Thierry Sabine died as he lived, chasing adventure in the Sahara Desert beneath the glare of the mass media.
A controversial Frenchman who inspired and organized the annual 22-day, 8,700-mile Paris-Dakar rally, one of the world's toughest automobile races, Sabine was killed last night when his helicopter crashed into the sand dunes near the famed west African caravan town of Timbuktu in Mali.
Sabine, who was not participating in this year's race, was searching for vehicles stuck in the desert sands. The four others in the helicopter with him -- popular French singer Daniel Balavoine, a French newspaper correspondent and two pilots -- also died in the crash.
Race officials said the rally, which has attracted such celebrities as Prince Albert of Monaco and racing driver Jackie Ickx, will continue, in line with Sabine's own wishes. The leading competitors should reach Dakar, capital of the west African country of Senegal, next Wednesday.
A combination of romance and danger, hardship and excitement, the Paris-Dakar rally has been dogged by criticism and controversy ever since it was founded by Sabine in 1978. Crossing some of the worst terrain known to man, it has now claimed the lives of 15 people in addition to causing numerous serious injuries.
Of the 485 trucks, cars and motorcycles that roared out of Versailles, France's royal capital, on New Year's Day, only 185 were still in the race at the beginning of this week. The course, which winds through Algeria, Niger, Mali, Guinea and Mauritania, was already strewn with the wreckage of expensive vehicles, some of them worth up to $100,000 each.
Nicknamed the "Megalomaniac of the Sands" by the French press, Sabine, 36, conceived the race as a means of testing participants to the limits. He used his formidable public relations skills to turn the rally into one of the main events in the European sporting calendar, with French television stations competing ferociously for satellite rights.
"Sabine was not just simply the head of the rally or the director of a race. He was someone whom one day you detested, and the next you adored," said French actor Claude Brasseur, whose car codriven by Ickx is now running second in the overall classification.
"He died in the country he loved, on a rally which he created. His wish was that, whatever happened to him, the race would continue," said Philippe Bourserault, a representative of Honda Motor Co., one of the sponsors of the rally.
A number of participants criticized Sabine for making the course too difficult this year in an apparent attempt to re-create the excitement of some of the early rallies. In recent years, the race has become more and more commercialized as tobacco companies and sports firms pour millions of dollars into sponsoring vehicles.
According to Brasseur, the helicopter accident was partly the result of this overambition. Yesterday's stage was so difficult that many vehicles got stuck in the sands. As race director, Sabine went out to look for them: In high winds, his low-flying helicopter crashed into a 100-foot dune that was practically invisible against the night sky.
"Sabine made the race too difficult -- not just for the others, but for himself as well," Brasseur said.
The Paris-Dakar rally has generated front-page news here practically every year since its inception. In 1982 there was the great hunt for Mark Thatcher, son of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who disappeared for three days in southern Algeria. Last year, there was the hoopla surrounding Princess Caroline of Monaco, whose $800,000 supertruck got stuck in the sand as soon as it reached the desert.
In other years, spectators were killed by the side of the route, journalists lost in the desert and participants brought back to France on stretchers.
This year there has been more controversy than ever before. Scarcely had the race started than a Japanese motorcyclist was killed in an accident involving a drunk. This was followed by a row over cigarette and alcohol sponsorship that was resolved only when television companies covering the race agreed to broadcast messages disassociating themselves from the sponsors.
The large number of accidents and dropouts from the race provoked headlines like "Massacre on the Sands" -- but also intense interest in France and other Western European countries.
A dashing figure in his white jump suit and long blond hair, Sabine appeared to relish his reputation as a romantic adventurer leading a mighty caravan into the desert, an image that led some of his fans to call him "Jesus."
"Ten minutes before they leave, the competitors don't know where they are going, but they know I will be there if they get into a mess. There is a complicity between them and me. Some of them even call me God -- and I like that," he said in a recent interview.
With Sabine dead, and criticism of the race mounting, there was some doubt whether the Paris-Dakar would continue next year without him.
"Sabine had such an aura about him that this is more than just the death of a man. It also raises questions about the future of the race. The man was completely identified with the event," said Jean-Francois Avenier of Marlboro, another cosponsor