The 2022 Dakar Rally is off and running, though a scary incident preceded the historic desert race when on Thursday, 29 December, buggy driver Philippe Boutron and five others were caught in an explosion that destroyed their vehicle. Although the others were unharmed, Boutron suffered serious leg injuries that resulted in surgery.
The vehicle was a support truck owned by French outfit Sodicars Racing, for whom Boutron was scheduled to drive the #260 buggy in his ninth Rally. Boutron was driving the truck at the time, and he was accompanied by his navigator Mayuel Barbet, Philippe Raud and his son Maxime, Thierry Richard, and Joël Pailly. The Rauds are pilots of the #294 car while Richard is in the #276, both entries also fielded by Sodicars. Pailly is a crew member and friend of Boutron.
The explosion occurred outside the Hotel Donatello in Jeddah, where the team was staying ahead of the race, while the truck was on its way to scrutineering; Dakar Rally director David Castera told France Télévisions that a hole was blown through the driver’s seat where Boutron had been sitting. Its cause is currently unknown, though the Makkah regional police released a statement saying “preliminary investigations revealed that there was no criminal suspicion in the accident.”
Barbet argues otherwise, claiming it was a bomb attack. In his testimony, Barbet explains the blast happened after the truck had travelled 500 metres from its starting point at the hotel. Once the vehicle caught fire, Boutron asked him to pull him from his seat as he could not feel his legs; upon extracting his driver, Barbet applied a tourniquet to stymie blood loss until medical services arrived approximately twenty minutes later. The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs also did not rule out the possibility of terrorism, and urged French citizens in Saudi Arabia to exercise “maximum vigilance.”
Boutron underwent surgery at a local military hospital, and will eventually be repatriated back to France and continue further treatment at the Hôpital d’instruction des armées Percy in Clamart. Barbet and Pailly departed Saudi Arabia on Monday to head back to Paris.
“The FIA gives full support to the French driver Philippe Boutron, injured in the explosion of a vehicle assistance before the start of the Dakar Rally in Jeddah, and wishes him a speedy recovery,” read an FIA statement. “The FIA trusts the local authorities to get to the bottom of what happened and to continue to ensure the safety of the race in link with the organisers.”
While it is unknown if there was malicious intent or if it was merely a freak accident, event organiser Amaury Sport Organisation announced the race’s routes and hotels would have increased security.
Fears of an attack are not completely unfounded, let alone in Saudi Arabia which has hosted the Rally since 2020. The country’s capital Riyadh, which is the halfway point for the 2022 Rally, saw its Formula E race in 2021 end with a ballistic missile, launched by a Yemeni militia, being intercepted by defence forces. The 2008 Rally was even cancelled due to threats of terrorist activity targeted at the race.
Richard Gonzalez, who drives Sodicars’ #548 truck, commented that the team was on edge in the wake of the incident as “everyone jumps” at “the slightest noise.” Nevertheless, he had been urged by Boutron to race. Other Sodicars entries like the Rauds and Richard have also since continued to compete.