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Navara racing bakkie tough enough

2009-03-09 10:35
Vehicle Specs
Manufacturer Nissan
Model Dakar race spec
Engine 4l V6
Power 250kW
Transmission Six-speed sequencial
Fuel Tank 500l (350l local spec)

Lance Branquinho

Let’s not be coy. This year’s Dakar Rally – the first event staged outside Africa – was the most forbidding incarnation of the world’s most famous off-road race yet.

Technically only 15 cars finished the race from a field of 275 starters. Extreme altitude, Chilean dune fields which made Mauritania look like a sandpit, epic dust conditions and abrasive special stages decimated the field. Obviously the South African contingent loved every moment of the near apocalyptic Dakar 2009.

Just to recap, Giniel won (what do you mean ‘Giniel who?’), Ralph Pitchford finished second as a co-driver and the Midrand built Navara bakkies came home fourth and fifth – the highest placed petrol powered finishers.

To celebrate the achievement, Nissan motorsport invited us for a ride in their 2009 off-road championship Navara challenger, a vehicle practically identical to the ones used on the Dakar.

Nissan's foray into off-road racing with the Hardbody back in 2001

Local is lekker

Much of the South African Dakar success has been attributed to the severely competitive nature of the local ABSA off-road racing championship. Giniel made his transition from track racing phenomenon to off-road racing superstar-in-the-making with Nissan locally in the early 2000s.

Irrepressible racing ace Hannes Grobler - who continues to display fiendish racing pace in his 54th year – spearheads the local Navara racing team with former SA driver’s champion Duncan Vos. Since competing in the local off-road racing championship since 2001, Nissan has won 51 races from 64 starts – and yes, you’re right, that’s a lot.  

Building the best bakkies around

Under the astute management of former South African rally champion Glyn Hall, the Nissan off-road racing team now builds products to compete against the world’s best funded works teams.

Back in 2002 French Nissan dealer team, Dessoude, entered the Dakar with Belgium’s Gregoire de Mevius and French enduro legend Stephane Peterhansel piloting two locally built Hardbodies.

After five stage wins during the 2002 race, Nissan’s head office in Japan took notice of the Midrand prepared bakkies and commissioned an official works effort for the 2003 event.

The fearsome Hardbody Evo bakkies prepared by Glyn Hall's team as Nissan's works effort for the 2004 Dakar

The three works bakkies were driven by an all-star team of former Dakar winners, Kenjiro Shinozuka of Japan and Finland’s Ari Vatanen, with star-in-the-making Giniel de Villiers coming as a package deal with the locally sourced engineering content.

Vatanen, a former world rally champion, won four stages, Shinozuka one (before crashing dramatically out of the event) and De Villiers finished fifth, two places ahead of the Finn.

Works participation peaked in 2005, when De Villiers finished fourth. Privateers continued to race Midrand built bakkies in 2006 and 2007, with Hall, accompanied by some of his technicians, assisting De Mevius with the servicing of his team of South African Navaras.

Six Navaras were due to start the ill-fated 2008 event – which was controversially cancelled due to insurgency concerns.

Ready for the raid. A Navara racing bakkie, immaculately prepared in Nissan's Midrand workshop, awaits crating to South America for this year's Dakar.

Toughest Dakar yet

During this year’s Dakar the privately entered Navara bakkies of Ivar Tollefsen and Krzysztof Holowczyc finished fourth and fifth – a remarkable achievement.

Hall was present in Argentina and Chile to oversee operations, and though he conceded this year’s event was perhaps too tough, it qualified as an unmitigated success.

More than a million Argentines pitched up for the race start in Buenos Aires – which is more than an entire year’s worth of WRC spectating.

Hall said the hassle of competing in North Africa, where local amenities were perpetually lacking and corruption a constant undercurrent, was something none of the teams missed in rural South America.

Considering the success of the Navaras, Hall reiterated the local off-road championship’s racing terrain similarity to South America had much to do with their endurance. He likened many of the Argentine special stages with Karoo road conditions, and the dune challenges were similar in some respects to the Kalahari.

At the extreme altitudes (4 300m) encountered traversing the Andes mountains from Argentina to Chile power losses were up to 35%. The Navaras were fastest of all in these rarefied conditions, despite the VW Touaregs having the mitigating advantage of being turbocharged.

Hall and his team stayed behind after the Lichtenberg round of the local off-road championship last year to do some rudimentary altitude runs. Using this data as a reference point was all the planning necessary to ensure the Navaras ran faultlessly at altitude.

In fact, the Navaras ran faultlessly everywhere, with zero mechanical failure or serious repairs necessary. Hall and his service team’s most testing moment came when attempting to service the Navaras at altitude, and having three, of their four, packets of Lay's chips exploding…

Despite sand so fine it made Pixie dust look like pebbles, the Donaldson filter equipped Navaras did the entire 11 000km Dakar with a single filter change...Damn.

Overzealous filter servicing was ironically Hall’s biggest exposure to reliability problems. Locally, Donaldson filtration has been a Navara team product sponsor since 2002 – though Donaldson has upgraded its support to title sponsor status for this year.

Primarily a specialist in heavy duty industrial and aviation filtration systems, Hall believes, and on evidence quite rightly so, Donaldson’s automotive filters, especially the ones fitted to the Navara racing bakkies, are without peer for off-road racing.

Cognisant of their capabilities in local conditions, Hall paid no mind to the idea of running the entire 11 000km Dakar event without replacing filters.

Unsurprisingly the service crews were at their wits end, wanting to change filters each evening. Hall constantly reassured them a filter change was firstly unnecessary, and secondly, the only action which could actually imperil the engine breathing with particle pollutants.

Around the Dakar’s halfway stage, Hall relented and allowed a single filter change – something he still considers to have been unnecessary – despite the route having passed through dune fields which had last seen rain a century ago…

The toy

Technically the Midrand built Navara’s are SP1 class cars. Globally 21 locally constructed Navara’s are competing in race trim.

Retaining the attractive, oversized roadcar grille, the racing bakkies feature a more imposing stance (track is 430mm wider, wheelbase 250mm shorter) and have a spaceframe reinforced safety cell mounted atop the ladder frame chassis.

Suspension mimics the road going Navara in configuration – independent double wishbones front and a solid axle at the rear – with dual long travel dampers rebounding each wheel. German suspension specialist Eibach provides the springs, with the dampers being custom made by French partner Donerre.

Powering the Navara racing bakkies is Nissan's hooliganesque, oversquare, multivalve 4l V6 engine. In Dakar trim, with a 32mm air restrictor in place, the engine produces a touch over 200kW, which is very close to standard road going trim power.

Specced for local racing, the 4l V6 produces around 250kW. The engine runs a standard sub-assembly, driving special pistons which breathe through a gasflowed cylinder head fed by regulation valves controlled, in turn, by competition camshafts. Considering the Navara’s 1 825kg weight progress over broken terrain is rapid.

Despite the six-speed sequential SADEV gearbox, as much Nissan componentry as possible is employed to transfer the available power to terrain, with a Pectel SQ6 fly-by-wire throttle ensuring hair-trigger responsiveness. Three limited slip differentials scour for traction (they’re Patrol units) with the centre diff lockable in a 50/50 split for extraction purposes.

Considering the power to weight ratio and traction available, Hall says the need for a transfer case or lockers is superfluous. Most racing is at speeds way beyond low-range gearing, and those limited slip differentials provide an optimal blend between momentum and traction.

Hannes Grobler took me around for a couple of laps, and though we were running with the highly restrictive Dakar spec air intake regime, the competition exhaust system and 4l V6 Navara engine architecture tallies up to a glorious blend of acoustics.

An unexpected dynamic characteristic was the ride quality, which despite the nature of terrain, was not overly jarring at all, though in racing trim the Navara bakkies ride along with adjustible ground clearance anywhere from 300- to 360mm.

Although Hannes palms in dollops of opposite lock as a matter of course, the Navara is quite nimble. Those three LSDs constantly jockey for toque distribution duty and ensure a nearly perfect compromise between four-wheel drift flickability and dirt road biased traction.

Build quality is redoubtable throughout and you can see why European and Russian off-road racing campaigners commission cars from Nissan motorsport locally.

It might be available on order only, for the price of a nice Atlantic seaboard three-bedroom apartment, but it’s the baddest bakkie around. It carries the proudly South African product moniker with pride, but did you expect anything less?


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