Have you got the sand for the Dakar?
It’s one of the most iconic sporting events in the world. It’s so locked into the public’s psyche that it doesn’t seem to matter that what was the Paris-Dakar is now the Dakar Rally – and it’s not even in Africa. Dakar may be in Senegal, but the rally is now in South America. But the event has kept its spirit and its reputation as one of the most brutal events on the planet.
This year’s event covered over 5600 miles, with one competitive stage at 310 miles. Over the whole race, from 6 to 20 January, the competitors had one day of rest. The risk of terrorism drove the event to a course that took in Peru, Bolivia and Argentina.
Although the event may have left the Sahara behind, there are plenty of desert miles in South America, and one of the most eye-popping images from this year’s race was that of a Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Hilux exploding out of the dunes. The driver was Giniel de Villiers, who won the event back in 2009, and his co-driver Dirk von Zitzewitz and here in de Villiers’ words is what it actually felt like.
What is it like in the cockpit?
“I once drove a 420-mile stage on the Dakar. That one took 11 hours to finish. Temperatures in the cockpit were 60deg C, the air-con couldn’t cope.
“Then, even in that heat, if you drink a lot you won’t just sweat it out. We can’t stop for a toilet break, and you don’t want a full bladder, so we wear a nappy. The mechanics wouldn’t thank us for just going in the seat…
“When you’re moving so fast, for so long, crashing through dunes and the like, the heat just builds up. You just psyche yourself up and keep moving. If you’re moving, you’re getting closer to the finish.”
What is visibility like?
“There’s a big difference between being in a dust cloud and not being able to see. In the car all your senses are heightened. It’s intense. You listen to the engine, your navigator and so on. If you’ve driven on the road with your wife telling you to slow down, you’ll relate!
“A dust cloud is a brief moment, but if you are following another car, for instance, you just can’t see. You stop or take another route. The risks are too big to drive blind. There are big holes, big rocks, cliffs. If you can’t see, you can’t go.
“Having said that, we just accept the danger. There’s a lot of risk. You do drive blind sometimes, you do take chances and push limits. I’ve never talked to Dirk about it. Life is full of risks, and danger is just a part of it.”
Do you remember when the main picture was taken?
“We drive through the dunes all the time. We call it surfing, because the key is to stay on top of them, not sink in. All dunes are different sizes, different shapes, some have holes in, some don’t. In this particular shot we went through a hole and then up the other side again. The Hilux caught some sand on its nose and shot it forwards, creating the cloud that the photo caught us in. In the car, in truth we hardly noticed – this sort of thing happens all the time.”