Imperator Furiosa - 1981 Mercedes-Benz 1932 AK Dakar
Ever since its first edition in 1979, the Paris-Dakar Rally has become an institution in the world of long distance rally racing, also known as rally raid. The grueling event saw competitors and their vehicles face off with the unforgiving heat and rough terrain of the African desert, as they made the 10.000 kilometer (6200 mile) trek to to the beautiful beaches of Dakar, the capital of Senegal.
The legendary event was the brainchild of French racing and rally driver Thierry Sabine, a successful competitor in French national competition. After winning rallies by car, and successfully racing Porsches at Le Mans, Sabine started to involve himself on the organizing side of racing as well.
In 1975, he worked with Leonce Deprez, major of the seaside town of Le Touquet, to create an event to keep the town alive during winter. His solution was the "L' Enduropale" motorcycle race held on the deep sands of the local beach, inspired by a Steve McQueen documentary on American desert racing. The race was a resounding success, as its tiring deep sand, bitter cold and often wet conditions made it a real challenge for any offroad rider.
Aside from his car racing, Thierry Sabine was an avid motorcyclist himself, and took part in many enduros. One of these was the 1977 Abidjan-Nice Rally, a race from the Ivory Coast to the south of France. While racing through the Tenere desert in a region called "The Black Mountain" somewhere along the Libyan border, Sabine found himself hopelessly lost.
Cut off from his three friends, he was suddenly thrust into a lethally dangerous situation. While desperately trying to find his way back to civilization, he depleted his bike's fuel reserves, and was forced to continue on foot.
After three agonizing days without food or water, he was finally found by a small search plane sent by the rally's organizers. The harrowing experience had left a lasting and rather unusual impression on him, as he definitively lost his heart to the unforgiving African desert.
In December of that year, he took the first steps towards realizing the Paris-Dakar Rally, directly inspired by his experiences in the Tenere. Two years later, the race was contested for the first time, and immediately became a big success.
The first edition featured participants running cars and motorbikes in varying degrees of preparation, professionalism and budget, adding to the free-spirited, romantic nature of the event. For 1980, an unlikely third class of vehicle was added: full-size trucks.
To an even larger degree than the cars and bikes, the trucks were very close to commercially available vehicles. Specialized racing trucks weren't in the pipeline just yet, leading to mildly adapted multi-wheel drive agricultural and construction variants of regular trucks taking on the Dakar challenge.
One of these early giants of the desert was the Mercedes-Benz of French trio Georges Groine, Thierry de Salieu and Bernard Malferiol. Their rig was typical of the time, being based on a four wheel drive 1932 AK chassis normally used for heavy duty work on muddy construction sites and fields.
Aside from and external roll cage and other basic modifications, the truck was nearly stock. Power came from a 15.9L naturally aspirated OM403, 90-degree V10 diesel engine, a unique and novel layout at the time. The giant lump produced 320 horsepower at 2500 rpm, and pushed out 1030 Nm (761 lb ft) of torque at 1500 rpm.
Using the power and reliability of the brand new chassis, Groine raced the big Merc to 42nd overall and third in class during the 1981 Paris-Dakar rally. He moved on to a Unimog for the following race, and sold the 1932 on to German racer Lutz Bernau, who entered it in 1984 along with his co-driver Egmont Bartmann (FRA) and mechanic Frederic Brown (FRA).
Ironically, Bernau beat Groine in his old rig, as he finished 5th in class while Groine had to retire. By this time, the truck was three years old, and started to be overtaken by more modern and more specialized machinery, in particular the experimental DAF machines campaigned by rallycross legend Jan de Rooy.
However, the seasoned warrior wasn't quite done fighting just yet. For the third time in its life, it had changed ownership, falling into the hands of one of the most unlikely truck competitors ever seen. That woman was Francoise Morcrette, a French beautician.
Morcrette had dreamed of competing in the legendary race, and actually sold her pharmacy to help gather the budget to buy her very own racing truck. However, she wasn't content with simply running the truck as delivered. In fact, she wanted to be the first competitor to finish the demanding offroad race with a full-size semi-trailer attached.
With this in mind, the 1932 AK was rid of its rear structure, and blessed with a towing hitch. The nine ton behemoth was otherwise unmodified, resulting in it having an unusually long wheelbase for a tractor unit.
As the engine remained unmolested as well, Morcrette's team had to find a way to compensate for the added weight of the trailer. While the big Mercedes would have no problem with it on flat services, the immense sand dunes of Mauritania were sure to grind the combination to a halt.
The handicap was resolved by using a trailer fitted with a hydraulically-powered axle built by French firm Poclain. This system would take power from the diesel engine, which would drive a hydraulic pump, which would in turn actuate two hydraulic motors integrated into the trailer's axle.
In normal operation, the axle would freewheel, allowing the truck to motor on without added resistance and power loss. However, whenever Francoise could do with some extra traction, co-driver Alain Guilmeau would activate the hydraulic system, and the combination would suddenly become six-wheel drive.
The trailer itself was made as light as possible to help the truck along, as it only contained the crew's personal belongings, a few tires, the tank containing the axle's supply of hydraulic fluid, a cooling system helping to keep the hydraulic system nice and chill in the desert heat.
Morcrette and Guilmeau were both rookies to the rally, but were joined by mechanic Flavien Malguy, a two-time veteran of the race on. Malguy had contested the 1980 on a Yamaha XT500, and found himself on board of a Mercedes-Benz 280 GE in 1984, making him one of the few competitors to start in all three classes.
Unsurprisingly, the team was received to much fanfare in the paddock, undoubtedly confusing fan, rival and scrutineer alike. Without any prior knowledge, the average spectator wouldn't consider the Morcrette Mercedes as anything but a support truck, when it was in fact a genuine red-blooded racer.
Especially on the tight, muddy prologue stages held prior to the boat trip across the Mediterranean, the huge rig looked totally out of place. The course was lined with big crowds, many of which often reflexively jumped out of the way as the giant 1932 stormed in vaguely in their direction.
As soon as the team made land on the African continent however, things were very different. The wide open spaces of the North African deserts finally allowed Francoise Morcrette to unleash her massive monster. Though it was obviously at a disadvantage compared to the traditional heavy hitters, the semi wasn't as helpless as expected either.
In fact, the dunes weren't the biggest challenge along the way, as rocky terrain did way more to unsettle the trailer, limiting Morcrette to moderate speeds to avoid damage. Sadly the team wasn't quick enough to keep time with the rest of the truck field, and fell out of the classified runners.
Despite being non-classified, Morcrette, Guilmeau and Malguy soldiered on, determined to at least reach the finish. Their dream came true, as they persevered and reached Dakar, being the one and only semi combination to make the intense and demanding journey across the African continent. With their final drive along the beautiful beaches of Dakar, the trio had made history once and for all.
With her goal accomplished, Francoise Morcrette sold the truck on once more to Team Deladriere, which removed the towing equipment and converted the rig back to a regular racing truck.
In this guise, it competed in the hand of Luc Vechot and Marc Vechot. It failed to finish. Even after this final appearance, the big Merc still wasn't done, as it served for many years as a support truck to various teams. The trailer was also re-purposed, as it was later used to transport felled trees across the Baie du Somme nature reservation.
Francoise Morcrette would never compete at the Paris-Dakar ever again, as she felt she had accomplished everything she wanted to. Nonetheless, her seemingly crazy idea gave birth to a legendary drive and an amazing achievement.
With the evocative image of a big rig pounding through the desert in mind, one can't help but make comparisons to the beloved Mad Max franchise. Interestingly, Francoise's story draws many parallels to it.
The first Paris-Dakar Rally was organized in 1979, the same year the original Mad Max film hit theaters. Francoise Morcrette's truck was built in 1981, the same year Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior came out, famous for its long desert chase involving a semi truck. She converted it and competed with it in 1985, the year that would see the release of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.
And her story is one of a woman steering a runaway rig across the desert to reach a lush oasis, just like Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, some thirty years later.
Random chance? Probably. But it's still one hell of a coincidence.