WHEN I say that Toyota is as South African as koeksisters, biltong and bobotie, I am not trying to promote the brand, I am just stating a fact of life from which we cannot escape.
Even though, of course, Toyota is really a Japanese brand. Of course.
But if ever there is a Boere Japanese, it is Toyota.
Right down to the boerboel, the veldskoene and the two-tone farmers’ shirts.
That is probably why a South African team of Toyotas are in the race for the top spot in the famous, no, notorious, Dakar Rally. In Argentina, Latin America. No longer in Senegal, North Africa. Because of threats to the safety of the participants. Because Africa is so good at cutting off its own nose to spoil its own face. Such a shame.
After having achieved a third and a second place in this rigorous, challenging off-road race, Toyota South Africa Motors is truly pulling at the leash to capture the elusive top of the podium. Number 1.
They are at this very moment putting the finishing touches to a set of monster V8 four-wheel drive Toyota Hilux race bakkies to yet again take on the world in the remote Atacama Desert of Chile and Argentina.
It will be quite a victory if they pull it off. Traditionally staged just after the new year, it is the 35th running of the Dakar Rally in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. From the humble beginnings of a race from Paris to Dakar, Senegal, by a small group of somewhat eccentrically crazy car and bike fanatics, it has developed into a magnificent media and commercial success story that would possibly even have surprised its founder, the late French rally driver Thierry Sabine.
Leading the South African attack will be local hero Giniel de Villiers and navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz, backed by teammates Leeroy Poulter and navigator Rob Howie, who navigated Duncan Vos to 10th place last year.
Poulter may be a Dakar rookie but he’s not a rookie in much else when it comes to racing, so one should not expect him to accept team orders.
“The Dakar is a huge challenge and we must be realistic about our chances of winning,” said team principal Glyn Hall. “Just to complete the 8 500km route through two countries over 14 days, with its 13 timed special stages, is an achievement. We are very proud of our podium finishes in the last two events and we will be aiming to finish on the podium again. We’ve all worked very hard so far to achieve this objective and we have a new Hilux to help us do it. A win would be a great reward for the whole team and for its sponsors.”
Hall pointed out that the team was not going for the first time.
“We know what to expect. We’re not looking to make major changes, we don’t need to. We have a very successful package which we’ve developed over the past three years and the results we’ve achieved have shown this,” he said.
“But we do have to improve our overall performance, just as our rivals will be doing, if we want to remain competitive. It’s really a case of fine-tuning – it’s in the detail that we have been able to make meaningful improvements.
“Everything we’ve learnt in the past two Dakars and in every test we’ve completed – like our week in the Namib Desert – we’ve built into our new car. We tested a lot of new things in Namibia, things that were quite different to what we did preparing for this year’s Dakar.”
De Villiers, 41, and his German navigator Von Zitzewitz, 45, have both done the rally 11 times. De Villiers did it at the wheel of a car each time, but Von Zitzewitz had done it on a motorcycle once in 1997, when he was elected rookie of the year.
Poulter, 33, is more used to being at the front of proceedings of the national rally championship in a light, nimble Toyota Yaris rally car.
Next year’s Dakar will Howie’s third year of reading Dakar route instructions.
As far as motorsport experience is concerned, Poulter is as versatile as De Villiers had been throughout his career. Poulter has won national championships in motocross, karting and circuit production car racing as well as boasting a national rally class championship and world karting championships.
● The 2014 Dakar Rally starts in Rosario, Argentina, on January 5 and ends in Valparaiso, Chile, on January 18. There will be seven special stages in Argentina as well as a rest day in Salta on January 11. Chile will host six special stages. The motorcycle competitors will also have a marathon stage and an overnight stop in Bolivia.