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Dakar 2017: Why an SA-built Toyota can still win

2017-01-09 16:35

CARRYING THE TOYOTA FLAG: Nani Roma has emerged as Toyota's lead driver. Image: QuickPic

Ferdi de Vos

Chile - “It is known that there are an infinite number of waypoints, simply because there is (nearly) an infinite amount of space for them to be in. However, not every one of them is true. Therefore, there must be a finite number of true waypoints. Any finite number divided by near infinity is as near to nothing as makes no odds, so the average population of all the true waypoints in the Dakar can be said to be zero.

"From this it follows that the waypoint population of the whole Dakar is also zero, and that any true points you may meet from time to time are merely the products of a deranged imagination.” 

(Passage adapted from Chapter 19 of the 1980 novel 'The Restaurant at the End of the Universe', the second book in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy “trilogy” – with huge apology to author Douglas Adams)

The Coma factor

Perhaps multiple Dakar motorcycle champion and now sporting director Marc Coma read the second book in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy science fiction comedy series before planning the route for this year’s event. 
Perhaps not.

However, with all the2017 Dakar competitors, like hapless H2G2 “hero” Arthur Dent being perpetually lost in many places mutually contradictory suggest the Spaniard might have taken some inspiration from Douglas Adams’ classic 1980 novel.

By replacing the words worlds with waypoints, inhabited with true, and Universe with Dakar it in a satirical way describes the current condition of the 2017 race. 

You get the drift.

Or maybe Monsieur Coma just wanted to test the navigational skills of his former foes, such as arch-rival Cyril Despres, compatriot Nani Roma and ‘Mr Dakar’ himself, Stephane Peterhansel, to the ultimate in this gruelling annual test of man and machine.

The five times Dakar winner was appointed as the Dakar sporting director by organisers ASO shortly after his unexpected retirement in 2015, but Coma had a torrid time organising the 2016 edition. 

With Peru no longer part of the rally he had to devise a new course in only 90 days, and then climate changes brought by El Niño lead to the shortening of many stages due to the adverse weather conditions.

A total lottery

One would have thought Coma learnt some lessons from last year, but at the halfway point of the 2017 edition it surely doesn’t look like it. On the contrary; according to the teams and competitors the race up until now has been a navigational nightmare.

Leading competitors such as KTM factory rider Matthias Walkner has questioned the validity and accuracy of the old-school navigation rules, while the seasoned Dirk von Zitzewitz, navigating for Giniel de Villiers, in his blog openly implied the event’s road book in many instances were “very inaccurate or just simply wrong”.

Other top-notch navigators, such as Peugeot’s Jean-Paul Cottret (with Peterhansel), Mini’s Michel Périn (guiding Miko Hirvonen) and Lucas Cruz (with Carlos Sainz for Peugeot), also frequently lost their bearings due to navigation mistakes.

But despite the criticism it seems Coma is sticking to the guidelines… much like Dent in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: “The Guide is definitive. Reality is frequently inaccurate.”

In fairness, Coma did warn this year’s race will be really tough, preserving the old African rally-raid traditions “with a physical challenge that will push the competitors into the world of extreme endurance”.

But exactly how demanding even he did not foresee, with weather conditions (should he by now not have realised Bolivia is prone to torrential rain this time of year?) causing mayhem on the route and playing havoc with the event.
Add to this the navigational problems and this year’s race up ‘til now can only be described as a lottery.

SA perspective

From a South African perspective the race started exceptionally well, with four made-in-SA vehicles in the top four on the prologue in Argentina. 

New Toyota Gazoo South Africa incumbent Nasser Al Attiyah showcased the new-found speed of the V8 Hilux, winning by a fair margin followed by Spanish rally driver Xavi Pons in an SA-built South Racing Ford Ranger.

Roma was third in another SA-built Toyota, run by Overdrive Racing, followed by Sainz (Peugeot) and SA hero Giniel de Villiers in the second Toyota Gazoo Hilux.

The second stage saw the Peugeot crews bounce back with Frenchman Sebastien Loeb dominating the time sheets, beating Toyota’s Al Attiyah and team mate Sainz, with De Villiers only a second off the Spaniard’s pace. Roma and navigator Alex Bravo was fifth followed by Saudi Yazeed al Rajhi in the first of the Minis.

Stage three saw a steep climb up the Andes into Bolivia on a route which suited the Peugeots, with Peterhansel winning the stage from Sainz after the hard-charging Spaniard lost time with a navigational error early in the stage.
Loeb also lost time getting lost, but fought back to beat the Fin Miko Hirvonen (Mini) by a whisker, with Despres in another Peugeot fifth.

Is this the car wash? / ¿Es este el lavadero de autos? #Dakar2017 ASO / @ World / A. Vialatte

A photo posted by Dakar (@dakarrally) on

For Toyota this stage was disastrous. Al Attiyah crashed late in the stage while leading. He limped back to the bivouac on three wheels, using rocks to balance the Hilux, but the car was too damaged to continue and was retired.

De Villiers lost over 20 minutes with fuel pressure problems while Roma was delayed with an intermittent electric fault and Zimbabwean Conrad Rautenbach and SA navigator Rob Howie (playing back-up for Al Attiyah and De Villiers) lost over an hour assisting the Qatari.

Advantage Peugeot

Loeb was now leading by 42 seconds from Sainz with Peterhansel progressing from seventh to third, with Hirvonen fourth and Roma the best of the Toyotas in fifth. 

Day four brought more navigational drama with all the top teams getting lost. Peterhansel lost 15 minutes, Sainz lost ten and Loeb 25 minutes, while Hirvonen and De Villiers also lost heaps of time.

Despres survived the navigation ordeal to take his maiden car stage win, 11 minutes clear of Hirvonen who got ahead of Roma in the final sector.

This stage also claimed another big scalp when Sainz lost control of his Peugeot and plunged down a ravine, leading to his retirement. This allowed Peterhansel into third position, with Loeb taking fourth and a disoriented De Villiers fifth.

Despres was now also leading overall, followed by team mate Peterhansel, with Hirvonen third, Loeb fourth and Roma fifth.

The fifth stage – shortened due to inclement weather – was even more of a lottery with numerous navigational errors marring the race. Poor Hirvonen, on a stage that really suited the characteristics of his diesel powered four-wheel drive Mini, lost more than 40 minutes trying to find the route.

De Villiers/Von Zitzewitz also lost nearly half an hour, and in the end it was Loeb fending off Roma by 44 seconds, followed by the Peugeots of Peterhansel, Despres and Romain Dumas.

Rautenbach, expertly guided by Howie on the muddy tracks, capitalised on the frontrunners’ mistakes to finish an excellent sixth after starting 22nd.

Peterhansel was now in the lead, ahead of team mates Loeb and Despres, with Toyota’s Roma fourth, just five minutes off the lead and ahead of Mini trio Hirvonen, Przygonski and Terranova, with the luckless Giniel de Villiers ninth and Rautenbach moving up 15th overall, albeit over three hours behind the leader.

The final week

The cancellation of Saturday’s stage 6 gave the teams some respite, but incessant rain on the rest day in La Paz – at 3 628m the highest capital city in the world – made life miserable for the service crews.

The bad weather also lead to stage seven, the first marathon stage from La Paz to Uyuni over the iconic Salar de Uyuni, being shortened from 322 km to only 161 km. 

So, what does this mean for the top teams, and the outfits racing the SA-built Toyotas in particular?
Well, the shortening of the route makes it ever more difficult for local favourites De Villiers and Von Zitzewitz to make up time over the remaining stages.

They are an hour 8:11 minutes behind the leaders – a massive gap – in 8th position overall, but they’re not about to throw in the towel (yes, Hitchhiker pun intended).

Possible strategy

With less mileage at high altitude (and accurate navigation) there’s less chance of losing more time to the turbocharged Peugeots and Minis today, and from tomorrow it is downhill towards Salta – a 492 km route which should suit the Toyotas.

The monstrous stage 9 of nearly 1 000km from Salta to Chilecito, the so-called “Super Belén, will be their last chance to attack and make up time. Fact is, the SA/German Toyota pair has nothing to lose, so they can throw caution to the wind…

Another advantage is Rautenbach and Howie’s position high up in the starting order. 

A possible strategy would be to release the Zimbabwean to chase down the Peugeot teams, hopefully pressuring them into making mistakes. Alternatively he and Howie can continue their back-up role, with De Villiers/Von Zitzewitz leading the charge to Salta.

However, Toyota’s best hope for victory is Nani Roma and Alex Bravo in their Overdrive Hilux V8. The Spaniards are only 5 minutes 35 seconds behind the Peugeots, and Toyota should go all-out to support them in the more suitable Argentinian terrain.

And yes, the Spaniard, winner of the 2014 Dakar for Mini, has a point to prove. 
Three years ago Peterhansel hunted him down mercilessly and Mini had to issue team orders to ensure his victory. So this year he would dearly like win on his accord…

Fact remains, stage 9 will play a decisive role in the outcome of this year’s Dakar, as the final three stages, in comparison, will be sprints towards the Buenos Aires finishing line…

Until then it seems the fate of the teams lie in the hands of the Coma Guide to the Dakar, much like poor Dent relied on The Hitchhiker’s Guide of the Universe… yes, the one with “the words DON'T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover”…

2017 Dakar results after Stage 6: Cars - Overall

1. Stephane Peterhansel(Peugeot) 14:02:58
2. Sebastien Loeb (Peugeot) +1:09
3. Cyril Despres (Peugeot) +4:54
4. Nani Roma (Toyota) +5:35
5. Mikko Hirvonen (Mini)+42:21
6. Jakub Przygonski (Mini) +59:55
7. Orlando Terranova (Mini) +1:04:49
8. Giniel de Villiers (Toyota) +1:08:11
9. Boris Garafulic (Mini) +1:57:40
10.Romain Dumas (Peugeot) +2:27:15
15. Conrad Rautenbach (Toyota) +4:20:19

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