-new cars every morning," says Roux of Auto Verte. "It makes it tougher and tougher on amateurs doing their own repair to keep up. Today the chances of an amateur winning this race are about zero."
Sabine concedes that all the attention given the big names sometimes overshadows the amateurs, who he maintains still comprise 90 percent of the drivers.
"Last year I sensed that the public was a little tired of all the attention paid celebrities. This year we persuaded several well-known faces not to enter, because of that and because it might be risky for them.
"I want ordinary people to always be at the heart of the race," he says. "As long as they come forward, the race can go on."