quattro Magazine Q3_2020: Paris-Dakar 1985: Driver’s View – An interview with Audi Sport France driver José Lourseau

words: George Achorn, photos: José Lourseau of dakardantan.com

Editor’s Note: This article originally ran in the Q3_2020 issue of quattro Magazine and is Part 2. You may find Part 1 HERE. If you would like to subscribe to quattro Magazine, please join Audi Club here.

quattro Magazine: How did you become part of the Audi France Dakar team?

José Lourseau: I had the chance to participate in the 1980 race in a Range Rover. I finished 31st overall. I live in Toulouse, like another driver Xavier Lapeyre. He specialized in circuit racing, competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans seven times. He won the GT category in a Porsche in 1978, and drove others like Porsche 935, 917 from Kremer, Lancia, Spice and Lola. The Lolas were prepared by Fred Stadler who also worked on the racing Audi. In addition, he’d raced production cars for Audi. I participated in rallycross races and was a co-driver in rally. Xavier and I met each other through racing and decided to try rallying together. We rented a Porsche and won the first rally we participated in. He liked this type of race, and the following year we raced eleven rallies in a Porsche Group 4, winning ten. Our bond was complete and we had confidence in each other too.

In addition to these motorsport activities, I am a publicist. My client was a very large company specializing in real estate … MALARDEAU. When we raced the Porsche in Group 4, I asked them to become a sponsor. They accompanied us and we forged a very strong bond with them. They became a partner that would continue on with our Audi adventure at the 1985 Dakar Rally.

In 1984, Porsche entered three cars in the Dakar 1984. The cars were completely designed for the event. At the time, there was also Audi, which was developing all-wheel drive technology. Audi did not want to enter directly as an official team, but they proposed that Audi France enter three cars in the 1985 Dakar. This project was in the planning for a few years. Xavier Lapeyre was entered in the 1984 Dakar to test the event in a Range Rover.

Audi Germany offered Fred Stadler three test cars from the 1984 World Rally Championship that he would prepare for use in the 1985 Dakar Rally. Audi France chose rally driver Bernhard Darniche for the first car, circuit driver Xavier Lapeyre for the second car and Hubert Rigal, who’d participated in all of the Dakar rallies for the third car.

To fully understand this project, you have to consider it in the context of the time. The Paris-Dakar rally was an event that did not have the profile of what it would later become. The route was based on dirt tracks, or flat sand (Sahel). When we crossed the Ténéré desert, we did it in the west – east or east – west direction, that is to say parallel to the dune ridges. With a few exceptions (Mauritania), we could not drive perpendicular to the top of the dunes. If that had been the case, the cars could never have made it. It was not until 1987 that cars had to cross the dunes.

The players in this Audi commitment were Audi AG that gave us three cars to prepare, Audi France (then VAG France) that financed part of the project, Fred Stadler of ROC Compétition who prepared the cars and assistance trucks – four Mercedes 280 G-Wagens and two Mercedes trucks, and Guy Malardeau and Jacques Rubio who financed the operation and rented a Beechcraft airplane with 10 seats in which they transported team manager Serge Rosset, the PR person, logistics managers, and three mechanics.

Bernard Darniche ran with teammate Alain Mahé. Hubert Rigal drove the assistance car with an expert engineer Gérard Déry as co-driver. Fred Stadler preferred Xavier Lapeyre take a mechanic co-driver, but Lapeyre wanted it to be me and Malardeau helped make sure I was retained. I learned six months before the race that I was to be retained. But Fred Stadler demanded that I participate in mechanical training sessions such as disassembly of the front and rear axles, suspensions, change of alternator, the Motronic system, etc.

At the same time, to practice navigation since we did not have a GPS, we were using a compass and Russian maps that were the most detailed on the market at the time. After these trainings, I was ready for the most beautiful sporting adventure of my life.

quattro Magazine: Can you tell us any memorable stories about the race or funny incidents?

José Lourseau: I would have to write a book to share all of the memorable moments of my 1985 Dakar experience. However, I will try to share some highlights with you.

The first that comes to mind is a memory of the Algerian stages. You should know that event organizer Thierry Sabine would choose a difficult course in Algeria and during the start of the event. This was to skim the number of participants and thus lighten the caravan of ill-prepared competitors. These steps were very brutal. This is why I went early as soon as we had the road book (10 days before departure) with a guide who knew the country perfectly. There, at a crazy pace, I took notes for six days that I had to copy also on the road books of Bernard Darniche and Hubert Rigal. This allowed us to perform well. Bernard Darniche was also first in the general classification in Algeria. It was fantastic for me to investigate these tracks on which we were about to race very quickly.

There were four other very strong moments.

The second one: Our cars suffered from a lack of cooling in the rear axle. In the Dirkou – Iférouane stage, we had to cross the Ténéré by following a course. It was an undrawn track that had been used decades earlier by the Berliet expedition. Almost 700 km had to be completed to reach a funnel filled with soft sand … the Temet Pass. Respecting to the nearest degree the course, I recommended to Xavier to ignore following the dust of other competitors to stay straight. Suddenly the Audi stopped in the soft sand. The rear axle had broken. The other competitors followed the dust and sank in the desert also. We were about four kilometers from where they were traveling. It was impossible to get out of this trap alone.

So, I left on foot, in the desert to attract the attention of a competitor, a truck, so that he diverted to come and get us out of there. The feeling of being alone in this vastness, hoping that the sand-filled wind would not rise, was very agonizing. Unfortunately, no competitor stopped. I think everyone was afraid to leave the reassuring footsteps of the main path.

I returned to our Audi just as a Mercedes full of journalists arrived. They’d followed in our tracks. We managed to get out of there and reach an area of ​​hard sand and from there we had to finish the stage using only front-wheel drive while knowing that a huge sandy climb awaited us. We had no choice.

The previous night, I had spotted on the map that a track came from the north at the foot of the Col de Temet, as an extension of the climb. When we saw the pass in the distance, I told Xavier to make a detour to reach this track and take the maximum momentum to successfully climb this huge dune. A photo of our arrival at the top of the pass appears in the official Dakar 85 book.

We got bogged down 10m from the summit. Fortunately, two helicopters full of journalists were there. They pushed us and we reached the finish of the stage where we were able to change the rear axle when our assistance trucks arrived. As soon as the repair was done, we had to go back to Agades for a night stopover and a rest day. We hadn’t slept in 22 hours.

The third highlight took place between Timbuktu and Nema in Mauritania By Timbuktu, we were 5th or 6th in the general classification. Behind us was the famous French driver who won the 24 Hours of Le Mans several times and is an adorable boy… Henri Pescarolo. He was competing in a Land Rover Defender V8.

The cars left every two minutes. At the evening briefing, Thierry Sabine had indicated there would be no passage control on this 600 km stage. He also told us that we had to go to a village recognizable by its very large radio antenna, then take a parallel track that almost made us retrace our steps for about twenty kilometers. I had looked carefully at the Russian map and observed that there was an old, inconspicuous track, which seemed to go on the right and that joined the one we had to take after about fifteen kilometers. We were watching for the entrance to this old track as soon as we saw the antenna in the distance. I spotted it and suggested Xavier to take it.

This was really a poker game. The path was smashed with very deep ruts. I began to think that our rally would end there. And then, at the end of long kilometers, I saw a clearly visible track arriving from the left. We were so happy to have succeeded in this shortcut! We drove to the finish. The controllers raised their arms when they saw us arriving and made us understand that we were the first to raise our thumbs. Then, all of a sudden, they moved away in panic. Indeed, in our dust arrived Henri Pescarolo who had followed us. He’d left two minutes after us arrived 101 seconds after us and therefore won the 600 km stage by 19 seconds.

The fourth highlight takes place during the next stage. It was considered very difficult because we had to climb on a plateau past the famous Néga pass, a climb full of small dunes and camel grass. Many of the competitors would remain stranded there for hours. Thanks to its power and the dexterity of its pilot, our Audi managed to pass this trap without incident. At the top of the plateau, there was a long are of dunes with which we had to contend. Again, the rear axle broke.

We waited there for our assistance truck for a long time. It wasted a lot of time. When we were finally able to leave, the sun was low. You have to realize that reading the road book at night is almost impossible. Indeed, all the remarkable points or landmarks (a mountain in the distance, cliffs, tall trees, etc.) are visible only in broad daylight. The only way to move forward at night is to follow the tracks left on the ground by previous competitors. Therefore, it is impossible to anticipate possible danger.

At one point, in the middle of the night, the car crossed a small dune and hit the ground in a violent shock. The engine stopped and a large cloud of water vapor escaped from the front of the car. We watched what was going on lit with the driving lamps of the car. It was quickly obvious that the head gasket had blown. Inevitably, we expected this meant we’d have to abandon the car and retire from the race.

It was very cold and must have been 3AM at this point.  Xavier was exhausted. He went to bed in his sleeping bag. I picked up dead wood and set a big fire with gas from the tank of the quattro in order to keep us warm.

And then, an hour later, I saw lights on the horizon. It was as if the lights approached by sea, appearing and then disappearing behind waves. It was a car. They’d been attracted by the light of the fire and stopped to join us. It was Jean Luc Roy and the famous French singer Daniel Balavoine (who tragically died the following year with race organizer Thierry Sabine in a helicopter accident during the race). Jean Luc and Daniel were also exhausted and decided to stay with us.

It was a moment of friendship and sharing. And then again, as soon as we were asleep by the fire, another vehicle approached. This time it was our service truck. The mechanics looked at what had happened. As it turns out, it was not a head gasket that exploded, but just the expansion tank. They were able to change it and we all left to finish 50 km further. Some 60 cars got lost that night. We joined the finish in the morning and were penalized 15 hours of penalty, which put us down in the general classification. But we were still in the race.

The last remarkable memory took place during the final stage on the beach that leads to finish in Dakar. Traditionally, this stage links St Louis to Dakar. Cars run on the beach when the sea is at low tide. We decided to do everything we could to win the stage. The mechanics had adjusted the turbo so that we had the maximum power. We left in groups of four cars according to the general classification. We were 16th therefore in the fourth group. One group would depart every minute. We overtook everyone, made incredible jumps and arrived first in Dakar. Unfortunately, the first published ranking did not mention our victory. It was not until the next day that the ranking was corrected to reflect our order of arrival. We received the victory trophy at the end of rally ceremony.

quattro Magazine : Do you know what happened to the cars or where they are today?

José Lourseau: We looked for the two remaining cars after the rally. The #199 quattro of Bernard Darniche burned in the Ténéré. This left our #200 quattro, and the #201 of Hubert Rigal. These two cars were repatriated to France by plane to participate in a 24-hour race on ice. One is believed to have been dismantled to serve as spare parts and the second is said to remain hidden with someone who does not want to be known. Despite all my efforts and the use of the Paris-Dakar dakardantan.com website, it has unfortunately been impossible to find the vehicle. I did receive a photo of a #199 quattro in a museum, but it is likely a replica given the original burnt up in the desert.