January 1982: Mark Thatcher is Lost in the Desert

34 years ago this week, the son of the British Prime Minister got lost on the Paris-Dakar Rally, thrusting the previously unknown event into the media spotlight.

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Jan 7 2016, 4:51pm

When Mark Thatcher asked what he could do to help his mother win a third successive UK general election in 1987, the Iron Lady's press secretary, Bernard Ingham, pulled no punches in response: "Leave the country."

This was partly Ingham's disdain for a man whose ability to attract negative press had led to concerns in the Tory Party about 'the Mark problem.' But it also recalled an incident that had taken place five-and-a-half years earlier, in January 1982, when Mark did indeed leave the country – and managed to get lost for several days in the Sahara desert.

The only son of Margaret and Denis Thatcher, Mark, along with his twin sister Carol, was born in August 1953. He left Harrow School in 1971 with only three O-levels, but was nevertheless offered a place at Oxford University (coincidentally, his mother was education secretary at the time). He declined, much to his father's annoyance, and went on to fail his accountancy exams three times.

In the 1970s, Thatcher began to immerse himself in a sport that wealthy, bored eccentrics often drift towards: motor racing. In June 1980 – a year into his mother's first term as PM – Mark contested the Le Mans 24 Hours alongside Lella Lombardi, the only woman to score points in Formula 1 and a handy sportscar racer. They managed 157 laps in a BMW-powered Osella. Mark was back in 1981 for another go, this time driving a Porsche 935 and dropping out after 260 laps.

That first Le Mans appearance would prove fateful. During the event, a sponsor invited Thatcher to contest the Paris-Dakar Rally. Still very much in its infancy at the time, the event took competitors from the French capital to its Senegalese equivalent over a period of nearly three weeks, passing through Algeria and Mali along the way. It was, and indeed still is, one of the most demanding and dangerous motorsport events on the planet. 'Amateurs' have always been prominent on the entry list, though they tend to prepare intensely for the physical and mental challenges that await them.

READ MORE: Are You Tough Enough For The Dakar Rally?

But not Mark Thatcher. According to his written version of events, Thatcher agreed to contest the rally when approached at Le Mans, then promptly forgot all about it for 18 months. He next heard about it when the sponsor called asking him to travel to Paris to attend the event's press launch.

In another version – given as part of a BBC documentary – he recounts being asked by his eventual crewmate, Anne-Charlotte Verney, and then forgetting for four months. Thatcher might be a little unsure as to who asked him and when, but it's clear that he did not treat the event with the gravity it deserved, seeing it as little more than a quick jaunt across the desert.

"I did absolutely no preparation. Nothing," he later wrote in The Guardian. "I did half a day's testing and the day after that we were driving out of the Place de la Concorde in Paris."

Nevertheless, Thatcher possessed plenty of bravado before setting off, telling the BBC: "I've now raced in Le Mans and other things – this rally is no problem."

Thatcher was tackling the event as navigator of a Peugeot 504, with the experienced and respected Verney handling the driving and her fellow countryman Jean Garnier their on-board mechanic.

The Thatcher-navigated Peugeot, on its way to getting famously lost | PA Images

The competitors rolled out of Paris on New Year's Day 1982, but the real test did not begin until they arrived in Algeria on 4 January. The Peugeot made it most of the way across the North African country, but on day three became detached from its convoy on the run to Timeiaouine, close to the Algeria-Mali border. They had hit trouble, as Thatcher recounted:

"The trailing-arm links both broke; so the rear axle just broke away. We stopped. The others stopped too, took a note of where we were and went on. But the silly bastards - instead of telling everyone we were 25 miles east when they finished the section, they told them we were 25 miles west."

But those "silly bastards" were not lost; Thatcher most certainly was. Their supplies included five litres of water (rationed to a polystyrene coffee cup each twice a day) and some dried food, which Thatcher described as "useless." All they had for navigation was a compass; attempting to leave the vehicle would have been tantamount to suicide.

With no GPS, the crew would have to rely on old-fashioned search-and-rescue methods – in other words, hope that the event organisers could locate them in the desert. The fact that one of their number had a world leader for a mum probably helped, too.

Back in Britain, the Iron Lady was understandably distressed that her only son was missing in the African desert, her voice sounding strained when she told TV reporters, "I'm afraid there is no news." In fact, the incident had the unintended effect of making Mrs Thatcher appear somewhat vulnerable and human; Mark's magnetic attraction to trouble had for once paid off.

Not wishing to have to appear too human, Mrs Thatcher – or "The Boss", as Mark fondly referred to her – got on the phone to the ambassador in Algiers. A significant search effort was soon launched, with spotter planes and helicopters dispatched to find the missing crew. Denis Thatcher flew out to join the rescue mission on the United Biscuits corporate jet, his travel costs having been met by Lord Laing of Dunphail, a one-time president of United Biscuits and a close friend of Mrs Thatcher.

Despite being stranded in the desert with dwindling supplies, Mark claims to have been positively Zen about the situation: "When [they] didn't come back for us in the first day I remember planning to be out there for five days, then for a week," he recalled. "After the first night I planned for two weeks. Because I had planned in my mind how long we might be there, that was very important psychologically. I was never scared for my life."

There was less calm at home. Newspapers splashed the story across their front pages – 'Maggie's Son Lost in Sahara' cried The Sun, while The Express went with 'Fears Grow For Lost Mark'. If only they'd known just how relaxed he was.

READ MORE: What Kind of Person Invades a Formula 1 Track?

His crewmates were also feeling the strain of the situation. Verney later told the BBC: "The thing I did not understand is, [Mark] could not find where we were. With all the machines, he said, 'I can't find [our location].' That's the only thing that made me angry."

The mechanic was also less than impressed: "We found ourselves about 200km from where we should have been. We were totally lost," he told the same BBC production, while also wondering why Thatcher was attempting to navigate using only a compass.

The situation was developing into a major international incident. Help was at hand, however, with the extensive search effort eventually paying off six days after they had gone missing. Thatcher and his crew were spotted some 30 miles off the rally's route, with Downing Street files later confirming that it took four Algerian aeroplanes and one helicopter, plus three French aircraft and a diverted RAF Hercules, to find them.

In celebration, a dinner was held at a hotel in Tamanrasset. The extensive bill was sent to the British embassy, and was so substantial that it led to a diplomatic missive to the Foreign Office and the intervention of local police. Mrs Thatcher eventually paid the bill for both this and the rescue mission, which totalled a little under £1,800. The original bill had been larger, but was reduced on the grounds that air travel and communication could be classed as diplomatic business.

It is not overly dramatic to suggest that without intervention from Mrs Thatcher, the trio would not have been found so quickly. Verney believes they were two days from death, so a logical extension of this is that they would have perished without British government assistance. Death on the rally is not uncommon. Since its inception in 1979, 69 people – including its founder and organiser, Thierry Sabine – have lost their lives either contesting or working on the event.

Nevertheless, it has established itself as a highlight of the international motorsport calendar and a 'bucket list' outing for many of the world's top rally drivers. Though it has now moved to South America, the event retains the Dakar Rally name and attracts a healthy mix of rally superstars and brave amateurs. This year's event sees the debut of Sebastien Loeb, the nine-times World Rally champion, while big names like Carlos Sainz and Stéphane Peterhansel are also fighting for victory.

The events of January 1982 were perhaps a little embarrassing for Mark, but they would be overshadowed in subsequent years. He has been linked to the Al-Yamamah arms deal, in which weapons were sold to Saudi Arabia, and regularly accused of using his mother's position to improve his own finances. His most serious misdemeanour was a conviction in South Africa in 2005 over his involvement with a failed coup in Equatorial Guinea. His sister Carol once remarked: "I tried to behave in a vaguely respectable fashion because Mark got such awful publicity. I didn't want everyone saying: 'Mrs Thatcher must be awful; both her children are off the rails'."

He is, however, entitled to call himself Sir Mark Thatcher: his father was given a hereditary peerage by John Major in 1990 following Mrs Thatcher's resignation.

Even now, there remains something of the lost schoolboy about Thatcher, a strange combination of complete self-assurance and nagging uncertainty that has led to incidents like the Paris-Dakar disappearance. He may not have enjoyed the publicity, but the organisers certainly didn't mind the amount of free promotion he brought to their event.