Philippe Croizon is well known as the first limbless athlete to swim the Channel in 2010, having lost both arms and legs in 1994 after receiving an electric shock while removing a television aerial from his roof.
In 2011, the then president Nicolas Sarkozy awarded him a Légion d’honneur for completing the challenge. The following year he published a book about the experience in J’ai Traversé la Manche à la Nage, a follow-up to his 2006 autobiography J’ai Décidé de Vivre. In 2012 he also swam between continents.
Philippe, 47, has become something of a pin-up as a blogger, advocate for disabled rights, and motivational speaker. “In the beginning, I just did things because I felt like it,” he said. “Now, I’m doing it to prove to others that anything is possible. You can do anything, even if you haven’t got any arms or legs.”
His energy and enthusiasm are palpable. When asked about the Dakar Rally, he bursts into laughter: “It’s completely mad. But I can’t wait. I’ve always wanted to take part in it, I used to watch it on the telly when I was a kid, and then this year I thought, ‘Look, the technology exists, so why not do it?’.”
He has teamed up with veteran rally driver Yves Tartarin to form Team Croizon-Tartarin, and put together a dozen-strong group to help him achieve his latest challenge: trainers, navigators, fixers, medics, mechanics and technicians to keep both him and the car running.
“We have a safety team too,” he says. “The car is a two-wheel drive Nissan Buggy, with a six-cylinder, 340CV engine, which is coming from Paris this month.”
It will take time to adapt the car, he says, but engineers from K Automobilité – a firm specialising in adapting vehicles to be used by disabled people – say it is all possible. An automatic gearbox and clutch are being designed so that Philippe will be able to drive the car just using a joystick. “The seat has to be specially designed too,” he says. “So I can eat and drink in it, and, of course, pee!”
Learning to drive the car, and building up the strength to drive it for long distances over some of the world’s toughest off-road terrain, will take all year. Apart from the risk of crashing, the race presents a supreme test of human endurance to drivers and their teams. Just finishing it, regardless of place, is considered an achievement.
Philippe will be working with a trainer to build muscles in his shoulders, which will take most of the strain of driving, but he is also aiming to build strength and stamina in his core: “Nothing stops us from following these dreams, nothing except daily life. People say it’s too difficult but you have to believe and you’ll do it.
“It’s going to be really hard, really physically demanding, but I don’t care. My aim is to finish, and to show that even a handicapped man can do anything. That’s my motto: anything is possible, and I love that. People are afraid, they think they can’t do things. But they can.”
The Dakar Rally is an insanely gruelling off-road race founded in 1978, which traditionally started in Paris and ended in Dakar, Senegal. However, the 6,000km event was cancelled in 2008 after four tourists were murdered by terrorists in Mauritania on Christmas Eve the previous year, and shifted to South America in 2009. The routes now change every year, but are as challenging as ever.
This year 556 competitors from 60 nations will leave Buenos Aires on 3 January, drive north into Bolivia, loop around the mountains and race back to the finishing line in Rosario, Argentina, arriving there on 16 January after racing for a set period of time every day.
The economic benefits of the race are estimated at around $200 million dollars for Argentina and $100 million for Bolivia.
Participating vehicles are divided into four groups. For this year’s event 354 have been entered, comprising 143 motorbikes, 46 quad bikes, 110 cars and 55 trucks. Cars are also divided into separate sub-categories.
Most vehicles have been extensively adapted for the race, and 80% of them are entered by amateur teams. International car manufacturers make up most of the remaining entries.
Entering the Dakar Rally is extremely expensive. Apart from the cost of the racing car and the entire team – everything has to be transported and everyone fed and watered – back-up search and rescue parties also need to be funded.
To meet these extensive needs, Philippe has around 500 business leaders sponsoring him. Getting hold of such busy people in the first place was not easy, let alone persuading them to part with their cash: “But we’ve done it, and of course I’ll get loads of publicity for them!”
Philippe is irrepressibly positive about the Dakar: “Especially after the attacks in Paris, my message is even more important – we have to live life to its fullest, have the courage to achieve our dreams. Anything is possible, I’m the living proof!”
Danger in Dakar
WHETHER you are taking part or just watching, the rally is a perilous event – 61 people have been killed since it began.
Since 2003 more than a dozen people have lost their lives at Dakar, including drivers, motorcyclists, a spectator and a five-year-old girl who was run over by a service lorry.
In 1986 five people including the rally organiser Thierry Sabine were killed in a helicopter crash during a sandstorm.
Two years later a 10-year-old girl and a mother and daughter were run over and killed. Three drivers also died in accidents that year.
In 2008, the rally was cancelled over a terrorist threat and moved to South America the following year.
The most recent person to be killed, Michal Hernik, was revealed by tests to have died of hypothermia and dehydration in 2015.
Some have been lucky enough to survive after falling foul of the contest – in 1982, Margaret Thatcher’s son Mark and his co-driver were rescued by the Algerian air force after going missing for six days.