The 1972 Bandama Rally: The Race That No One Finished
By Ronan Glon
October 05, 2015
Images courtesy of Blenheimgang.com
During the 1960s, the East African Safari was one of the most popular rally events for speed enthusiasts who wanted to push themselves and their car to the limit. Held annually, the race took pilots thousands of miles over some of the most unforgiving terrain rural Africa had to offer.
A French racing aficionado named Jean-Claude Bernard decided to organize a rally that would be even tougher than the East African Safari. Dubbed Bandama Rally – a name borrowed from a local river –, the first edition was held in Ivory Coast in December of 1969. It lived up to its promise of being remarkably challenging, and it quickly attracted well-known rally talent from all over the world.
A rally is never supposed to be easy, but the 1972 edition of the Bandama Rally is still remembered as one of the toughest rallies ever held because no one managed to finish it. The route was purposely designed to take a heavy toll on both man and machine, and the racers were exposed to other dangers as well. Notably, those familiar with the area allegedly told a few of the competitors that breaking down near the border with Ghana could be a deadly experience.
“When a tribal chief dies, tribesmen need to gather seven human heads in order to ward off evil spirits. They go out hunting as soon as the night falls,” warned local residents, according to a February, 1973, issue of French magazine Sport Auto.
43 teams nonetheless lined up at the starting grid in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, on December 28th, 1972. The list of cars entered in the event included no less than ten Peugeots (including four 504s and a lone 304), eight Renault 16s, a handful of Citroën DS (including a purpose-built coupe sent by the factory), a few Datsuns, a BMW 2002 tii, an Opel GT and even a Porsche 911S. With the exception of the DS, the cars were all surprisingly close to their regular-production counterparts.
The first few stages took competitors on a 372-mile loop that started on the outskirts of Abidjan and ended just a stone’s throw away. Early on, cars took a beating from the heat and the rough terrain, and most of the pilots complained that visibility was poor because they were consistently driving in a cloud of dust. The 911 and one of the Renault 16s were the first to drop out of the race; the other cars all made it to the first check-point, but only nine got there in time.
Things went from bad to worse on the way to second check-point because bulk of the race took place at night on fast-paced, narrow and twisty roads that ran deep into the jungle. Many more teams threw in the towel following a break-down or an accident, and no one managed to make it to the finish line on time. By the end of the second stage, a total of 18 teams had abandoned the race.
The situation continued to get worse during the following stages. The list of mechanical failures included broken steering boxes, smashed engine mounts, bent suspension components and dead alternators, just to name a few. Although participants were allotted three additional hours to get to the third check-point, only eleven cars were still in the race at the beginning of the fourth stage.
Mechanical issues and accidents took out the rest of the field one by one until there were only two pilots left in the race: Tony Fall, who was driving a Peugeot 504 Coupe, and Shekhar Mehta, who was behind the wheel of a Datsun 1600 SSS. Both were experienced rallymen who were deemed capable of finishing the grueling race.
The roads that Mehta and Fall drove on were considered to be absolutely undrivable in the rain by Michelin’s map-making division. The rally’s organizers weren’t worried because the race was held during the dry season, but a violent and unexpected storm broke out and almost immediately turned the course into a stream of mud.
Mehta was ahead and doing relatively well until his Datsun got stuck in the mud. Fall stopped to help pull his rival’s car out, and the two drove side-by-side until they got to the next check-point. Mehta quickly took the lead again, but a mechanical issue forced him to stop shortly after. He weighed his options: he had lost a considerable amount of time in the mud, and he knew he’d be disqualified for arriving too late even if he managed to fix his car. Ultimately, he called it quits and took a well-deserved nap.
Fall knew he was the only man left in the race so he soldiered on. When he finally got to the next check-point, he realized that the race organizers and officials had packed up and left because no one believed he could make it. The race was canceled altogether, and the prize money at stake was saved for the following year’s edition.
To get a better idea of just how grueling this race was, take a look at this footage from the (assumably toned down) 1974 edition of the rally: