Giniel de Villiers and Dirk von Zitzewitz have secured their place in the history books of the world’s longest and toughest motor race, the Dakar Rally. In the five South American editions of the iconic event – it was held in Africa up to 2007 and cancelled in 2008 because of political unrest and terrorist activity – the 2009 champions have achieved four top-three placings – an achievement unequalled in marathon rallying history.
Their latest achievement in finishing second in the 2013 edition in Santiago, Chile, on Saturday behind defending champions Stephane Peterhansel and Jean Paul Cottret of France came after an 8 500-kilometre haul through Peru, Argentina and Chile. It was a supreme demonstration of reliability for their South African-built and developed Imperial Toyota Hilux 4x4 and of the dedication and commitment of a wholly-South African team with South African sponsors.
De Villiers, 40, from Stellenbosch, and Von Zitzewitz, 44, from Karlshof in Germany (although regarded by the team as an honorary South African), have contested six Dakars together since 2007 and enjoy a finishing record unequalled by anyone: 11th in 2007, first in 2009, seventh in 2010, second in 2011, third in 2012 and second in 2013. They have always made it to the finish.
Peterhansel, who has now won 11 Dakars (six on a motorcycle and now five in a car), and Cottret started the 2013 edition as rank favourites. While they came up to expectations, De Villiers and Von Zitzewitz in Imperial Toyota #301 far exceeded expectations by beating several more favoured competitors. Like the legendary Peterhansel (who, before the start of this year’s Dakar in Lima, Peru, on January 5, rated De Villiers as the driver most likely to beat him) De Villiers‘ approach to the Dakar is one of calmness and calculated risk and his focussed and totally sympathetic style enables him to push his machinery to the limit, yet reach the finish. Von Zitzewitz’s navigation skills enable him to instinctively follow the correct route, a crucial factor in their success. To set themselves realistic targets are further character traits common to both, and, again, a vital contributor to their remarkable performance.
In 2009 Giniel de Villiers and Dirk von Zitzewitz rang in the enduring era of diesel domination on the Dakar. In 2012 and 2013 they proved the potential of production-based petrol engines. Last year the South African-German duo celebrated the first podium place for a non-diesel since 2009. This year they posted the best-ever result for a Dakar 4x4 vehicle powered by a petrol engine in the history of South American-based Dakar rallies.
Their Toyota Hilux, built and developed by Kyalami-based Hallspeed on behalf of Toyota South Africa, had undergone wide-ranging evolution since last year: A production-based 5-litre V8 engine replaced the 4,7-litre version previously fitted to this off-road pick-up, endowing it with increased toque and power and providing the perfect combination for the toughest test in world motorsport despite an increase in the vehicle’s weight.
Never before has a Dakar Rally been as demanding from the start; never before have the sporting and technical challenges been as high as in 2013. Yet, from the opening day Imperial Toyota Hilux #301 absorbed the varied and harsh terrain with ease. From start in Lima, Peru to finish in Santiago, Chile the route threw challenges such as low yet tricky dunes in southern Peru, towering examples made up of soft sand in Argentina, and Chile’s inhospitable Atacama Desert at the crews. Two Andes Mountains crossings took them close to the 5 000-metre altitude mark, while sweltering heat and torrential storms compounded the challenges of the 2013 Dakar Rally. It was a challenge met and mastered by De Villiers and Von Zitzewitz and the Toyota Imperial South Africa Team. In the process they scored a total of 11 of a possible 14 top-five special stage results.
Giniel de Villiers: “It was a difficult race, as usual. The Dakar is never easy. Second place – that counts as a victory for us. Last year we exceeded our expectations by far and this year, who would have believed we would better our third place then. We were a bit unlucky at times, which prevented us from finishing a bit closer to Stéphane. You need a bit of luck in the Dakar, you need the wind to blow in your favour. It wasn't always the case for us, but that's racing.
The competition this year was a lot stronger than in 2012. There were numerous candidates for victory; we were the underdogs. Our reliability enabled us to not only beat the Dakar, but also made the decisive difference. Toyota’s three-year programme got off to a first-class start. We can now move on and maybe do even better next year I’m looking forward to that.”
Dirk von Zitzewitz: “In a word, wow! We could not have wished for more from this Dakar Rally. Second place – I would never have bet on it. However, our performance was the result of superb reliability, a strong car that has been carefully developed, and a super team. The saying ‘To finish first, you first have to finish‘ was originally coined in Formula 1, but it applies even more to the Dakar’. I am incredibly proud of this result. Simply put, this Dakar was challenging, but we were up to it.”
Dakar Rally provisional overall classification:
1. Stéphane Peterhansel/Jean-Paul Cottret (RAF/FRA), Mini, 38:32.39
2. Giniel de Villiers/Dirk von Zitzewitz (ZAF/DEU), Toyota, 39:15.01
3 Leonid Novitzkiy/Konstantin Zhiltsov (RUS/RUS), Mini, 40:01.01
4 Nani Roma/Michel Périn (ESP/FRA), Mini, 40:09:22
5 Orlando Terranova/Paulo Fiuza (ARG/PRT), BMW, 40:21.49
6 Carlos Sousa/Miguel Ramalho (PRT/PRT), Great Wall Motors, 41:10.55
7 Ronan Chabot/Gilles Pilot (FRA/FRA), SMG Buggy, 41:50.44
8 Guerlain Chicherit/Jean-Pierre Garcin (FFA/FRA), SMG Buggy, 42:00.23.
9 Pascal Thomasse/Pascal Larroque (FRA/FRA), Buggy MD Rallye, 43:08.11.
10 Lucio Alvarez/ Rolando Graue (ARG/ARG), Toyota, 43:18.27
A safe fourth place on Tuesday’s difficult 353-kilometre special stage 10 between Cordoba and Rioja in Argentina saw the Toyota Imperial South Africa Team’s Giniel de Villiers and Dirk von Zitzewitz consolidate their second place in the general classification of the Dakar Rally.
While defending champions Stephane Peterhansel and Jean Paul Cottret of France in a Mini stretched their overall lead to 52 min 38 sec over the South African/German duo after finishing third on the special stage, the 2009 champions in their Imperial Toyota Hilux #301 extended their advantage over the Mini of third-placed Russians Leonid Novitskiy and Konstantin Zhiltsov to just over 16 minutes.
The South African-built Hilux didn’t miss a beat after starting fourth in the morning and although he got caught in the dust of the Hummer of Robbie Gordon and Kellon Walch, De Villiers was content to push just hard enough to defend his second position and not risk it all trying to pass the Americans. It was a very technical stage similar to those encountered in the World Rally Championship, with narrow roads that were hard and fast.
Wednesday’s special stage from La Rioja to Fiambala is a relatively short 217 kilometres sandwiched between a 256-kilometre opening liaison section and a 6-kilometre link to the overnight bivouac. It is without doubt the most feared stage on the Dakar and has been a significant day in each of the editions since the rally moved from Africa to South America in 2009. Forestry sections and some very fast stretches give way to the big white dunes of Fiambala and later a labyrinth of canyons and finally dry river beds on the final stretch to the end of the stage. Maximum concentration is required, by both driver and co-driver. Temperatures can rise to 40 degrees Centrigrade.