IQUIQUE – A fantastic drive on the second day of the so-called marathon stage (stages without service assistance) saw Giniel de Villiers and German navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz post the 4th-fastest time, 2:49 off the winner, and 13 seconds behind overall rally leader Nasser Al-Attiyah (MINI). This places them solidly in 2nd position overall after eight stages of the 2015 Dakar Rally, just 8:27 behind Al-Attiyah.
“Today’s stage was quite a test,” said De Villiers after descending the monster dune behind the bivouac at Iquique. “We started at altitudes over 4,500 m on the Salar de Uyuni, and had a 130 km-long section where we drove absolutely flat out. But the Toyota Imperial Hilux showed its mettle against the MINIs today, and we are very happy with our overall stage time.”
The pair led for most of the 510 km-long stage, but an incident with one of the official TV helicopters saw them collide with a rock in the choking fesh-fesh dust kicked up by the helicopter. The resulting puncture cost them three minutes, as well as the stage win and valuable gains made over Al-Attiyah before the incident.
“We lodged a protest with the stewards immediately after the stage,” explained Team Principal Glyn Hall from the bivouac. “They deliberated for hours, but in the end they decided to reject our appeal to have the time lost due to their chopper returned to us. It is very disappointing to lose time in a situation that was clearly not of our doing – but that’s the way it is and at least we are still in the fight for the win.”
While De Villiers/Von Zitzewitz (#303) certainly has reason to be disappointed, Saudi driver Yazeed Alrahji and German navigator Timo Gottschalk, taking part in their first ever Dakar Rally, drove exceptionally well to record a maiden stage victory for the new generation Toyota Hilux, built at the Toyota Motorsport South Africa workshop near the famous Kyalami circuit.
The pair has shown remarkable pace throughout the event, but today’s victory confirms that they have the ability to mix it up with the biggest names of the Dakar. They are now in third place overall, just under ten minutes behind De Villiers/Von Zitzewitz.
“We have every reason to be proud of what we’ve achieved so far,” said Hall. “We have Giniel and Dirk fighting for the lead of the Dakar, and Yazeed and Timo having achieved the first win in the new generation Toyota Hilux. And don’t forget that Leeroy and Rob are still going strong, despite losing a lot of time on Stage 6.”
For the crew of the second Toyota Imperial Hilux (#327), Leeroy Poulter and Rob Howie, it has been a race of emotional highs and lows. The pair has been extremely fast at times, but time lost on Stage 6 after they missed a waypoint effectively dropped them down and out of the running for overall victory. They are currently in 17th place overall.
“We will keep pushing hard. If there’s one thing we’ve learnt from our first Dakar last year, it is that you have to be patient on this event,” said Poulter after completing Stage 8. “All we can do now is to keep going as hard as we can, without damaging the car. And if we continue doing that until the end, I’m sure we’ll end up in a good position.”
Next up is the rest day, during which the drivers and navigators get to take a short break from the event, while the service crews strip down the race vehicles in preparation for the final push to the end of Dakar 2015, at Buenos Aires on 17 January.
“For us the rest day is everything but a day of rest,” explained Hall. “We need to make absolutely certain that every critical component on each race vehicle is in pristine condition. As such we take the cars apart completely, and reassemble them after thorough checks. There is always a risk involved in fixing something that isn’t broken, but it would be remiss of us not to do the checks at this point.”
The rest day is followed by a final stage in Chile, from Iquique to Calama, before the Dakar crosses the Andes back into Argentina for the final four stages. These stages are run at lower altitudes, where the naturally aspirated V8 engine of the Toyota Imperial Hilux is more at home. “That could be a key aspect of the race in the final stages,” said Hall, “but we have to take it one day at a time. The Dakar still isn’t an easy race to win, but this is the best position we’ve been in at this point, and if ever we’ve been in with a shot, this is it.”