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KINGS OF THE DESERT

Hilux Teams Dominate 2023 Dakar Rally |

If the Toyota Land Cruiser is billed as the King of Africa, then the Toyota Hilux must now be known as the King of the Desert, following the dominating performance of Toyota Gazoo Racing and Toyota Overdrive teams in the 2023 Dakar Rally in the dune fields of Saudi Arabia.

By all accounts, the 2023 edition of the Dakar Rally, the fourth to be held in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, was among the toughest and most gruelling rally-raids to date. This exemplifies the dominant performance of the Toyota Hilux teams in the race, against tough competition from illustrious brands with a rich and successful rally heritage.

It also bears testimony to the quality of local design, engineering, and workmanship in global off-road racing, as nearly 50% of the vehicles in the top car categories were proudly South African developed and built by three different outfits – Hallspeed (Toyota), Century Racing (Century) and Red-Lined Motorsport (Nissan-based VK54).

All but one finished the race. Further proof of the South African Dakar ascendency is borne out by the results, with locally built vehicles (all Toyota GR DKR Hiluxes) filling half of the positions in the top ten. And besides the performance of the car teams, South African competitors also excelled in the other Dakar categories.

World-class competition

Even so, after the prologue and the first stage, with a fast and demanding circular route of 368 km, defending champion Nasser Al-Attiyah would have shaken his head in disbelief if he had been told he would win the race by a country mile…as the new Audi RS Q e-tron hybrids and Prodrive Hunters proved extremely quick – a worrying factor for Toyota.

The highly experienced Spaniard Carlos Sainz won the first stage for Audi (his Swedish teammate Mattias Ekström won the prologue), followed by Frenchmen Sebastien Loeb (Prodrive) and Stéphane Peterhansel (Audi). Still, the difficult and long second stage of 413 km to Al-‘Ula proved crucial in the eventual outcome of the rally.

Loeb, Peterhansel and Ekström lost time due to mechanical maladies and flat tyres, while Al-Attyiah took the stage win. This allowed the Qatari to bounce back to second overall, only two minutes behind Sainz and his co-driver, compatriot Lucas Cruz, while Frenchman Mathieu Serradori, in a South African-built and run Century, moved up to third overall.

By now, it was clear that the Audi and Prodrive drivers were pushing the limits, with Sainz complaining bitterly about the power deficit of the e-trons. This led to an unprecedented step with the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), organisers of the Dakar, granting the Audis a five-kilowatt power gain mid-event.

This came to nought, as in the next stage, the longest and toughest of the rally that decimated the top order, Sainz was effectively out of the running after more mechanical drama, while Al-Attiyah and French co-driver Mathieu Baumel extended their lead. 

The Overdrive Toyota pairing of Saudi Yazeed Al-Rajhi and German Dirk von Zitzewitz was now second overall, closely followed by Peterhansel. South Africans Henk Lategan and Brett Cummings (Toyota Gazoo Racing Hilux) showed their potential by finishing second in the stage behind Frenchman Guerlain Chicherit (Prodrive Hunter). They also scored third place in Stage 6.

Driving brilliantly, Al-Attiyah consolidated his lead by winning the following two stages. Peterhansel, his closest rival, and Audi teammate Sainz crashed at the same spot 212 km into Stage 6. Sainz could continue, but Peterhansel’s co-driver Édouard Boulanger suffered a broken vertebra in the accident, forcing the withdrawal of Monsieur Dakar from the rally.

With Al-Rajhi also losing time in the stage due to suspension damage, Lategan moved up to second overall, followed by the young Brazilian rookie, Lucas Moraes, navigated by the experienced German Timo Gottschalk, now in third – making it a GR Hilux DKR 1-2-3 with eight stages to go.

MINDING THE GAP

Flooding after heavy rains in the desert caused havoc on the route. It prompted the organisers to reduce the distance of Stage 6 from Ha’il to Ad Dawadimi and swap the following two stages, with Stage 7 effectively becoming a “marathon” stage. This situation played into the hands of leader Al-Attiyah, as the Qatari now only needed to manage the time gap (of more than an hour) between him and the chasing pack.

After a well-deserved rest day in Riyadh, Stage 9 delivered more drama as Sainz crashed about six kilometres into the stage. Evacuated by helicopter due to back and neck pain, he requested the pilot mid-flight to return to the car so he could try and finish the rally. He managed to drive the Audi to the bivouac, but it was too badly damaged for him to continue.

Lategan, lying second overall, damaged the suspension of his Hilux in the stage but could continue after assistance from Al-Rajhi and Von Zitzewitz (they took a whole wheel assembly off their vehicle, stranding them for hours). However, he lost position to Moraes, and a charging Loeb.

With Al-Attiyah not pushing, Loeb and his new Belgian co-driver Fabian Lurquin won five stages in a row, passing Moraes as well, while Lategan had another roll in Stage 12, promoting his ever-consistent teammate Giniel de Villiers and co-driver Dennis Murphy to fourth position overall.

The penultimate stage proved tougher than expected, with a sea of dunes making the 154 km stage a testing one, but the GR DKR Hilux T1+ crews held station, with Al-Attiyah driving moderately to make sure he brought his Toyota home for the short final stage to the finish in the coastal city of Dammam.

This the Qatari did in style to successfully defended the Dakar title he and Baumel won last year. They brought their GR DKR Hilux T1+ over the finish line with a winning margin of 1hr 20min 49sec over Loeb. It was Nasser’s fifth Dakar victory, Baumel’s fourth, and the pair’s third for Toyota.

LAST WORD

Toyota Gazoo Racing Dakar team principal, Glyn Hall, was elated with the result, more so because it was quite unexpected. “Winning the Dakar is something memorable but winning the world’s toughest race twice in a row is simply extraordinary,” he said. 

He was justifiably proud of the GR DKR Hilux T1+, having proven again that it is reliable and durable enough “to not only complete the world’s roughest automotive race, but to do so two years in a row.” Al-Attiyah echoed his words, adding it was a tough two weeks, “but to win the race three times with Toyota is truly something special”.

Report by FERDI DE VOS | Images © TOYOTA SOUTH AFRICA/AUDI SPORT/PRODRIVE/RED BULL

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