The competitors of the 2014 Dakar Rally have made it to the end of their first gruelling week in the world’s toughest rally raid.
With six days of racing under their wheels, those cars which have survived the punishing terrain could look forward to a rest day on Saturday before racing resumed on Sunday heading across the border to Bolivia.
For Toyota fans, all eyes have been on South Africa’s Imperial Toyota team, who came into the event full of confidence after a podium finish in last year’s event. Behind the wheel of Imperial’s lead Hilux is 2009 Dakar winner, Giniel De Villers who with co-driver and navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz, take the fight to the competition with team-mates Leeroy Poulter and Robert Howie in the team’s other Hilux - making up the 45 strong Toyota entry.
Starting on its first day with a lengthy 400km road section, the emotional high of seeing thousands of fans lining the streets, cheering on the competitors, quickly dampened for the lead Toyota as Giniel and Dirk were struck with a power steering issue after 30km that meant they had to keep stopping to add oil. It cost them 16 minutes and a disappointing day one position of 27th. On a more positive note, their Hilux of team 2 finished the day in 9th, a very solid start for Leeroy and Robert.
Day two dawned with a route that saw the teams racing across a myriad of conditions. Racing at high speed at over 2,000 meters above sea level, the cars and teams had to navigate their way across clay and rock terrain that saw them circle the Nevado and Payün mountain ranges, which tower at over 3,800 meters. Fortunately it was a much better day behind the wheel for Giniel and Dirk, in which they clawed back valuable time and positions and climbed up the leader board to 6th position, averaging 109 km/h for over 400 kilometres. Giniel summed up the mood in the team declaring: “we are back in business!.”
The South African team started day three with renewed optimism. A lot can change over an event as tough as this, but it was still worth remembering that that they lay 17 minutes behind the Mini of Stéphane Peterhansel (with 11 Dakar victories including the past two years) and the other five strong diesel competitors.
Day three was all about punctures. The majority of the top teams suffered as the abrasive rocks and stones brought the cars to a continual halt. Due to a technical issue with the automatic jack, the lead Hilux lost 12 minutes changing two tyres that would normally have been completed in two, and made it home in 13th place. The special stage from San Rafael to San Luis was even more frustrating for some rivals who had to replace up to six tyres during the course of the single stage. The highlight of the day was our second Hilux which finished the course in a tremendous third place, moving them back up into the top 10 after losing out on the second day. Even after their setbacks, the lead Imperial Hilux sits within 30 minutes of the new leader Joan Roma in the Mini and an optimistic Giniel commented: “all is still to play for.”
The 657 kilometre route of day four would prove to be another disappointing day for Giniel and Dirk. The long route to Chilecito that winds its way through valleys and across deserts exposed the power steering problems they experienced on day one. Four stops, even with oil being provided to them by spectators, lost the duo 25 minutes to stage winner Carlos Sainz. The fact they still finished in seventh place shows that even with the problems they endured, the Hilux has tremendous speed.
Stage five represented the longest of the rally. An epic 912 km route awaited the drivers and it proved to be a real test for both drivers and navigators! Crossing a challenging series of dunes the teams had to find a very hard-to-locate check-point on a dry river bed. Fortunately for Giniel, his navigator was on top form and Dirk located the way-point with little trouble, unlike a lot of their competitors. Finishing only four minutes behind the stage winner Roma in the Mini even with two punctures and a brake problem was a superb result, even if Giniel was disappointed not to take the top spot. Unfortunately Leeroy Poulter in the second Hilux had another tough day when he suffered from clutch problems and lost three hours waiting for assistance. News later in the day that lead drivers Sainz and Al-Attiyah had been penalised by an hour for navigational errors only helped to cheer the Toyota Imperial South Africa team as they moved up to fifth overall.
Tragic news of three deaths on the previous day meant the sixth day started in a solemn mood. Experienced Dakar motorcyclist Eric Palante lost his life on the stage and then news came in that two journalists Daniel Ambrosio and Agustin Mina died when the vehicle they were travelling in overturned. We send our heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of those who lost their lives.
At the end of a sobering day six between Tucman and Salta, that saw the race traverse the wooded mountains passes of Argentina at speeds approaching 175 km/h, a relieved Giniel really benefited from a clear road without the sand and dust that they battled through in earlier stages. Finishing the day in fourth position overall and only ten minutes behind second place driver Orlando Terranova, was a great end for the Imperial Hilux team after a challenging first few days.
As the teams went into their one and only mid-race rest day, Toyota can be really encouraged as three of the top ten are Toyota Hilux’s. Joining Giniel in the top places were Marek Debrowski and team mate Adam Malysz in the Orlen Toyota team.
The teams entered Sunday’s stage seven after a well-deserved rest day and looked forward to the challenges that lay ahead of them. Run at very high altitude, that tested not only the teams but the engines as they gasped for air at over 4,000 meters, meant that the diesel competitors to Toyota had an advantage. In spite of this, the Hilux of Giniel ended the day in third position as second placed Orlando Terranova was hit with a penalty.
As we enter the final week of racing it will be fascinating to see if the Toyota teams can take the race to the leading cars and bring what has been a memorable race to an exciting conclusion.