Chasing dust and dreams became the theme for the last June weekend when Africa hosted two major rally events. We joined the Toyota Gazoo Racing South Africa team at the TGRSA 1000 Kalahari Desert Race held again for the first time since 2018 in Jwaneng, Botswana.
The soft sand, jagged rocks, and unyielding brush in and around Jwaneng in Botswana make for an inhospitable environment at the best of times. And when you add multi-million Dollar racing machines, hundreds of crew members, and thousands of spectators to the mix, this remote wilderness transforms into a menacing terrain that pits man and machine against one another, chasing dust and dreams in a race for glory.
Although the 2023 TGRSA 1000 Kalahari Desert Race provided an exciting weekend of racing for all teams, the sponsoring Toyota Gazoo Racing SA team (and our hosts for the weekend) came unstuck in the sand, and despite fierce competition, conceded first and second place overall to Ford, who clinched their first win of the season, and the only endurance race on the calendar.
Despite being on pace during qualifying, proving the Hiluxes more than on par with their Blue Oval rivals, The TGRSA crew of Guy Botterill and Simon Vacy-Lyle could not maintain their opening lead on day two – suffering punctures and a broken driveshaft – and finished third overall in their GR DKR Hilux T1+ with a time just over eight minutes behind the winners.
Giniel de Villiers and Dennis Murphy followed closely behind, securing the fourth position, a mere 17 minutes behind their teammates.
The Desert Race proved, again, to be the most popular racing event in Botswana by far, as thousands of spectators descended on the mining town for a weekend-long celebration of speed and skill. While the GR DKR Hilux T1+ cars may not have been victorious during the race, the Toyota name is a universal symbol of strength and resilience here, and TGRSA-branded caps, masks, and flags – handed to throngs of eager spectators – are worth their weight in gold in Jwaneng.
Despite the dusty conditions, it was clear at every spectator point we visited how well-loved Toyota is in Botswana, and at the Desert Race, with the crowds eager to catch a glimpse of TGRSA’s newest driver sensation, Saood Variawa.
Participating in his first round of the South African Rally-Raid Series (SARRC). At 17 years old, Variawa, partnered with experienced co-driver Danie Stassen, displayed impressive speed and composure. Variawa, who also leads the Global Touring Cars (GTC) championship for TGRSA, posted the second-fastest time in the Qualifying Race, trailing the pole position by only two seconds.
The SARRC championship leaders, Henk Lategan and Brett Cummings, qualified third-fastest, falling 12 seconds behind Variawa/Stassen. Botterill/Vacy-Lyle secured the fourth-fastest time, while De Villiers/Murphy clocked the sixth-fastest time. With these promising positions, TGRSA was well-positioned for a strong performance. However, the starting positions for the race were determined by a draw, resulting in De Villiers/Murphy opening the route on Day 2.
De Villiers and Murphy faced a challenging task but encountered intermittent alternator problems throughout the loop, finishing the day in fifth position. Lategan/Cummings initially made progress, leading the field with a nearly four-minute advantage after 300 km of racing, when a failed boot protecting a drive shaft forced them to stop, costing significant time. They finished the day in third, closely behind the top leading cars.
Botterill/Vacy-Lyle faced a similar setback but recovered to secure the fourth position by the end of Day 2. Variawa/Stassen started strong with competitive split times, initially holding the third position overall after the first loop of 200 km. However, they suffered three punctures during the second loop, requiring assistance from a fellow competitor for a spare tyre. This setback pushed them down to eighth place in the overall standings at the end of the day.
On the race’s final day, enthusiastic spectators again lined the route as Lategan and Cummings aimed for victory. Unfortunately, their pursuit was halted by a wheel bearing problem just 70 km into the first loop. This allowed Botterill/Vacy-Lyle to finish as the top TGRSA crew, with De Villiers/Murphy securing the fourth position overall.
Variawa and Stassen showed tremendous heart throughout the second day, but in an incident involving an unyielding slower competitor during the final race loop, the promising young Variawa made contact with the car ahead while attempting to avoid it. Regrettably, despite the tough Hilux’s strong performance, Variawa/Stassen were excluded from the results due to the incident.
The next SARRC event is the Parys 400, serving as rounds four and five of the championship. Scheduled for 18 and 19 August, the race will take place in the Free State town of Parys. The Desert Race significantly affected the championship standings, and TGRSA will need to focus on securing maximum points in the Freestate.
Report by BERNIE HELLBERG JR | Images © TOYOTA SOUTH AFRICA