Dakar Rally - what it really takes

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By Denis Droppa

Anyone who thinks motor racers aren’t real athletes should try spending up to ten hours a day manhandling a vehicle over bumpy gravel roads and soft sand dunes in cloying temperatures of over 40 degrees – wearing a hot overall with no aircon.

Apart from the heat and the physical exertion, it takes intense concentration to drive as fast as you can for hundreds of kilometres dodging rocks, trees, and holes along the route of the Dakar rally, and trying not to get stuck in soft desert sand. And you have to do it day after day for two weeks.

“It takes me a fortnight to recover physically and mentally from the race,” says Giniel de Villiers, who finished second in this year’s Dakar in a South African-built Imperial Toyota Hilux 4x4 shared with German navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz, 42 minutes behind winner and defending champion Stephane Peterhansel in a 4x4 Mini.

THEY’RE REAL ATHLETES

It’s the kind of recovery time that marathon runners speak of after doing the Comrades, and coming from a super-fit athlete like Giniel who’s also a mean mountain biker, it underlines the sheer physicality of the world’s longest and toughest motor race.

For four months leading up to the Dakar, he spent four to five hours a day in fitness training to get in shape, and during the race drank seven litres of fluid per day in his mobile Toyota sauna to stay hydrated. Make no mistake, the men and women who contest the Dakar with their cars, trucks, motorcycles and quads are hardcore athletes. The tough-as-nails type.

Still, Giniel admits with a tired smile that he wouldn’t mind aircon in his 4x4 Hilux next year, even if it might sap a bit of engine power.

It was De Villiers’ fifth podium in ten Dakar rallies, including his win in a VW Touareg in 2009, and he’s never failed to finish the race. It’s a momentous record given the Dakar’s high attrition rate. This year, of the 449 entrants who lined up at the start in Lima, Peru on January 5, only 299 made it to the finish in Santiago, Chile, 15 days and over 8000km later.

GETTING LOST

For Giniel, who went one better than his third place last year in a Hilux substantially evolved over the one that made its Dakar debut in 2012, the chance to win this year’s race slipped away with a navigational error on stage three. It cost him more than 20 minutes, a mistake compounded when he got stuck on a sand dune for 12 minutes in a later stage while trying to drive around the car of another stricken competitor.

It allowed Peterhansel to open a comfortable gap in his X-Raid Mini, one which the ever-reliable Frenchman held onto after avoiding the misfortunes that afflicted his chasers.

“Even without our problems we probably would have finished ten to 15 minutes behind Peterhansel,” admits De Villiers. “The turbodiesel Minis have a torque advantage at altitude compared to our normally aspirated petrol bakkie, and perhaps the rules need to be changed to make the cars more equal.”

“Obviously we would have liked to win but any time you’re on the podium it’s a good one,” Giniel adds. “It’s a fair result and we’re getting closer. Last year we were around a second a kilometre slower than the winners and this time it was about 0.1 or 0.2 seconds.

“Remember, this is only the second year with the Hilux. With VW it took us six years to win and four years before the first podium”.

Toyota Motorsport team manager Hall, who builds the Dakar Hiluxes at his Hallspeed facility in Midrand, says this time there won’t be a new or evolution vehicle for next year. Development will continue on the existing Hilux for Giniel and his team mate Duncan Vos, who crashed out early in this year’s race.

NEW RULES COULD FAVOUR GINIEL

Dakar organisers are also undertaking a rule review this week to discuss tweaking next year’s technical regulations, which curently favour the turbodiesel cars and the light two wheel drive buggies. The buggies of Nasser al-Attiyah and Carlos Sainz were arguably the quickest cars in the Dakar this year, but both retired with mechanical problems.

A rule tweak might just be enough of a performance-leveller to go one better and give South Africa the Dakar victory next year, and perhaps even give Giniel his much-wanted aircon. -Pretoria News Motoring

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