Dakar Rally 2012: SA's heroes

2012-01-18 09:47

LIMA, Peru – There are memories that stay with you for ever – such as the 2009 Dakar Rally won by Giniel de Villiers and Dirk von Zitzewitz, which heralded a new era in the world’s toughest rally.

That was the rally’s first outing in South America, the first time an African triumphed in this legendary cross-country motorsport event, and the first win for a diesel car.

Highly-developed diesel cars have continued to dominate the event ever since, but in the 2012 Dakar Rally, the duo and their new Toyota team began to chip away at the supremacy of the prototypes with typical racing engines. This could indicate the shape of things to come in the world of cross-country rallying as the team surprisingly clinched third place in an “inferior V8 Hilux” (by Toyota SA’s admission) fitted with a production-based engine developed for future Dakar rallies.

This result is, perhaps, as notable as their 2009 victory and deserves to figure prominently when they look back on their careers.


DESERT SURFING: Giniel De Villers steers his Hilux during Stage 5 of the 2012 Dakar between Chilecito and Fiambala, Argentina.

The 2009 Dakar victory forged a strong bond between de Villiers and von Zitzewitz, who in the 2012 episode repeatedly undermined the images of off-road Goliaths such as the X-Raid Minis and Hummers with their daily achievements.

These performances lifted the entire team as the seasoned Dakar campaigners, when not behind the wheel, were more than happy to give advice to the Dakar rookies. Within the team, it is said, “GdV” is approachable and laidback yet authoritative, while “DvZ” is all about sincere understatement. But in the cockpit, one of them is the boss, while the other gives the orders.

It’s an arrangement that simply would not work without a great deal of mutual respect. Around five thousand sentences are exchanged in the cockpit during the Dakar Rally – and the delivery is invariably in the form of an order. There’s no room for kid gloves here.

Says von Zitzewitz: “As a co-pilot, you really need to have faith in your driver, so that you can focus entirely on navigating without permanently having to survey the terrain and that’s precisely what makes Giniel and me work so well as a pair: there is mutual appreciation of what each other has to do.”

De Villiers adds: “We have the same goals that we will doggedly fight to achieve but when we get out of the car we are both able not to take ourselves too seriously. And that’s what I really like about our partnership.”


Both are Red Bull athletes who prepared themselves physically and mentally for the 2012 Dakar Rally in South Africa. They have very close ties away from the Dakar too, spending up to 150 days a year together on test drives and in rallies. De Villiers insisted that his co-pilot in the 2012 Dakar Rally be von Zitzewitz, making the German navigator the only non-South African on the Imperial Toyota team.

And de Villiers had good reason to continue working with his long-term partner even after parting ways with Volkswagen – the South African and the German have worked together since early 2006 and have so far made it onto the winners’ rostrum together ten times.

STANDING ROOM ONLY: De Villiers and von Zitzewitz on Stage 9 of the 2012 Dakar Rally between Antofagasta and Iquique in Chile.

But things looked rather different in 2012. “GdV” and “DvZ” only had 700 kilometres of test driving under their belts ahead of the Dakar – not nearly enough to push their vehicle to the limit on the especially rough rally stages. So, this congenial couple opted for a conservative driving style and, once again in 2012, this “less is more” approach meant that de Villiers and von Zitzewitz were in the right place at the right time.

“Dirk is able to rein me in at just the right time,” said de Villiers, “but he also knows when to get me to adopt a more aggressive driving style if necessary. I trust him implicitly and we understand each other without having to say a great deal.”


In the early days of their partnership, it was precisely this implicit trust that von Zitzewitz found slightly baffling. About their first test drive together, he recalls: “I knew we’d work well together as soon as we got going, but it did take me a while to get used to the fact that Giniel would immediately make a right turn as soon as I instructed him to go right.

“Every other driver I ever navigated for would take note of my instructions and then examine the situation to work out what I meant – but not Giniel. But after a few kilometres, we had got our timing down to a fine art and we just clicked as a team.”

This is certainly borne out by the pair’s first cross-country rally successes: second in the 2006 Rally of Tunisia, first in the Transibérico Rally, and first in the Rally of Morocco. And in their first Dakar Rally in 2007, the pair enjoyed a comfortable lead until engine trouble caused them to drop back.

De Villiers and von Zitzewitz had set their sights on repeating their Dakar Rally victory of 2009 in 2012, so when their long-standing employer Volkswagen pulled out of the event, they decided to go with Imperial Toyota. The Hallspeed team in charge of the Toyota effort has accompanied de Villiers since his first forays into off-road sport after having won the South African Touring Car Championship no less than five times. Team owner, Glyn Hall, a legend in the local motorsport scene, has been involved with Toyota Motorsport since 2012.


Despite finishing the 2012 event in third place overall, De Villiers remains confident that they can achieve their dream with Hallspeed. The team’s potential became apparent after just a few kilometres in the 2012 Dakar – even though the cooperation was actually designed as a long-term project and the Hilux prototype was developed on the basis of new regulations.

HEROES' WELCOME: Giniel de Villiers and Dirk Von Zitzewitz arrive in Lima, Peru at the end of the 2012 Dakar Rally on January 15, 2012.

“Not only our opponents, but also the event organisers, the fans and the media representatives were rather surprised by how well we were doing after the first few legs of the rally. We ourselves didn’t expect to be giving the firm favourites a run for their money right from the start of the event,” admitted de Villiers.

“But when we did, they treated us with respect and were also honestly delighted to see a new manufacturer hotting things up in the Dakar Rally.”

The potential offered by the combination of the Imperial Toyota Hilux, Giniel de Villiers and Dirk von Zitzewitz has whet the appetite for more, the partners say. Maybe the 2013 Dakar Rally will prove to be one such memorable moment.

Provisional overall classification (cars) of the 2012 Dakar Rally
1 Stéphane Peterhansel/Jean-Paul Cottret (F/F), Mini, 38h 54m 50s
2 Joan “Nani” Roma/Michel Périn (E/F), Mini, 39h 36m 46s
3 Giniel de Villiers/Dirk von Zitzewitz (ZA/D), Imperial Toyota, 40h 08m 15s
4 Leonid Novitzkiy/Andreas Schulz (RUS/D), Mini, 41h 06m 40s
5 Robby Gordon/Johnny Campbell (USA/USA), Hummer, 41h 11m 39s *
6 Lucio Alvarez/Bernardo Graue (RA/RA), Toyota Overdrive, 43h 00m 38s
7 Carlos Sousa/Jean-Pierre Garcin (P/F), Great Wall, 43h 25m 10s
8 Ricardo Leal dos Santos/Paulo Fiuza (P/P) Mini, 43h 58m 04s
9 Bernhard Ten Brinke/Matthieu Baumel (NL/F), Mitsubishi, 44h 06m 04s
10 Krzysztof Holowczyz/Jean-Marc Fortin (PL/B), Mini, 45h 54m 24s
11 Duncan Vos/Rob Howie (ZA/ZA), Imperial Toyota, 46h 03m 17s

* Disqualified following peculiarity at a technical inspection; have appealed.
De Villiers/von Zitzewitz podium finishes
2nd place, Rally of Tunisia (Volkswagen)
1st place, Transibérico Rally (Volkswagen)
1st place, Rally of Morocco (Volkswagen)

1st place, Rally of Morocco (Volkswagen)
3rd place, UAE Desert Challenge with (Volkswagen)

1st place, Rally dos Sertões (Volkswagen)

1st place, Dakar Rally (Volkswagen)
3rd place, Silk Way Rally (Volkswagen)

2nd place, Dakar Rally (Volkswagen)

3rd place, Dakar Rally (Toyota)