How to transport an entire race event in 5 days
The story of the 2000 Dakar air lift
Usually when a race gets suspended it's due to heavy rainfall, a serious accident or perhaps even a wild animal on track. For a rally raid like Dakar however none of these things matter. It will take something much more serious to put a halt to one of the biggest racing events of the year. In 2000 however something very serious indeed caused quite a bit off a problem.
Competitors had already passed through several countries before arriving in Niamay, the capitol of Niger. It was there that the entire grid was in for a shock. The French government warned for a serious terrorist threat. The message was loud and clear, if they continued into Niger people would die.
At 19:00 GMT race director Hubert Auriol held a press conference to explain the situation and his plan to solve the problem of thousands of people and hundreds of vehicles stuck in the middle of Africa. Despite Nigerian authorities claiming they could secure the Dakar competitors driving through the hostile territory, Auriol arranged an air bridge.
Everything and everybody would be flown over to Libya, skipping all of the Niger stages in the process. Upon arrival the rally would continue to follow the predetermined route all the way to the pyramids in Cairo. This upset the Nigerian government and locals who had invested millions in the passage of the world famous rally.
The airplane needed to haul the massive amount of material would need to be gigantic. There was only one type of plane in the entire world capable of such a job: The Antonov An-124. The largest military transport plane in the world.
Capable of lifting 150.000 kilograms of cargo it was the perfect plane for the job. Auriol had initially asked for two of these behemoths but was pleasantly surprised when a third one was made available. The three planes flew straight from Kiev to Niamey.
Three other smaller Antonov An-72s were also present and were tasked with transporting bikes and other "smaller" material while the three An-124s took care of everything else. The numbers were staggering: 700 vehicles in total, including cars, catering trucks and medical vehicles from the organizers. 8 helicopters and 16 more trucks carrying all sorts of material used to build the bivouac that's the size of a small village.
Two alternating crews per plane made sure they stayed operational 24/7. The whole operation was over in just 5 days. The sudden change in climate was tough on the competitors and vehicles. Tactics had to be changed too as now only 7 stages were left. But the main goal was completed. What looked like a death blow to the Dakar, almost literally, turned into the biggest logistical operation the world of motorsport had never seen before.