Reuben van Niekerk
1 522, that’s the average number of times that I hit refresh on the Dakar’s live tracker on a daily basis. It is also the exact amount of gearshifts that Giniel de Villiers made during Stage 2 of this years Dakar rally.
Founded in 1979 by Thierry Sabine, after he got lost in the Tenere Desert, the Paris Dakar quickly became the ultimate desert adventure.
We humans have a strange tendency to always want to push or bodies and expertise to the limit. Especially South Africans, who are crazy for marathon sports.
So it is no surprise that there are a large number of South Africans that excel in the worlds toughest motorsport event. And it was these brave South Africans that kept me glued to my computer screen since I landed back in SA after experiencing the first three days of the race from the sidelines in Argentina
Driving over this inhospitable terrain that ranges from rally roads, to mud holes, enormous dunes and off piste sections at speed is one thing, but teams also need to navigate between checkpoints orienteering style, with the navigator only getting the next heading once their GPS has locked on to the waypoint in question.
Furthermore the days are divided into liason sections and special stages. The special stages are timed and count towards stage and overall honours while the liason sections are often long distances between the bivouac and the start of the special where crews need to adhere to traffic rules and speed limits. The cars at this years Dakar would travel a total of 9 596 gruelling kilometres over the two weeks.
This year I had the opportunity to visit the race and experience the first few days of the event. Arriving at the bivouac at Villa Carloz Paz, the Dakar Circus had really taken over. In what was a sensory overload the four square kilometre was littered with some of the best motorsport machinery in the world across the car, motorcycle, quad and truck categories along with their relevant service crews, necessary to keep these machines running faultlessly for two weeks. The organisation is top notch and one can find anything that you would find in a small village in the Dakar bivouac.
Even the competitors enjoy the vibe in this make shift town, with Giniel de Villiers commenting “It is nice to walk around the bivouac and catch up with people but it catches up with you in the second week. You need to get all the rest and sleep you can.”
Many say that since the Dakar moved to South America after political instability in Africa, it has become less challenging. The Dakar still remains tough commented Leeroy Poulter “As drivers we need to contend with extreme heat, altitude, marathon stages, where no outside assistance is allowed overnight and this year there was the longest ever dune crossing of 150km” El Nino also had its say this year with some stages even having to be cancelled due to flooding.
Toyota have been campaigning their Hilux with relative success, including a 2nd position by Giniel de Villiers in 2013 and 2015. For this year a number of development changes were made to the Hilux in an effort to make it more competitive. These changes included a new engine and gearbox, while these dinkum racing machines now wear the bodywork of the latest generation Toyota Hilux which is due to be launched in South Africa shortly.
The V8 engine is sourced from the Lexus RC-F and features a wider degree of cam timing and electronic inlet control with a combination of direct and port injection enabling it to produce 285 kW and 600 Nm. These along with a host of small improvements meant that this is the most competitive bakkie that local company Hallspeed have built for the Dakar to date.
Three of these vehicles, built near Kyalami, were entered under the Toyota Gazoo racing SA banner and were driven by Giniel de Villiers, Leeroy Poulter and Yazeed al Rajhi.
The race was a nail-biting affair. Initially Sebastien Loeb, 9-times WRC champion and the fastest of a trio of Peugeots led comfortably as the terrain consisted mostly of rally type stages. The turbocharged, two-wheel drive vehicle was well suited to the high altitudes and fast stages. However into the second week and more treacherous terrain and Loeb first got stuck in the dunes and then rolled his vehicle. Losing the lead to teammate Stephane Peterhansel after Nasser Al-Attiyah managed to grab the stage victory.
The South African Toyota Gazoo racing team had an eventful time. All three drivers ran consistently but struggled to match the pace of the turbocharged cars initially. Yazeed al Rajhi suffered altitude sickness on stage 4, de Villiers almost hit a motorcycle and backed off a bit too much on stage 5. On stage 6, Poulter hit a fence, puncturing his windscreen and then later on the stage, rolled over slightly also losing a bit of time. These small mishaps saw the Toyota drivers approximately 50 min behind after stage 8 in 5, 6th and 7th places respectively.
Stage 9 was shortened due to extreme heat and undriveable conditions and although the Toyotas were having a good day, it was Carlos Sainz who took victory on the day and took the overall lead.
Stage 10 was an eventful affair with Al-Attiyah rolling his Mini and losing time, while Sainz and Hirvonen lost time looking for waypoints. Peterhansel was in his element and made the most of this tough day. “This was a proper rally raid stage with tricky navigation, off-piste roads; deep ruts…everything that makes rally raids so demanding. That’s where you make or lose big amounts of time. I had a puncture and I just went like crazy. Today we were a bit out of control. But when we were going, we were going quickly.” commented Peterhansel.
De Villiers too had another good day, which saw him move up to third in the overall standings behind Peterhansel and Al-Attiyah.
The last few days saw no major changes in the overall standings, although Mikko Hirvonen was trying his best to snatch third position from De Villiers. Consistent driving meant that the top five were able to consolidate their positions but this in turn meant that nobody was pushing too hard for positions at the risk of losing it all.
In the end nobody could match the consistent pace of Stephane Peterhansel who took overall victory in his Peugeot ahead of previous winner Nasser Al-Attiyah driving a Mini. South Africans Giniel de Villiers and Leeroy Poulter finished in third and fifth respectively. While al Rajhi was just outside the top ten in 11th position.
“The result is the best we have achieved so far with two Hilux’s in the top 5. Leeroy proved himself to be a force to be reckoned with in the future. Giniel, as ever, kept a cool head and delivered in the end. The level of competition this year is the highest we have seen for more than 10 years with 30 seeded drivers all in good competitive vehicles starting the race. When the going got tough, we were able to move up in the overall classification, which is good news. This was a great team effort,” commented team principal Glyn Hall
“What has really made this journey incredible is the spectators. They have an insane amount of love for the race. They stand next to the road in the freezing rain every day cheering us on” says Brian Baragwanath, who went on to finish third overall in the quad category at this year’s event on board his Yamaha Raptor.