Triple amputee takes on world's most dangerous race

Story highlights

  • Dakar Rally begins in Peruvian capital on January 5 and finishes 15 days later in Chile
  • Tom Neathway is one of five injured military personnel taking part in 8,000-kilometer trek
  • British soldier lost both legs and an arm during active duty in Afghanistan in 2008
  • He will be taking part as a co-driver, helping with navigation in the South American race
The Dakar Rally is arguably the world's most dangerous motorsport race, but for one newcomer it cannot compare with what he has already been through.
British soldier Tom Neathway will be co-driving in the 16-day event, which traverses the mountainous desert terrain of South America, despite losing both his legs and an arm after standing on a booby trap while serving in Afghanistan in 2008.
He effectively died three times, and had to be resuscitated on each occasion on the operating table back at base.
"I think the Dakar's less dangerous than what I've done, and I think I knew what I was getting myself into when I signed up for it," Neathway told CNN. "Saying that, most of the guys I've spoken to about the Dakar never do it again, so it's clearly not easy."
Founder Thierry Sabine described the grueling endurance event as "a challenge for those who go, a dream for those who stay behind."
A total of 25 competitors have lost their lives since the inaugural race started in Paris in late 1978, and more than 50 people overall including spectators. Only 74 of the 182 entrants for that first staging made it as far as the Senegalese capital Dakar.
Sabine himself died during the 1986 race when the helicopter in which he was traveling was struck by a sudden sandstorm.
Traditionally, the race wound its way from Europe down to the south-west of Africa, but was relocated to South America in 2009 because of terrorist threats. This year's 33rd staging will start on January 5 in Lima, Peru, and finish in the Chilean capital of Santiago.
Neathway is well aware of the rigors of rallying -- he has only just recovered from a broken arm after crashing badly at one of his warmup events -- but it pales into insignificance compared to what he experienced on July 22, 2008.
"We were on a routine patrol when we came under enemy fire," recalls Neathway, who is one of five injured military personnel taking part in the 2013 race. "I was part of the sniper team and moved into position to provide covering fire for my fellow troops.
"The area I went to was already cleared by metal detectors where there was a sandbag. I asked for it to be checked again and it was. Then I lifted the sandbag and the blast took off my feet and badly damaged my left arm.
"At the time, the first thing I checked was my cock and balls. Once I saw my feet weren't there, I was more focused on just stopping the bleeding than worrying about not walking again. I remember joking around -- as I'm into my cars -- that I wouldn't be driving my Subaru anytime soon.
"It's odd to think there's that sort of banter just after getting blown up. There wasn't any panic, it was all very straightforward.
"I remember I was conscious throughout the whole thing. I was surprisingly okay and chatting to the medic throughout. It was then that I felt I'd be okay despite quite heavy blood loss. I'd been blown up a couple of times before but obviously this one was a lot more serious."
Having been restored to full health, Neathway will compete for the Race2Recovery team, with funds raised going towards injured servicemen and women.
He will be the navigator for able-bodied driver Justin Birchall for the 8,000-kilometer event. The challenging route has desert stages virtually from the outset, then goes through gaucho territory in Argentina after crossing the Andes before the challenge of the Chilean dunes.
Despite the dangers of the race, for some its lure is just too much. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's son Mark was a notable entry in 1982, when he went missing for six days along with his co-driver and mechanic.
After being spotted by a Algerian air force plane, Thatcher downplayed the severity of the incident, insisting that all he needed was "a sandwich, a bath and a shave."
Prince Albert of Monaco was another high-profile entry three years later along with five-time Tour de France cycle race winner Jacques Anquetil in 1986 and French rock singer Johnny Hallyday in 2002.
Former France international rugby player Christian Califano competed in the motorbike category from 2009-11.
"I didn't worry about accidents. I didn't think about that at all. I didn't really worry about the dangers until the end as there's no point worrying about these things as that's when things go wrong," he said.
"For me, the Dakar was always a dream. When I played rugby, I used to say, 'Guys, one day I will do the Dakar and they'd be like 'Shut up Christian, don't be crazy, you'll never do it, you're a liar.'
"When they heard I'd entered they again said I was crazy but I didn't feel crazy. I just loved the whole experience. I was like nothing else."
This year's entry list features almost 200 competitors in the motorbike class, 115 in the cars, 40 in the quad bikes and 176 in the trucks.
The amateur element accounts for about 80% of the entrants -- including Tarek El Erian, who planned to be on his honeymoon during the race but put his wedding plans on hold after receiving a late wildcard entry.
"I'm grateful towards my wife-to-be because this is unthinkable in Egypt, but we postponed the marriage so that I could take part in the rally," he explained.
It is not just an event for the competitors -- the 2013 version will be televised in 189 countries, with an audience of 2.2 billion from start to finish.
But it will once again attract criticism, as has been customary since Sabine first came up with the idea after getting lost on his motorbike in 1977 in Libyan desert during another event, the Abidjan-Nice Rally.
France's Green Party once described it as "colonialism that needs to be eradicated" while the Vatican once called it "a vulgar display of power and wealth in places where men continue to die from hunger and thirst."
The race's history is entwined with tragedy. The helicopter crash which accounted for Sabine's death also led to the death of four others on board.
Just two years later, six people lost their lives, including a 10-year-old Malian girl struck by a competitor's car, and a mother and daughter killed when hit by a television crew's vehicle.
But for those who take part, the risks are part of the excitement.
Michel Merel, runner-up in the motorbike class in 1980, said fear was the biggest lure of the Dakar.
"The piste is like the ocean," he said. "It is wrong not to fear it. As for me, the piste makes me scared -- you don't mess around with it. You can't be an artist."
The race's most successful entrant is Stephane Peterhansel, a six-time winner of the motorcycle category who also has four car titles, including last year.
The Frenchman, 47, describes his Dakar years as "the most memorable of my life," reveling in the "complete emptiness, nothingness" of the desert tundra at night.
While Peterhansel will once again hope to make the headlines, Neathway is likely to be one of the unsung battlers just trying to make it home.
"I've always been a petrolhead and did motocross as a kid," he says. "Since recovering from my injuries, the Dakar has been the dream.
"Most people don't get to do that but I've got the chance. For me, the main thing is just to finish."