I am standing on a hill top in a rural part of the Córdoba region, Argentina. The sun is searing the verdant landscape and the locals are beating the heat with chilled wine they carry in plastic jugs. Nobody is unsettled by the veil of dust that hangs in the air, soiling the clothes and creeping into the crevices between one’s teeth, because we are witnessing the pinnacle of off-road motorsport — the Dakar Rally.
As a representative of IgnitionLive, I dutifully attended the 37th edition of the event as a guest of the Toyota Gazoo Racing SA team, which comprised of Giniel de Villiers, Dirk von Zitzewitz, Leeroy Poulter, Rob Howie, Yazeed al-Rajhi and Timo Gottschalk. The fact that the race was moved from its eponymous location some time ago does not make the challenge any less gruelling. Over a fortnight, its brave — or clinically insane — participants tackle about 9 597km of the harshest conditions offered by Argentina and Bolivia. While there are thrills aplenty, spills are inevitable and often tragic. This is something we learned rather quickly when Guo Meiling, driver of the XRaid Mini Countryman, crashed into a crowd during the prologue segment, injuring 12 people. And this was certainly not the only drama on the 14-stage competition — the weather also played a role.
Although the vehicles are engineered to withstand pretty much any degree of unwelcoming environments, even they battled to cope with some of the stuff the elements threw at them. Stages one, two and three were affected by torrential rain, and searing heat ensured that stages nine and 11 were shortened. Indeed, Dakar is not for sissies. Remarkably, there are some contenders — especially in the motorcycle and quad categories — who brave the race mostly without support. But as we heard from Glynn Hall, team principal of Toyota Gazoo Racing SA, a talented and motivated crew is crucial if you want to launch a serious challenge in a race like the Dakar.
Of course, the machinery is equally important. Dakar 2016 marked the debut of the new Hilux race vehicle, which was propelled by a mighty V8 from the Lexus RC-F, and churned out around 285kW and more than 600Nm of torque. It makes a monstrous noise as it hustles through the dirt at full tilt. The sights and sounds of Dakar are not to be forgotten. Even the various rally iterations of the Mini Countryman — a car we sneeze at in its regular guise — are truly fearsome. Now I know that we are bound by patriotism, so I might be lynched for saying this, but I found myself smitten by the Peugeot. The 2008 DKR is a menacing sight. With scissor doors and a gaping mouth, it looks like an angry metal manta ray. The trucks, too, are a sight to behold, with their massive tyres, lengthy snorkels and surprising briskness. But, of course, we were there to support our local heroes. We caught up with Poulter and De Villiers at the Dakar bivouac in the early stages of the race. As cool and nonchalant as always, our boys spoke of their optimism for the days ahead.
And while top honours went to Stéphane Peterhansel in the Peugeot, the chaps at Toyota made an admirable effort. In the car category, De Villiers and navigator Von Zitzewitz placed third, while Poulter and Howie came fifth. Saudi racing star al-Rajhi and navigator Gottschalk were less lucky. They lost a wheel on stage 10, eventually coming in at 11th. Nonetheless, there were cheers all round. Said Hall: “To me, the fact that all three of our factory Toyota Hilux race vehicles completed the race, is fantastic. “To have two of them in the top 10 and Yazeed in 11th, is a great achievement. We have every reason to be proud of our car and the lads that drove them to such stunning finishing positions.” Of course, the glory of the podium is arguably the foremost motivator when it comes to motorsport. Winning is winning, after all. But in my humble opinion, it’s no cliché to say that everyone who takes part in this hostile contest is a winner. The general sentiment these days is that motorsport has become a little sanitised. But Dakar continues to affirm the (perhaps outmoded) maxim that the craft of racing is the only sport that requires two balls.