READY TO FLY: The Toyota SA team is ready to tackle the 2017 Dakar. Image: QuickPic
Cape Town - When Giniel de Villiers and Dirk von Zitzewitz don their fireproof Toyota Gazoo Racing SA suits for the start of the 32nd Dakar Rally in the Paraguayan capital of Asunción on January 2nd, 2017, they will celebrate a racing partnership stretching over a full decade.
The South African star and his German co-driver first teamed up ten years ago while racing for Volkswagen, and since then has become one of the most successful pairings in the Dakar – culminating in victory in the 2009 edition of the world-renowned event.
Besides this, Von Zitzewitz will celebrate his first participation in the Dakar 20 years ago, in 1997, when he finished fifth overall in the motorcycle category aboard a KTM.
He was classified seventh the following year and took stage victories in the 1999 event, although he failed to finish. The German then turned to navigation in the vehicle category, partnering American Mark Miller in 2002.
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In 2005, he joined the works Volkswagen team as co-driver to American Robby Gordon, finishing twelfth, before being reunited with Miller in 2006, finishing fifth in the overall classification.
After their victory two years later in the first event held in South America, “Ginny”, as Von Zitzewitz calls De Villiers, and “Schnitzel”, the South African’s nickname for his German co-driver, have been on the Dakar podium five more times.
A disastrous 2010 event saw them finish seventh, but they were runners-up in a works VW Touareg in 2011, third in 2012 in an Imperial Toyota Hilux, second overall in 2013, fourth in 2014, second in 2015 and third overall this year in the Toyota Gazoo Hilux.
Also, in nine races together (remember, there was no Dakar event in 2008) they have not retired once – earning De Villiers the title of “Mr Consistency” from the Dakar fraternity.
READ: De Villiers, Al Attiyah to lead Toyota SA's Dakar charge
Interestingly, De Villiers, in 13 appearances since 2003 has never retired from the event, while Von Zitzewitz, in 16 races (he missed out on two Dakars – in 2000 and 2001) only retired once, in 1999 when he was still competing in the bike category.
De Villiers said Von Zitzewitz’s role in the team is “vital”. “Dirk is my second pair of eyes on the event. This rally is all about teamwork: not just driver and co-driver, but the whole team. You can't achieve anything on your own out there.”
De Villiers admitted he was slightly disappointed with the performance of the Hilux in this year’s race as they were not able to compete with the Peugeots, particularly at higher altitudes.
This year was spent developing not only the 4x4 version, but also a two-wheel drive derivative of the reliable Hilux, and a rule change allowing petrol-driven 4x4 vehicles to now use a bigger 38 mm air restrictor (with diesel driven two-wheel drive vehicles restricted to the same diameter) should further level the playing field.
“The Dakar is the most important event of my season and I want to win it. We have been preparing for it for the full year. We have worked hard on the car during the year,” De Villiers said.
“The base is very good and we have made some enormous improvements. It is the fastest Hilux I have ever driven and it showed its true potential late in the year.
“Moreover, the arrival of Nasser Al-Attiyah at Toyota is a real asset for the team,” he said. “He is the fastest guy around and for me it is an extra challenge as it will force us to raise our game.
“If we don't win, we will have to look at taking a new direction,” he added, probably referring to the two-wheel drive version of the Hilux already in development.