Mud, sweat and cheers

Toyota make the podium at Dakar 2016

The 38th Dakar began at Technopolis in Argentina, where 136 motorcycles, 45 quads, 111 cars and 55 trucks (347 vehicles in total) eased themselves into the 15-day, 9,000km trek across Argentina and Bolivia with a short 11km prologue stage and a surprising amount of early water to negotiate.

Last year’s second-placed driver, Giniel de Villiers (#301) of TOYOTA GAZOO Racing South Africa, was more focused on avoiding risks, but Bernhard ten Brinke (#311 OVERDRIVE TOYOTA), who finished overall 7th last year, was pleasantly surprised to come in first and lead out the rally proper – a 404km liaison section from Rosario to Villa Carlos Paz and a 258km high-speed, rollercoaster-like SS (Special Section) on dangerously undulating mountain paths.

Competitors from the Moto category left the bivouac – where rally participants camp – for the Special Stage at 04:00, with the Auto category departing at 07:13. Disappointingly, for revved-up drivers and co-drivers alike, thunderous clouds were spotted at the liaison – the section between the bivouac and the Special Stage – instantly transforming the farms each side of the road into soaking paddy fields. The organiser therefore decided to cancel the Special Stage in the interests of safety.

More misty rain the next morning meant Stage 2 was also shortened slightly from 461km to 386 km, but all the drivers did commence without any setbacks. Time-sapping bogs were the main obstacle of the day, but Toyota Hilux succeeded in securing half of the top 10 places, once again demonstrating its rough road drivability. Up next: the 663km Stage 3 that would present more of the same – lots of narrow, winding paths where it’s difficult to overtake – with dust affecting visibility and rain affecting grip.

A second wind

El Niño – severe weather patterns caused by the cycle of warm and cold temperatures in the Pacific – continued to mess with the drivers in Stage 3. Heavy rain quickly turned roads into rivers, requiring delicate breaking, cautious steering and impeccable concentration.

Giniel de Villiers sustained a puncture a paltry 14km from the finish, but his TOYOTA GAZOO Racing Hilux continued to revel in the conditions, so he persevered without changing tyres to take 4th place.

Despite mud-covered early morning bivouacs and altitudes averaging 3,500m, the rain did not play as much of a part in Stage 4, though the lack of oxygen would be a test of the participants’ heart and lungs and put an extra burden on the normally-aspirated V8 Hilux engine.

A gallant effort from Giniel de Villiers resulted in an 11th place finish; Leeroy Poulter (#319 TOYOTA GAZOO Racing South Africa) fell way off the pace into 24th but recovered admirably into 7th; and Yazeed Alrajhi (#305 TOYOTA GAZOO Racing South Africa) battled in the dust trails of the vehicle in front to clock an equally praiseworthy 6th.

In the first part of the Marathon Stage, Dakar drivers had trekked around Jujuy at high altitudes, then left the bivouac for Uyuni without receiving any maintenance by the mechanics. The 38th crippling Dakar was now in full swing and the Toyota teams were going well.

Toyota Hilux at Dakar 2016
Toyota Hilux Dakar 2016
Take the high road

Unfortunately, considering his steady progress in the rally, de Villiers’ TOYOTA GAZOO Racing Hilux lost three minutes due to a puncture on Stage 5, condemning him to 7th place. Leeroy complained of “struggling to keep up with the diesel turbo vehicles at this altitude”, but made 5th. And another solid performance from Nicolas Gibon in the TOYOTA AUTO BODY Team Land Cruiser enabled him to retain top spot in the Production category.

And so onto Stage 6 with clear blue skies (at last!), a gruelling 542km burn around the Salar de Uyuni salt flats and a display of solidarity to make any team proud.

Yazeer Alrajhi reached the finish in 3rd and Leeroy was running a competitive 8th before his vehicle overturned near the 450km mark. It was a bitter blow for the South African, but his countryman Giniel de Villiers was positioned just behind him at the time of the incident and selflessly stopped to help Poulter recover and complete the stage.

In his Land Cruiser, Production category-leader Nicolas Gibon overcame a broken radiator in this stage and, working alongside his team-mate Akira Miura, was still able to see it through to the finish line.

Nearing the halfway point of the rally and while smooth, high-speed runs were once again craved by the drivers, they were still to be disrupted by thunderous downpours. As a well-deserved day of rest loomed, the Toyota drivers acknowledged the first half as a battle of endurance in harsh altitude and set their minds to upping the ante in the high temperatures and dune-ridden roads leading back to Rosario.

Looking back at the results of the first half: in 6th place, 33 minutes and 41 seconds behind the overall leader, is Giniel de Villiers (#301 TOYOTA GAZOO Racing South Africa); Leeroy Poulter (#319 TOYOTA GAZOO Racing South Africa) was positioned 7th; with Yazeed Alrajhi (#305 TOYOTA GAZOO Racing South Africa) and Vladimir Vasilyev (#307 G-ENERGY TEAM) coming in 8th and 9th place respectively.

Toyota Hilux Dakar rally 2016
Dakar Rally 2016 Toyota Hilux
Dakar Rally 2016, toyota Hilux
Toyota Hiluxes at Dakar 2016
A line in the sand

What a sand- and rock-covered relief Stage 8 was for most competitors with relatively easy-to-drive, hard-surfaced, off-road sections benefitting Leeroy Poulter, who ascend to third overall, but thwarting de Villiers, who got caught in the Camelthorn and lost a huge 17 minutes.

Two punctures in the more “off-piste” environs of Stage 9 might have weighed down lesser drivers, but de Villiers and his co-driver, Dirk von Zitzewitz, ploughed on to finish 4th, a mere 38 seconds behind the leader. Poulter got stuck in a large depression and lost a heart-breaking 20 minutes on the leaders.

Toyota’s silver lining: the next stage would be spread across the Fiambala sand dunes where the team principals expected maximum performance from the Hilux. However, more thunderstorms saw a stage shortened once again.

Toyota Hilux Dakar 2016 stage 2

Though most drivers went off-piste for grip, de Villiers and von Zitzewitz stayed on the course. It cost the pair their driveshaft, but they managed to complete a sticky repair in just eight minutes and, despite getting stuck again later, their steady approach saw them finish a creditable 6th, with Poulter in 10th but Alrajhi well back as a result of bolt damage in his wheel.

Stage 9 – 712 km, including a 431 km Special Stage – proved ‘eventful’ for many of the drivers and Stage 10’s Special Stage was going to be long, hot work demanding durability and stability from both driver and vehicle.

Yazeed prioritised finishing as opposed to pure speed, reaching the line in 5th, 11 minutes and 57 seconds behind the leader; Giniel de Villiers suffered another two punctures but, thanks to some great navigation in the dunes from Dirk von Zitzewitz, he finished 7th; and Leeroy Poulter came in two places further back in 9th. All three Toyota drivers promised to push harder for the longest stage of the rally the next day.

At 931km, with a Special Stage of 481km, and protracted driving times of five hours and over, the penultimate stage was all about who could sustain their pace the longest. It was the sort of conditions that Hiluxes adore and Poulter and de Villiers claimed an early 1-2 but finished 3rd and 4th respectively and made 5th and 3rd in the overall rankings. Gibon stormed to victory in the Production category.

Toyota Hilux, Dakar rally 2016
Home and dry

In the final stage en route to Rosario, a total of 699km including a 180km special Stage, Giniel de Villiers once again proved how much of an asset he is, driving a dazzling stage and managing to place an overall third. Poulter was equally as determined and finished overall 5th, his best placing ever in the Dakar. In Yazeed’s second Dakar, he was pleased to simply cross the finish line this time around. Nicolas Gibon, in the TLC LandCruiser 200, won his third consecutive Dakar in the Production category – a thoroughly deserved hat-trick.

Across mountain roads of up to 4,700m elevation, 47-degree sand dunes, across rivers, in bog waters, through dust and amid violent thunderstorms, Dakar 2016 proved both a strategic and organisational trial for man and machine. Once again, the rally underlined the incredible resilience of both the Hilux and the Land Cruiser, the determination of the crews, the passion of the fans and that great things can be achieved through hard work, teamwork and plenty of endeavour.

Dakar 2016 has only just finished, but the Toyota teams cannot wait till the next one.

Toyota teams, Dakar rally 2016

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