As expected, the first week of the Dakar Rally 2014 proved to be a test of man and machine, as competitors battled their way across some of the harshest conditions on the planet.
For the lead Toyota driver Giniel Villers, in South Africa’s Imperial Toyota team, it was a week that started with mechanical challenges that could have nearly ended his rally early, but fortunately ended on a high as he and navigator Dirk von Zitzweitz fought their way back to a stirring third position overall.
On Monday’s stage eight, a 302km stage that saw the teams leave Argentina and enter Chile, a calm strategic head was certainly required. The challenge that lies in the sand dunes coming up for the next stage is key for the leading drivers at the head of the field. Owing to the difficulties of driving across the car clogging soft sand, most teams played the tactical game to avoid finishing stage eight in the lead and having to take charge the following day. Giniel finished the day in seventh place as he was stuck behind the Mini of Russia’s Vasilyev compounded by reduced power from their engine as it was starved of valuable air at the high altitudes. He maintained his third place overall and stayed a little over three minutes ahead of Orlando Terranova’s Mini, declaring today was: “a day to be patient.”
No doubt all the competitors entered stage nine with apprehension. It finished with a win for Mini’s Stéphane Peterhansel, the veteran Dakar entrant who secured his second stage win in three days. As expected, the stage from Calama to Iquique across vast towering dunes of sand was a real test for the teams, as they fought through dust clouds and churned-up terrain from racers ahead. Giniel battled hard with Orlando through the day, but unfortunately suffered some navigational problems and two flat tyres, and ended the day in joint fourth with an identical time to Nasser Al-Attiyah in the Mini.
Yet more sand greeted the drivers on Wednesday’s Stage 10, a long 631km route from Iquique to Antofagasta. The big news of the day was the retirement of rally legend Carlos Sainz who crashed out of the race, destroying his buggy in the meantime but fortunately only suffering minor injuries. A hugely consistent phase for Giniel saw him end the day yet again the best non-Mini runner in fourth. This was a superb result after enduring knife-edge soft dunes in the first half of the day and fesh fesh (a fine sand that behaves like mud) in the second. He was lucky to finish at all after coasting downhill to the finish with barely any fuel remaining.
As the race entered its critical last three days, Mini took the decision to protect their lead and ordered their drivers to stop fighting and to maintain their positions in the top three to ensure a podium lock-out. This was after Peterhansel carved a huge chunk of lost time from his Mini teammate Roma the day before and cut the lead at the front to two minutes.
The 605km route across the harsh Atacama desert seemed to suit the two Toyota cars, with Giniel finishing the stage in third and Marek Dabrowski in the Orlen Toyota team maintaining his seventh overall. It wasn’t easy though… Giniel suffered three punctures on this stage alone as hidden rocks in the fesh fesh and the hard road surface took their toll. The stage was won by Terranova in the Mini who, as a result of his 12 minute advantage, pushed Giniel back into fifth in the overall standings.
Confusion reigned on the race on Friday’s stage 12, as the supposed team orders at Mini seemed to be disregarded. Peterhansel who was apparently instructed to follow his teammate Roma home to the finish ended the day ahead as he attacked his Mini colleague on the penultimate day. With the last day of any real sand to contend with and over 200km of rocky roads to navigate, Giniel powered to the end more than six minutes ahead of Terranova, ending the day fourth and regaining his fourth position in the standings.
So, after 12 days traversing sand dunes the size of buildings, roads so rocky they would tear tyre apart in a second and altitudes so high they make you gasp for air, the 2014 Dakar Rally came to its conclusion.
The final route from La Serena to Valparaiso saw Giniel secure his first stage win in this year’s event, an immensely difficult feat when you are competing against a squad of eleven highly competitive Minis. The race was finally won by long-time leader Nani Roma in the Mini, crossing the finishing line along with teammates Peterhansel and Al-Attiyah after the former waited for his colleagues 24 km from the end, to cross the finish line in formation.
Giniel finished a very gruelling two weeks in fourth position overall. As the only driver to take the fight to the Minis, and his seventh top 5 finish in 10 races, the team is hugely proud of the performance and it will no doubt give them a massive motivation to go a step further in next years race. Giniel was joined in the top 10 by Orlen Team Toyota driver Marek Dabrowski who finished in seventh and Giniels teammate Leeroy Poulter in 33rd place after suffering earlier issues.
Further great news for Toyota in the production category, as Team Land Cruiser Toyota Auto Body finished the stage in first and second position and secured outright victory in the class. Further testament to the legendary robustness of Toyota’s go anywhere 4x4’s! The #345 Toyota Land Cruiser driver, Jun Mitsuhashi, has had a sterling record at Dakar, first entering on two wheels before switching to four with Toyota. He’s captured two crowns in consecutive appearances in 2010 and 2011 in the unmodified production vehicle class.
As the teams pack up and head home, they will soon begin the preparations for next year’s event, and we can look forward to the Toyota teams taking their places ready for another epic Dakar Rally in 2015.