Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - GOODMOTORING - HENRI DU PLESSIS

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.

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