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RISE OF THE ROOKIES

TOYOTA DOMINATES AT THE 2024 DAKAR RALLY

With a clear mandate to dominate the field at the 2024 Dakar Rally, held in Saudi Arabia since 2020, the Toyota Gazoo Racing team rose to the challenge with Dakar-stalwart Giniel de Villiers and a duo of rookie drivers setting the scene. 

“A challenge for those who go. A dream for those who stay behind” – the inspirational motto coined by Thierry Sabine, founder of the original Paris-Dakar Rally, who happened on the idea of the world’s toughest rally when, back in 1977, he got lost on his motorbike in the Libyan desert during the Abidjan-Nice Rally. 

Saved from the sands in extremis, he returned to France, still enthralled by the landscape and promising to share his fascination with as many people as possible. Convinced that his idea would spark an epic race pitting man and machine against the harshest elements, and carry a message of friendship between all men, the Dakar Rally has generated innumerable sporting and human stories over the course of almost fifty years.

BUILDING A LEGACY

One such story is of Giniel de Villiers, Dakar winner and celebrated veteran who, as of this year, holds the record for the most finishes in Dakar history: 21. In an even more remarkable feat, all but one of these races, he finished in the top 10.

Another great story is that of Toyota Gazoo Racing South Africa, which has entered Dakar for 12 years, winning three races in 2019, 2022, and 2023 at the hand of the second-most successful driver in the car category, Nasser Al-Attiyah.

Although the 2024 edition of the Dakar Rally brought mixed results for Toyota Gazoo Racing, Toyota Gazoo Racing South Africa’s (TGRSA) legacy continues to mature, exceeding the team’s expectations with two finishes in the top 10 (Guy Botteril in 6th place, and Giniel de Villiers in 7th ), with newcomer Saood Variawa taking the number 17 spot.

While the teams’ big names found the going particularly tough, rookies Botteril and Variawa (and their navigators Brett Cummings and Francois Cazalet, respectively) made their presence count, underscoring TGRSA’s commitment to the development of motorsport in South Africa and proving that emerging talents have a clear path from the Junior Academy, through to SupaCup and GTC, and on to rally-raid racing, with the Dakar Rally as the ultimate goal.

THE DAKAR EXPERIENCE

Driven joined TGRSA in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the final three stages of the legendary rally. Departing from Lanseria for Al Ula, our contingent of six headed to the fifth-largest country in the Middle East for what was to be the adventure of a lifetime. 

The 46th running of the event under the auspices of the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) – the fourth time the event has taken place in the Saudi Kingdom – was described by contenders and spectators alike as one of the toughest.

TGRSA fielded five cars this year, three of which were crewed by South African drivers, with Toyota Gazoo Racing (TGR) also including two international crews for Dakar 2024. While youngster Seth Quintero, from the USA, has a fair amount of Dakar experience, the other new signing, Lucas Moraes, was himself a rookie at Dakar one year ago. His performance in 2023 identified him as an emerging talent in rally-raid racing, and he was an ideal addition to the works team for 2024.

Moraes, from Brazil, was partnered with Spanish co-driver Armand Monleon for Dakar 2024. The pair showed exceptional pace and maturity throughout the event, winning Stage 3 and moving into second place on the penultimate stage before disaster struck. A series of setbacks cost them significant time, dropping them down to 9th place overall.

Seth Quintero and co-driver Dennis Zenz (Germany) started Dakar 2024 in fine form, showing that the reputation they earned in the T3 category was not in error. But then, they had a hard impact with a rock that damaged the twin-turbo V6 engine in their Hilux. Forced to fit a new engine, which incurred a massive penalty, the pair dropped out of contention, although they continued to compete for good stage results, supporting their teammates with spare parts where needed, achieving a disappointing 101st place overall.

THE FUTURE OF TGRSA RALLY-RAID

TGRSA’s fleet of all-new Toyota GR IMT Hilux EVO T1Us deserves a special mention for their performance, reliability, and sheer grit.

Prepared by Toyota Gazoo Racing South Africa under the guiding hand of SVR Team Principal Shameer Variawa, and TGRSA consultant Glynn Hall, the famed Hilux rally-raid vehicle tradition lives on in the new car. 

One hundred millimetres wider than before with improved cooling and a revised suspension, the EVO T1Us remain powered by the 3.5-litre twin turbo V6 engine lifted from the Land Cruiser 300, which produces a limited 264 kW and 620 Nm. The Hilux’s new composite body rests on a tubular space frame and, while not a production vehicle, shares some cosmetic parts from the production Hilux. Interestingly, the Rally-Raid cars share numerous mechanical components with the production Hilux, which undoubtedly contributes to the car’s legendary toughness. 

All Toyota GR IMT Hilux EVO T1Us comply with the FIA’s minimum weight requirement of 2,010 kg and have their power sent to all four wheels through a specially developed six-speed sequential gearbox and no fewer than three limited-slip differentials. 

THINGS DON’T ALWAYS WORK OUT

Early in the race, Quintero impressively secured second place, while Moraes/Monleon ranked 16th, the second-highest among the five TGR entries. Stage one showcased De Villiers and Murphy as TGRSA’s top performers, securing the third-fastest time, followed by Moraes/Monleon in sixth and Botterill/Cummings in seventh. Saood Variawa rounded off the Toyota squad in 11th place. Although slightly behind, Quintero’s placement still saw all five vehicles finish in the top 20.

Stage 2 saw continued success, with Quintero/Zenz claiming third place and Moraes/Monleon finishing ninth. The South African team remained competitive, but Variawa/Cazalet faced challenges, securing 36th place due to severe dust. Moraes dominated stage 3, winning by a mere nine seconds. However, De Villiers and Quintero grappled with punctures, slipping down the order.

Quintero faced setbacks in stage 4 with an oil feed issue, forfeiting an overall win but remaining a contender for stage victories. Botterill made a second-half surge, overcoming initial challenges and finishing fifth in stage 9. De Villiers maintained consistency, while Variawa exhibited improvement. Quintero/Zenz achieved multiple top 10 stage finishes but suffered damage in stage 10, hampering their progress.

Moraes sustained top form until stage 11 when a broken damper and fractured wishbone thwarted their podium aspirations. Despite assistance from Botterill and De Villiers, the damage proved insurmountable, relegating Moraes to 100th place in the stage, ending any hope of a podium finish.

…BUT THEY DO GO TO PLAN

It may have been the Audi RS Q e-tron of Carlos Sainz that took the number one spot in the Dakar Rally this year, but the “Rise of the Rookies” has to be the true success story for team Toyota Gazoo Racing South Africa. 

Botteril, a veteran of the local Rally-Raid scene, became the highest-ranked rookie for the 2024 race with his sixth spot, while Variawa’s 17th in his maiden rally showed the strength of Toyota’s young driver development programme. Although he was out of Dakar this time around due to a shoulder injury, Henk Lategan is another skilled youngster to watch.

Under the guidance of Mr Dakar himself, Giniel de Villiers (whose spectacular Dakar career will end in 2025), these promising youngsters each have a shot at the title in the coming years.

Naturally, their success depends on the continued dominance of the locally-built Toyota Hiluxes that, this year, featured in no fewer than six of the top 10 spots, and the continued support of Toyota Gazoo Racing South Africa, the toughest outfit out there.

Report by BERNIE HELLBERG JR | Images © TOYOTA SOUTH AFRICA

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