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Preview: 2018 Dakar Rally

2018-01-05 14:58

TWO-TIME DAKAR CHAMP: Toyota Gazoo SA driver Nasser Al-Attiyah of Qatar is pictured during a technical check-up in Lima on January 4, 2018, ahead of the 2018 Dakar Rally, which this year will thunder through Peru, Bolivia and Argentina from January 6 to 20. Image: AFP / Franck Fife

Egmont Sippel

Here is a shortened version of Egmont Sippel’s Dakar 2018 story that will appear in Sunday’s Rapport newspaper.

Lima, Peru - Dakar 2018 will kick off tomorrow in Lima, Peru, to initiate 9000km of hard, unrelenting, murderously tough racing in extreme conditions, ranging from dirt, dunes, rock, rivers, rain, shrubs and bush to the super-fine powdery sands of Fiambalá called “fesh fesh”. 

Don’t confuse this with staying “fresh fresh”; temperatures in the Fiambalá sandscapes are infamous for topping in the mid-40 degrees Celsius, translating to almost 70 degrees C inside a pair of driver overalls. 

Then keep in mind that the entire race is run at an average of 2000 m above sea level, much of this because of extended trails in the Andes mountain range – where altitude sickness induce vomiting and, on the descend, also severe headaches – and it is easy to understand why the Dakar Rally is seen as the toughest race on earth.

So it has been, especially since the event has been moved out of Africa ten years ago, and so it will be again, this year, during the 40th running of the Dakar; the tenth edition on South American soil, which will see Peru’s return to the calendar after torrential rain put paid to Chile and Peru’s ability to host the rally in 2016 and 2017.

Even the northern parts of Bolivia were so badly hit last year that organisers were forced to cancel Stage 6 and shorten Stage 7, the marathon stage; a stretch of more than 700km after which only race crews (meaning: not technical crews) are allowed to service vehicles in the overnight bivouac.

This poses a unique challenge: push hard enough not to lose a chunk of time over such a long distance, yet be careful enough not to so damage your vehicle that it would need the attention of a technical crew – for you ain’t gonna get it.

                                                                  Image: AFP / Franck Fife 

South African racing hero, Giniel de Villiers (above), is particularly adept at finding this delicate balance between speed and preservation. The shortening of last year’s marathon stage (to only 161km) was therefore a set-back of sorts.

The flip side of the coin is that the stage started off – and will do so again this year – at 3 600 m above sea level, in La Paz, capitol of Bolivia, and then rise to almost 3 900m above sea level in Uyuni, in the heart of the Andes.
At these heights, the naturally aspirated 5.0-litre V8 mill powering the Toyota Hilux bakkie, entered three-fold this year by Toyota Gazoo Racing SA, loses about 30 to 40% power.

So, competing against the biturbo-charged diesels of your closest competitors won’t be easy, as De Villiers and co. found over the last couple of years. 

Last year, Peugeot’s mighty 3008 DKR monopolised podium positions and in 2016 multiple Dakar winner Stéphane Peterhansel brought his Pug home half an hour earlier than runner-up Nasser Al-Attiyah.

The super-quick, but sometimes reckless, Al-Attiyah has since joined De Villiers at Toyota Gazoo, where they will be much inspired – along with third driver, Bernhard ten Brinke – by the team’s 2018 version of the Hilux bakkie, the first new Toyota steed since 2012, when the Japanese manufacturer made a Dakar debut with De Villiers and navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz in the cockpit.

The old team is back, this year, in car no. 304. 

But the bakkie is new in terms of a mid-engined layout, the 5.0-litre Lexus sourced V8 now positioned between and almost underneath the crew. Paired with a carry-over gearbox, it necessitated the repositioning of both diffs (the Hilux being four-wheel driven), which all added up to the need for fresh new rear suspension geometry.

Steering is also new, whilst Toyota has developed wider and 5 mm taller tyres in conjunction with BFGoodrich/Michelin.

Other improvements came courtesy of more relaxed regulations pertaining to 4x4 Dakar competitors, such as a bigger air restrictor (38mm), a 12% increase in suspension travel (up from 250 to 280mm, which is still way short of the 460mm allowed for rear wheel drive machines) plus a reduction of minimum weight, down from 1952kg to 1850kg – a 150kg heavier than Dakar buggies.

Amongst other things, team principle and engineering ace, Glenn Hall, trimmed the Toyota’s mass by running the new bakkie on a spaceframe chassis developed for a Hilux buggy, which was also prepared by the Gazoo Racing team, but ultimately not entered for the race.

How does the new steed stack up?

Extensive pre-Dakar testing, a lot of it done in Goerapan, near Upington, seemed to suggest that Hall has done his homework well, again. The Hilux proved to be quick and stable, the drivers optimistic and happy.
As an added bonus, the buggies will this year run with an increased minimum weight.

Peugeot has countered, of course, by stretching the width of their 3008 DKR by 200mm, up to the maximum of 2.4m and calling the bigger, heavier version 3008 DKR Maxi – a car that will be propelled by 255kW plus torque of about 800Nm twisting the rear axle, courtesy of Peugeot’s well proven mid-mounted 3.0-litre biturbo V6 diesel.

Stéphane Peterhansel, the reigning king and thirteen times Dakar winner (including six victories on bikes) will once again be joined by nine times WRC champion and last year’s runner-up, Sébastien Loeb, whilst Carlos Sainz (2010 Dakar winner) and Cyril Despres (who completed Peugeot’s clean sweep of last year’s Dakar podium and then won the Silk Way Rally from Moscow to Xi’an, in China) will pilot the third and fourth Maxis.

                                    Stephane Peterhansel and Cyril Depres Image: AFP / Franck Fife 

Trying to stop this formidable trio will be the Toyotas, of course, and an armada of seven Minis – four all-wheel drive John Cooper Works Rally-cars and three rear-wheel drive John Cooper Works buggies, all of them equipped with redesigned 3.0-litre straight-6 biturbo diesel mills from BMW Steyr and BMW Motorsport.

Mini, obviously, is serious about regaining ultimate honours in partnership with the X-Raid team, the combination having been victorious in 2012 and 2013 with Peterhansel, in 2014 with Nani Roma and in 2015 with Al-Attiyah, who now partners De Villiers, a man who was runner-up to the Qatari in 2015, runner-up to Peterhansel in 2013, runner-up to Al-Attiyah in 2011 as well and runner-up to Luc Alphand in 2006 – with a solitary 2009 victory to Giniel’s name.

Can the South African double his tally in 2018?

If the weather remains as stable as the new Toyota seems to be, there is every reason to believe. The longer the race, the better for Mr Consistent and his Bakkie Durable; inseparable twins also known as De Villiers & Hilux.


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Read more on:    mini  |  toyota gazoo racing  |  bmw  |  dakar 2018  |  lima  |  peru  |  motorsport

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