Dakar Rally: Survival of the Fittest

Toyota secures second overall and the Production crown

After a gruelling 14 days racing across 9,000 km of torturous stages, the 2015 Dakar Rally has come to an end, marking a tremendous two weeks for the Toyota entries with three Hiluxes finishing in the overall top ten, and Toyotas securing all three podium places in the Production category.

In the 37th staging of the rally, South Africa’s Imperial Toyota driver Giniel De Villiers and navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz came closest to sealing overall victory with a dogged drive from the beginning, but sadly fell just short, coming home a close second to 2011 winner Nasser Al-Attiyah in the Qatar Rally Team Mini.

In the Production category, Team Land Cruiser’s four-time Dakar champion Jun Mitsuhashi secured another first place finish, followed by Nicolas Gibon in second with Alejandro Yacopini finishing off a tremendous treble for Toyota by securing third position in the SW4 Fortuner.

Fast start

This year’s ‘Grand Start’ was held in front of Buenos Aires’ Presidential Palace and, as the competitors were introduced to the start ramp, the palpable feeling of excitement and trepidation grew as the reality of what lay ahead came into sharp focus: the first taste of which would come the next day, when the challenge started in earnest.

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With a fast dash to Villa Carlos Paz, Stage 1 included a short 170 km SS (Special Stage) where the top teams averaged 140 km across ranch roads that included a number of sharp turns designed to catch the unaware out.

Fortunately, De Villiers made it through unscathed and crossed the finish line in third, 50 seconds behind the leader. He later said: “I’m getting good vibes that the Hilux is very competitive.” In the Production category, the Land Cruiser 200s of Team Land Cruiser made a perfect start with a one-two finish.

A longer SS greeted the field on day two: A tough and technical 518 km navigating winding mountain paths and roads blurred by swirling sand (known as Fesh Fesh) meant drivers couldn’t afford to lose a moment’s concentration.

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De Villier’s Imperial Toyota team-mate Leeroy Poulter set the early pace, but a mistake sent him off the course and a damaged shock absorber sent him down the pack to 12th. The consistent De Villiers took a commanding second place, with Overdrive Toyota’s Bernhard ten Brinke next, moving him up to overall third behind De Villiers.

The Team Land Cruiser pair avoided any dramas, and repeated the feat of the first day with a one-two in their category.

A shorter Stage 3 that crossed riverbeds and valleys littered with tyre-splitting rocks represented an opportunity for De Villiers to go on the attack. Leading at the mid-stage checkpoint his hopes of clawing back time on the leader was dashed with a puncture, but he still finished the day in an impressive second. “Today’s stage was short, so I ran aggressively” De Villiers would say at the end of the day. Behind him was another Hilux being driven on the edge – that of Yazeed AlRajhi. Although participating in the Dakar for the first time, he  used his experience of driving in the World Rally Championship (WRC) to avoid trouble and finish a brilliant third.

Meanwhile in the Production category, Mitsuhashi kept his consistency up with a fine first place in the Land Cruiser, but unfortunately his team-mate Gibon was on the receiving end of a flying stone and lost crucial time nursing a damaged radiator.

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New day, new country

Day four and an early start saw the field climb to 4,800 m and cross the Andes into Chile. After a long ‘Liason section’ that took nearly seven hours, the competitors faced a 315 km SS.

A car-breaking combination of rocks and sand dunes lay ahead and De Villiers ran aggressively from the start. Taking advantage of the tyre tracks left by Orlando Terranova’s lead car, he was was making good time until Terranova hit trouble and, without the guiding lines of Terranova’s tyres, De Villiers did his best to minimise time loss as he navigated his own way across the sand dunes. A great drive saw De Villiers finish the stage third with AlRajhi close behind to give the watching spectators an exciting formation finish.

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After a tiring day previously behind the wheel, there was no let-up for the teams on Stage 5. A long, flat course full of precarious high-speed driving was on the menu for the day and AlRajhi raised eyebrows by arriving first at a check-point 30 km from the finish. He would be eventually beaten by the small margin of 20 seconds, but it remained a top-class drive from someone who had never even driven the Hilux before the event started. A quieter day for De Villiers saw him come home in sixth with ten Brinke in 13th.

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The word of the day for Stage 6, was survival. A combination of deceptive flat road and potholed surfaces blanketed in Fesh Fesh meant that even once they reached the desert’s soft sand towards the end of the stage, the drivers could still not relax.

The harsh conditions, where cars were tested to the absolute maximum, brought the Toyotas to the front. Four Hiluxes finished the day in the top 10, with De Villier’s second place the pick of the results. In the Production category, the Team Land Cruiser maintained their consistent run to hold first and second in their division.

If the event didn’t already feel unforgiving for the drivers and navigators, the next couple of days sure would as the teams entered the gruelling Marathon Stage. The one night, two-day stage meant competitors couldn’t count on assistance from the team – they were on their own for any maintenance that was needed.

Navigating up from sea-level to the oxygen-sapping heights of 3,700 m, the drivers entered Bolivia for the first time. Difficult enough at the best of times, conditions on the route were made even more formidable with the onset of rain. Nevertheless, the leading Toyota pairings made good progress on the pot-hole strewn roads; AlRajhi finishing another impressive second while De Villiers completed the day safely in sixth.

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Day eight would end up being a watershed stage for Toyota, not because the teams were instructed, at the last minute, to cross a salt lake (which had dried out) five cars at a time, but because Yazeed AlRahji secured Toyota’s first (Auto category) stage win with a fast and disciplined drive: “Our top speed is inferior to other competitors ahead of us” beamed AlRahji, but we were still able to remain disciplined and manage the race today.”

De Villiers finished a frustrated fourth after having to contend with rear brake issues and an annoying helicopter that flew so close to him it stirred up even more sand to obscure his view.

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One day to rest

A rest day gave the competitors a brief respite from the pressures of the rally and a well-deserved chance to relax and prepare for the second half of the rally, which began with mixed fortunes for the leading Toyotas.

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Up to the midway checkpoint things were looking good for stage winner AlRahji and De Villiers, but things were going to take a turn for the worse for them both. An unlucky AlRahji suffered insurmountable brake issues that meant he would have to drive up to 200 km without them, losing valuable time but in the process thankfully making it safely to the end in fifth.

De Villiers and Von Zitzewitz managed to avoid technical trouble but lost a large slice of time to the leader after making a navigational error. The mistake which took them off course, would mean they ended the stage with a gap of 23 minutes to the leader – a frustrating day for the team.

Meanwhile, Mitsuhashi in the Production Land Cruiser was having an eventful day of his own. While navigating steep sand dunes his Toyota flipped on to its side, but thanks to its powerful structure, his Land Cruiser brushed off the crash with minimal damage and Mitsuhashi powered his way to the finish.

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With the stages of Bolivia and Chile completed it was time to head back into Argentina for Stage 10. No stage is easy on the Dakar, but other than a treacherously narrow mountain section with sheer drops on one side, this day was certainly more agreeable than some of the previous.

AlRahji finished the stage in a solid third: ”I’m happy that again I ran without any mistakes and satisfied that I am in the top five overall despite this being my first Dakar.” De Villiers stayed in contention for the overall win with an error-free run to fifth.

After a hero’s drive so far, AlRahji’s luck would run out on Stage 11 from Salta to Termas Rio Honda. After battling with the stars at the sharp end of the pack, an exhaust problem would prove his undoing. De Villiers and leader Al-Attiyah were quick to praise the Dakar rookie for his courageous campaign.

In a stage that saw the field contend with numerous dangers – myriad river crossings and mud-coated roads – it proved to be a good day for the Toyota entries as De Villiers secured third while the Hiluxes of Benediktas Vanagas, ten Brinke and Christian Lavieille all finished in the top ten.

In the Production category Mitsuhashi held on to first: ”The marathon stage was tough, but we have survived to this point” he said. “Now we just have to make sure to reach the finish line.”

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End in sight

With one day’s racing to go, the drivers faced the dilemma of trying too hard to push and gain places while simultaneously minimising the risk of crashing or damaging the car and losing precious time.

Heading southeast towards Buenos Aires, the cars ran a long 1,024 km section to Rosario, where the 2014 Dakar began. Other than a few steep sections where mistakes would be punished, driving conditions were easier for the drivers and navigators.

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The Overdrive Toyota of ten Brinke ended the day as the best Toyota finisher in fifth, while De Villiers took the sensible angle of attack by finishing 12th and consolidated his second place overall. “I decided to drive safely today,” he declared, “because we must get to the podium in Buenos Aires without fail.”

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Final cheer

With thousands of kilometers of mud, grit and sand under their wheels, the survivors started the last stage of the 2015 Dakar with heavy rain playing a part by shortening the Special Stage from 174 km to just 34 km.

After finishing fourth in last year’s race, De Villiers and Von Zitzewitz completed a sensational rally by securing a fine second position overall. Although rueing not being able to climb on the top step, De Villiers’ comments at the end show how much faith he has in his vehicle: “The Hilux has gotten better and better. I am certain that the day will soon come when the Hilux claims victory.”

Imperial Toyota Podium Celebrations

Three other Hiluxes finished in the top ten including Lavieille in sixth and ten Brinke just behind in seventh.  With Toyotas wrapping up all three places in the Production category, the 2015 Dakar Rally will be remembered as a hugely successful one for Toyota entries.

Twenty-two of the 67 cars that completed all the stages were Toyotas and of those that completed the entire race, more were bearing the Toyota emblem than any other brand – proof that the only place you want to be sat in the Dakar Rally is a Toyota!

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