French Dakar rally driver out of coma as team say bomb caused blast

A French rally driver who was seriously injured in an explosion in Jeddah last week has emerged from a coma, while his team have claimed Saudi Arabian authorities are trying to cover up the cause of the incident.

Philippe Boutron sustained serious injuries in the blast outside a hotel near Jeddah’s international airport a week ago. The explosion damaged a support vehicle he was driving for the Sodicars Racing team that was competing in the Dakar rally.

Boutron was flown back to France where he was placed in a medically induced coma from which he emerged on Thursday, according to his son.

Saudi police earlier announced there was no evidence that the explosion was criminal, but a rally official insisted a “malicious act” had not been ruled out.

French anti-terrorism investigators have opened a preliminary inquiry into “multiple attempted killings as part of a terrorist group”. Saudi authorities have not commented on the announcement.

A Sodicars press spokesperson told French journalists: “We must tell the truth. It was an attack, and not an accident as the Saudi authorities are trying to maintain. There was a bomb in the side rail of the vehicle, under the pedals.”

Richard Gonzalez, the head of Sodicars Racing, who was at the scene shortly after the blast, said: “At first we thought something had hit the car, but there was a significant impact under the car’s chassis. There was a charge under the side of the car that exploded. I was there, I have the photos, I saw everything. It was a deliberate act, there’s no doubt about that.

“When we saw the car, we thought something wasn’t quite right, but our priority was to get Philippe out and to hospital. He had suffered serious injuries to his legs. He’s a driver and a client but above all he’s been a friend for 10 years. It’s terrible.”

The Dakar rally, usually from Paris to the Senegalese capital, was first held in 1978. It has taken place in Saudi Arabia since 2020 for security reasons.

Last Thursday, 48 hours before the first stage of the race was to begin, the Sodicars vehicle was “brought to a sudden halt by a sudden explosion” as it was leaving the hotel, the rally organisers, Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), said. Five Sodicars rally team members in the vehicle escaped but Boutron, 61, who was driving the car, sustained serious injury to his legs.

The marketing executive and president of the French Ligue 2 football team Orléans was due to take part in his ninth Dakar rally. After the blast he underwent several operations in Saudi Arabia before being flown to France for further emergency treatment at the Clamart military hospital near Paris.

Boutron’s son Benoît, a journalist with the French radio station RMC Sport, told Radio Monte Carlo: “He is indeed seriously injured on both legs. We will know more in 10 days but we must remain cautious at this stage.” He denied reports that Boutron’s legs may have to be amputated.

“With this kind of accident you have to take things step by step. Already he’s come out of the coma. We’re lucky to be able to visit him daily,” Benoît said.

ASO has said investigations are continuing and nothing has been ruled out, “including a malicious act”. It said it did not wish to comment further.

France’s foreign affairs ministry has advised French nationals to exercise “maximum vigilance” in Saudi Arabia. A spokesperson said it had not been ruled out that the explosion was a “criminal act”, and added: “There’s still a terrorist threat in Saudi Arabia.”