By Susan Reed
February 18, 1985 12:00 PM

The first hint of the racers’ impending arrival was a gentle rumble traveling across the barren, rocky floor of the Sahara. On the horizon, a plume of dust represented a car rocketing at 100 mph toward the green date palms marking the oasis of El Goléa, 690 miles south of Algiers. Suddenly the sleepy village was overrun by multicolored Land Rovers, Porsches, Audis, monstrous motorcycles and gigantic trucks, bucking and veering like overtuned racehorses, sending goats and camels scurrying toward the baked-earth houses. “Where’s the gas?” the drivers yelled at the curious Berber tribesmen lining the street. Then, tires screeching, the drivers wheeled into a line that in minutes numbered more than 200 cars, snaking from the single pump back into the late afternoon desert sun.

Belgian superstar driver Jacky Ickx slumped in the stripped-down cockpit of his Porsche and chatted with his copilot, French actor Claude Brasseur. Behind him, Prince Albert of Monaco, 26, dusty and weary from the 300-mile day, clambered onto the roof of his white Mitsubishi/ Pajero, No. 305, to survey the scene. Farther back locals stared uncomprehendingly at Car No. 230, its sides emblazoned with the big, painted face of its sponsor, French actor Gérard Depardieu. Conspicuously absent from the gas line was Prince Albert’s sister, Princess Caroline, 27, who just hours earlier had become one of the race’s first casualties when her truck overturned on the sand.

That surreal desert scene was part of one of the longest and most grueling races in sport, the annual Paris-to-Dakar Rally. This year 501 motorcycles, cars and trucks had spun out of the Parisian dawn for Sète, crossed by ferry to Algiers and then, in 22 daily races, roared across the Sahara, a sea of sand scorching by day and freezing by night. If the adventure wasn’t initially daunting, the hardships soon would be. Within days most drivers would suffer from illnesses brought on by their inability to adjust to the daily 70-degree changes in temperature. There was no escape from the monotony of endless sand. Drivers sweltered behind closed car windows in daylight hours rather than face the torture of blowing sand. At night they ate meals prepared in trucks following the rally and shivered in sleeping bags in the grainy dirt beside their vehicles. In the drought-racked Sahel region at the Sahara’s southern border, they prayed for wind to blow away the choking dust that billowed from the vehicles ahead. Not even an Arab cheche, a linen cloth wrapped around the head and face, could filter the dust that brought on sinus infections.

Like a Saharan archangel, always dressed in a sparkling white jumpsuit, race organizer Thierry Sabine hovered in his helicopter above the speeding flock each day, descending for accidents or to herd lost sheep back into the fold. “Paris-Dakar demands qualities that one finds in few modern endeavors,” declared Sabine, 37, a self-styled adventurer who dreamed up the race nine years ago after he lost his way in a rally and nearly died in the Sahara. “Courage, endurance, heart, fortitude and intelligence—qualities people had in the Middle Ages.” This year especially, Sabine predicted, the race would test “man more than machine.”

And so it did. Among the 875 men and 15 women who signed up for the test of grit were the usual assortment of policemen, hairdressers, students, real-estate salesmen and auto mechanics. To this collection came an eager bevy of celebrities: a Belgian rock singer named Plastic Bertrand, French pop singer Michel Sardou, actress Chantal Nobel, who stars in a new Dallas-type French TV series, and Japanese film star Yosuke Natsuke. For the first time, too, an American motorcycle racer, 25-year-old Chuck Stearns of Newhall, Calif., signed on. The acerbic French press affectionately nicknamed Stearns “le desert boy.”

But the stars who attracted the most photographers were the drivers of Truck No. 630 and Car No. 305: Monaco’s Princess Caroline and Prince Albert, respectively. Caroline and her 24-year-old husband, Stefano Casiraghi, drove a custom-built 16-ton Italian truck for the long haul. To minimize the risk of getting lost, a burly guide, explorer Giancarlo Arcangioli, 42, accompanied the royal couple. Albert, a novice, had signed up with his boyhood chum Jean-Pierre Marsan, a veteran rally driver who left behind his girlfriend, Björn Borg’s estranged wife, Mariana Simionescu. As a comfort to Prince Rainier, Albert and Caroline were followed by security personnel and their vehicles were equipped with satellite-relayed beacons that could pinpoint their location to within a few hundred feet. Advance teams from the palace had booked the few hotel rooms in small oasis towns for the royal entourage, and in Tichit, Mauritania, a merchant had even bought new foam bedding for a special “Princess Room.”

Ouargla: Civilization, in the form of a Tarmac road, stretches only a few hundred miles from Algiers into the Sahara, an area of three million square miles. Princess Caroline scarcely had time to get her feet dusty. As her huge truck lurched out to begin the first stage in the sand at Ouargla on Day Three, co-pilot Arcangioli had taken the wheel from the weary Casiraghi. Caroline, the navigator, estimated their optimum speed for that stage to be 22 mph. “We wanted to go at our own rhythm,” she explained later. “We weren’t pushing for first place.” Suddenly Arcangioli hit the gas, trying to pass three trucks. “Contrary to my suggestions, he accelerated to 50 mph,” Caroline recalled. “There were three enormous holes. I shouted out to tell him to slow down. My husband wanted to take the wheel from him, but it was too late. A tire burst and the truck fell on its side.” They had broken an axle.

Back in Monaco the couple was bitter about Arcangioli. “He was very dishonest,” said Casiraghi. “I think he used us. He wanted at all costs to arrive first.” The owner of the new Princess Room in Tichit was upset, too.

Meanwhile the other racers sped south. “If you don’t like to ride all day every day, don’t bother with this race,” advised Chuck Stearns at In Salah, an oil town midway between Ouargla and Tamanrasset that is reputed to be the hottest spot in the Sahara. “Too fast and you’ll crash. Too slow and you’ll get passed or get lost.” The temperature climbed above 100°F. as the racers made their way across ergs, huge dunes that appeared as waves in the sand. Black oil drums, leaning drunkenly, indicated the direction at one-mile intervals. Past Tamanrasset, an ancient crossroad of caravans, the drivers had to pick their way through the massive red rock formations of the Hoggar mountains, swerving around gaping holes on the two-lane dirt track. The horizon turned an eerie yellow as the wind-whipped sand stung the motorcyclists’ faces like shards of glass. As they moved into Niger, the contestants, swallowed in dust, tried to pick out the fist-sized stone markers that camel caravans had followed for centuries.

A day earlier veteran French driver Jean Therier had accelerated over a flat stretch of desert. “I was behind him. He was driving too fast,” said a shaken Belgian driver, Guy Colsoul. “He hit a bump. His car flew into the air. It rolled over once, twice, then a third time. I waited until the medical team arrived, but there was no movement.” The next day Therier was on an airplane with a concussion and a crushed rib cage, bound for Paris.

Agadez: “Paris-Dakar begins here,” boomed Sabine through a loudspeaker as the dusty racers munched bread and drank coffee in the cool morning of Agadez in Niger. After only 10 days, half the motorcycles and nearly a third of the cars had abandoned the race. A Czech truck limped into Agadez minus one of its team. “In the middle of the Algerian desert he jumped out of the truck,” said Captain Fend Radek. “He said he couldn’t take it anymore and was going back to Paris.”

For the next two days the course led the survivors on a loop through the seductive but lethal Ténéré desert, a region that has not seen rain for three years. Tuareg tribesmen watched silently from hillsides as the cars roared off into a desert so hot that swallows were said to fall to the ground dead from the heat.

Back in Agadez with the Ténéré behind them, Chuck Stearns and his captain, Jean-Claude Olivier, paced nervously around a small rented house. A third teammate, 37-year-old Serge Bacou, who had been leading the motorcycle race, was hours overdue. “After 71 miles we were supposed to change compass direction 15 degrees,” said Olivier. “I didn’t see anyone, only sand for six solid hours. If your compass was off by five degrees, you’d never arrive.” Three years before Bacou had gotten lost in the same stretch for three days; at night he had been forced to bury himself in the sand to keep from freezing. Now after midnight a weary Bacou, eyes red with fatigue, trudged in, the victim of a faulty compass. Helicopters had found him after eight hours. “Today,” he sighed, “I lost all chance of winning.”

As the rally snaked westward along the mighty Niger River into Mali, the terrain changed from sand to the dried-up lake beds of the semiarid Sahel. Eighteen miles from Gao, eight days from Dakar, two young men stood next to their dead Mitsubishi. Prince Albert, lips parched, face etched with dust and fatigue, stared disconsolately at a hole in his engine. “We knew we had problems in Agadez,” he said. “We were so excited to have made it through the Ténéré. We were second in our class. But the sand was so deep. Our engine just wasn’t strong enough.” The last royal entry had bitten the dust. Prince Albert and teammate Marsan flew on to Dakar to await the finish.

Timbuktu: The Islamic holy city, the nexus of ancient caravan routes that flourished under the Ghana empire, rose from the sand to meet the remaining 194 racers as they hurtled toward Mauritania, a barren country entrenched in 11th-century ways; slavery was banished there only five years ago. The racers viewed the two-day course to Tichit and then Kiffa with foreboding.

Two hours into the unmarked course, Thierry Sabine appeared above the racers in his helicopter. “Stop!” he bellowed through his loudspeaker. Within minutes came the 75-mph force of a sandstorm, reducing visibility to five feet. The racers took shelter in a small canyon, where they huddled for 24 hours. “It looked like they just poured the vehicles in there,” said Chuck Stearns. At daybreak they set out again. “I passed cars and motorcycles spinning in the sand because they couldn’t find the way,” reported Stearns. “I was going in the right direction. I was happy and singing. The next day I hit a monster sandstorm. I lost the road, but the book said west, always west. After dark I saw campfires and headed for them. I ripped off my helmet and yelled ‘Kiffa! Kiffa!’ motioning for the villagers to point me in the right direction. But they all pointed different ways.” Then Stearns met Gaston Rahier, another cyclist, and the two inched south. At 6:30 in the morning they arrived in Kiffa. Eight hours later only 20 motorcycles and eight cars had made it. As evening fell more than 100 vehicles were being hunted by helicopters. Of those that eventually arrived, many had quit the race in discouragement or were forced out of competition by time-limit penalties.

The rally bivouac at Kedougou, a river village on the Senegal border, bore little resemblance to the lively gatherings in Algeria two weeks before. Stearns, normally ebullient, walked stiffly. The previous night he had had to negotiate 30-foot ravines, had hit a rock and had been thrown over the handlebars. Franco Picco, for the past six days the motorcycle leader, was in despair. After Kiffa he had taken the wrong turn. By the time he found the way hours later, he had lost his lead to Gaston Rahier. The only fresh sight was that of Princess Caroline and Casiraghi, wearing green and yellow suits, who had rejoined the rally for the last day in a four-wheel-drive Toyota. They chatted with the exhausted survivors, one of whom noted, “Many people laughed at them when they crashed. It is courageous for them to come back.”

Dakar: The crowd milled around and strained for the sight of the first vehicle on the long white beach at Toff, just outside Dakar. As a fresh breeze from the Atlantic blew away the dust of three weeks, a blue speck appeared in the distance. At 2:30 p.m. Chuck Stearns roared across the finish line in his fifth one-day victory, but his overall times for the 22 daily races put him sixth among the cyclists. “I’m coming back till I win,” Stearns vowed. The car winners, Frenchman Patrick Zaniroli, 34, and his co-pilot, Jean Da Silva, 37, led the pack of only 81 finishers out of the 308 who had started. Only 25 of the 139 motorcycles had made it, and 20 of the original 54 trucks.

For one man, arrival in Dakar was bitter. Marcel Hugueny, 73, the oldest entrant, had finished all six previous Paris-Dakar races. Lost in Mauritania, he still had managed to arrive in Tichit in his aging Toyota and for the 17th day joined the gas line. When he reached the pump, he reached the end of his race. There was no more gas.

“After 7,300 miles neither man nor machine triumphed in this Paris-Dakar,” Hugueny said sadly. “This time, for me, Africa triumphed.”