The annual rally that still goes by the name of “Dakar” has been held in South America for the last ten years, with the current edition setting off from Lima, Peru on Sunday 6 January. However, the dust tracks and dunes of Africa that marked the routes where the race was staged for the best part of three decades were familiar terrain to Jacky Ickx and Henri Pescarolo. Here, the two living legends of the 24 Hours of Le Mans discovered a fresh outlook to their sport – and to life.
Through their mutual respect and keen desire to emulate the other’s sporting success, Jacky Ickx and Henri Pescarolo wrote some of the finest pages of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the 1960s and ’70s: six wins in 15 attempts for Ickx, 33 starts (a record that still stands) and four triumphs for Pescarolo.
In the late seventies and early eighties, however, their racing prowess faced a new challenge in a new setting when Thierry Sabine created the Paris-Dakar rally raid in 1978. Africa was their new playground.
I discovered some captivating lands.Henri Pescarolo
“I competed in the Paris-Dakar before Jacky, in the second race,” Pescarolo says. “First of all because I loved rallying. I had already done some African rallies with Peugeot, especially the Bandama [in the Ivory Coast]. But also, because the desert was new to me.”
Ickx, on the other hand, got his first taste of the Paris-Dakar in 1981, the year he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for an unprecedented fifth time. In 1983, the Belgian maestro won the Paris-Dakar in a Mercedes (partnered by French actor Claude Brasseur) and became the first driver to claim three consecutive pole positions at Le Mans. Pescarolo came back the following year to claim his fourth Le Mans triumph.
In all, Ickx competed in the Paris-Dakar 14 times, finishing in the top ten on seven occasions, and recording 29 stage wins along the way. The best result for Pescarolo, however, was ninth place in 2000 with co-driver Alain Guéhennec in a Nissan. For both men, however, the experience was far more important than the result. “With Thierry Sabine, we took on the unknown, something mystifying and occasionally terrifying,” Pescarolo continues. “Across all the Dakars I’ve competed in, we managed to visit every country in North Africa, down as far as Central Africa. I discovered some captivating lands. And Jacky’s experience is even more fulfilling thanks to his wife; he lives over there a part of the year.”
Africa opens your eyes. The landscape, the setting, cut you down to size.Jacky Ickx
“As far as I’m concerned, discovering Africa is the most interesting part of my life,” confirms Ickx, who is married to Burundian singer Khadja Nin. “In a race like the Dakar, you cannot cheat. You can encounter some extremely tough situations out there and that is when you find out what you are really made of. The landscape, the setting, cut you down to size. Africa opens your eyes. It gives you a much broader outlook on the world, depending on your own experience."
Pescarolo concludes: "Thierry Sabine created my kind of competition. It was both a real motor race and a genuine adventure in some extraordinary settings and fabulous countries."
It is not inconceivable that the seeds of the two Le Mans legends’ Dakar adventure were actually sown in La Sarthe. A few years before he founded the famous rally raid, Sabine took part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Porsche 911, finishing 17th in 1975 and 13th in 1976!
Photo (© ACO archives) – In 1977, Jacky Ickx and Henri Pescarolo (pictured) joined forces in the #3 Porsche 936 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Following Pescarolo’s early retirement due to engine failure, Ickx – who was yet to drive – teamed up with Jürgen Barth and Hurley Haywood in the #4 sister car and went on to claim the fourth of his six Le Mans victories.