The unassuming Stellenbosch resident has come a long way since racing farm tractors with his go-kart as a young boy.
Who is Giniel de Villiers?
Giniel was born in Robertson on the 25th of March 1972. Father Pieter (Smittie) was a feverishly keen motorsport enthusiast and part-time rally competitor - as such, it was hardly surprising when Smittie built Giniel his own go-kart at age four.
Those early years racing against the clock on various self-conceived farm ‘special stages’, even racing tractors on occasion, were the grounding for what would mature into an awesome racing talent in later years.
An ignominious start before stardom
Despite finishing last in his first clubman race at Killarney in 1989, Giniel was on the pace by the end of the season. Thereafter progress on track was about as linear as a space shuttle launch trajectory.
De Villiers and Nissan motorsport South Africa boss Glyn Hall forged an incomparable alliance during the mid to late 1990s. With De Villiers behind the wheel and Hall responsible for a high level of technical proficiency in car preparation, Giniel absolutely owned local touring car racing.
From 1997-2000 Giniel won four consecutive local touring car championship titles, some by quite embarrassing margins.
With practically nobody left to race against, Giniel’s career took an unexpected turn when local touring car racing collapsed in 2000 – at a time when De Villiers was ranked as the most successful touring car driver in the world. Nissan retained Giniel's prodigious driving talent by setting him about the South African off-road racing championship in a Nissan Hardbody.
It turned out to be a fortuitous change of pace for De Villiers. After a decade of racing on circuits, his old farmyard go-kart instincts were awakened by the off-road racing challenge, whilst Nissan were able to move its motorsport division and marketing directive close to each other by racing bakkies.
Giniel won the South African off-road championship in his first year of competition during 2000. His natural pace and disciplined fitness regime allowed him to finish fifth in his Dakar debut with Nissan during the 2003 event, impressing many experienced campaigners.
When Nissan withdrew its factory team from Dakar competition after the 2005 race, Giniel was recruited by VW and since then it has only been a question of when (not if) he would take a Dakar victory. The 2007 event was a severe test for Giniel’s resolve as he was leading comfortably by the 9th stage when a mechanical failure relegated him to finish 11th.
During this year’s event he was on pace again when a navigational error cost him the lead. In the end he won, adding the Dakar trophy to his collection of three Moroccan rally wins.
The unassuming professional
Although he spends two thirds of the each year racing and testing overseas, Giniel is an avid outdoorsman who enjoys mountain biking and playing golf around the Stellenbosch area, where he lives. Kite surfing has become a leisure activity of necessity too recently, as a means to cope with those particularly blustery Cape summers.
Detractors will no doubt point to his lack of open-wheeled pedigree, but Giniel’s career has been exceptional; even more so considering he is the antithesis of the hell-raising racing driver – quiet, unassuming, humble and utterly professional.
Never a door-banger in circuit racing, or one to throw his toys when mechanical foibles curtailed his driving ability or robbed him of results, Giniel’s humble manner and admirable courage – he won the Dakar with a pinched nerve in one vertebra – has earned him respect from all in the pit lane or bivouac
Giniel might be 36, yet a disciplined training regime has ensured he is fit and ready for action. There should be a good couple of years of top flight racing left in him.
VW’s motorsport division is keen to expand thanks to its first Dakar win, and if they do enter World Championship Rally racing, Giniel should be well rewarded for his sterling service to Wolfsburg so far.
From the dusty farm roads around Robertson in the late 70s to Dakar champion in 2009 – Giniel has done it all with the disarming panache of a farm boy who just liked driving really fast, everywhere…
He might never have been big enough to play rugby - as expected of a farmboy - but he was always plenty brave enough to win the world's toughest rally raid. He is our boykie.