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When Margaret Thatcher's son got lost in the Sahara during the Paris-Dakar Rally

The fourth edition of the 1982 Paris-Dakar Rally will go down in history not only because of the sporting results but also because of the misadventure of Mark Tacher, son of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Tacher.

Margaret's son had great ambitions as a racing driver, he was so enthusiastic that in 1977 he formed his own team, Mark Thatcher Racing, although it did not prosper due to lack of financial resources. . He was also not a talented driver and was once rescued from his burning car at the Mallory Park circuit in Leicestershire. He participated in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1980 and 1981, it was precisely after his 1981 race that a sponsor offered him to participate in the Dakar in one of his team's 3 cars. On the spot he accepted, he forgot this request until his sponsor called him back a few days before the start, and that is how the name Thatcher ended up on the entry list for the Paris-Dakar Rally aboard a Peugeot 504 break prepared by Dangel without measuring the consequences of a trip of 10,000 kilometers for three weeks in the middle of the Sahara desert.

Mark takes the place of co-driver, Charlotte Verney, a former experienced driver, takes the wheel (the only woman who managed to score points in F1, she finished sixth at the 1975 Spanish GP), with them their mechanic Jacky Garnier. On the starting line, he shows his confidence: "I did Le Mans. The Dakar is a formality for me", he assures. With his crew, he leaves the Place de la Concorde. Direction: Dakar.

In the passenger compartment of the Peugeot 504, Mark Thatcher's mission will be to provide navigation, a small detail that will be important for the future. But the Englishman is optimistic and declares on the starting line: “I did Le Mans, the Dakar is a formality for me”.

However, the preparation of the crew is limited to half a day of testing in the Paris region. The next day, the crew set out for Place de la Concorde in Paris, heading for Dakar.

The first days are hell, between unbearable heat during the day and too short and icy nights. In this early Dakar, the crews are on their own.

After two days of racing, Mark is sure this is all going to end very badly. Especially since he is quite incapable of reading a map. For now, the crew is content to follow the other competitors, trying to read the tracks in the African sand. It is at this moment that crew 178 will lose track and find themselves in the middle of nowhere without knowing where to go.

They got lost in the Tit-Timeaouine stage, which was a bit tricky to navigate in the middle of the special. The road-book indicated: follow the mountain on the horizon (in fact Tim-Missao), but at night, for the latecomers, it was mission impossible!

Driver Anny-Charlotte Verney explains: “We were in a convoy with two other cars near the border between Mali and Algeria, and we stopped to repair a damaged rear axle. There was also a bent steering arm. Perhaps due to faulty steering, we drifted 56 km off the road. At that time, there were no cell phones or GPS, so you couldn't contact anyone. Mark assured us that his mother would send a satellite to find us” but the crew could not be found.

"In the early morning, when I saw that they hadn't come to get us, we started thinking that it could last a fortnight." Mark said.

The alert is launched

At 10 Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher is informed of her son's disappearance. After a few days with no sign of life, the Prime Minister begins to despair. It mobilizes all the means offered by its functions.

A second race then begins, that of the "politico-sports" between several states involving the United Kingdom, Algeria, France, and the USA, Ronald Reagan and François Mitterrand are called to the rescue by the '' Iron Lady'' then collapsed, the Dakar is transformed into a state affair. She multiplies the calls to François Mitterrand who charters three military planes for the research but the latter will not be able to fly over Algerian territory for lack of authorization. It is then the Algerian fleet sends four planes and a helicopter.

On January 12, three days after the disappearance of the prodigal son, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Lord Carrington, wrote: "Madame the Prime Minister is now most worried. She considers that she has had no reliable information for 3 days".

Mark Thatcher's father goes there, accompanied by a horde of journalists.

Under pressure, the Algerians began to seriously seek, they found. The country's military know the ground like the back of their hand and as they greet Father Thatcher the speech is clear: “Don't worry, we'll find him tomorrow morning”, but what is really going on on the ground?

The saving

Leaving without a water supply, Mark Thatcher having forgotten to “fill up”, the crew had to ration food. You will have to rely on the water from the radiator. Budding adventurers dismantle the tires so they can burn them. The three castaways have five liters of water, a few sachets of dehydrated food and the water contained in the radiator of the Peugeot. Thatcher states that on January 14, he removed the wheels from the car and was about to set them on fire so that the black smoke would signal their position.

That's when he hears a helicopter flying not far away. He triggers a signal flare and a few minutes later, help arrives in a Land Rover to help them. The crew was immobilized near Taoumdert, only 50 kilometers from the planned route.

Thus ended the most difficult five days in the life of Mark Thatcher and his teammates, who, when asked what he needed, answered: a beer, a sandwich, a bath and a razor.


Mark will say: “The others stopped too, took note of where we were and continued. But these assholes instead of telling everyone we were 25 miles east when they finished the section, they told them we were 25 miles west. He ultimately blamed poor organization for the rescue efforts that lasted several days. "That's not to say the rally organizers weren't doing their best to find us, but the event was still young and they were still learning their craft. Sure, nowadays everyone has satellite phones and locator beacons, but back then those things weren't available, which is probably why the rally organizers had such a hard time trying to locate us.

while the pilot will reveal: “There were a lot of search planes and, finally, after five days, it was the Algerian air force that found us. Back at the hotel, for the first and last time in my life, I saw a 35-year-old boy being reprimanded vigorously by his father. »

Stormy reunion

Once the crew was repatriated to Tamanrasset, a sumptuous well-watered dinner was organized in the Tahat hotel, and the unpaid invoice of 11,500 da from the time was then passed on to the British Embassy. Obviously, no one has any money and the local police quickly intervene. The English Foreign Office is contacted and Mrs. Thatcher is asked to kindly settle the bill. This salty bill justified the sending of a diplomatic missive to the British Foreign Office. Rumor has it that Margaret Thatcher paid the bill and covered part of her son's research costs. The government will reply that the £2,000 bailout was paid for by Mrs Thatcher herself. Of course, you don't fly planes for days on such a small sum. He was certain that the 2000 pounds did not even cover the costs of the English soldiers sent there.

The son of the iron lady even apologizing for the media hype linked to her name and declared:

“In the future, I will stick to the racetracks and leave the hard stuff alone,” reporters told reporters after returning to London a few days later in a private jet provided by Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid.

In the United Kingdom, the local Foreign Office contacts Mrs Thatcher to ask her to please pay the bill, the son has left without paying, while the English wonder if their taxes have financed the research. Add to that that the crew did not pay the bill for their hotel.

A story that will make the headlines of the tabloids by denouncing “millions of pounds had been spent to save a playboy”.

Mark Thatcher left the UK in 1986 and since then has lived all over the world and always accompanied by controversy. In 2005, he was sentenced in South Africa to four years in prison and fined for his part in an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea.

An episode that you can relive on Netflix in a new episode of season 4 of the series The Crown.



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