The story behind Giniel’s Dakar heroics

21 January, 2013 | by Lance Branquinho

Not a good weekend for South African sport.

Bafana were utterly rubbish against the Cape Verde Islands (we didn’t even know they were a country either) and how did we manage to lose the cricket to New Zealand?

If you are a motorsport type (and as a Top Gear reader you most certainly qualify), it was a stupendous weekend for South African petrolheads. Our boy, Giniel (pronounced with a ‘j’) de Villiers managed to finish second in the world’s most gruelling race: Dakar South America.

After 15 days and 8 574km of sheer off-road racing torture in the world’s most unforgiving terrain (the Atacama Desert) Giniel parked his proudly South African built Hilux V8 racing bakkie on the podium in Santiago in second place. It could very well have been a victory…

He lost 22 minutes on day three of the race due to a navigational error by his co-driver. Towards the end of the race, as he was closing in on leader Stephane Peterhansel, a torrent of overflowing rivers in Argentina forced Dakar organisers to run some of the special stage short, just as Giniel was gaining (rapidly) on the Frenchman.

Be that as it may, second place is still a properly stellar performance. Consider that even Toyota, rather coyly, admitted the budget for Hilux team South Africa was about the price of a Sandton house, whilst the winning French Mini team had resources nearly tenfold that – and in a race over 15-days, in an inhospitable part of the world, money makes things go much, much easier. Especially when specialised parts need to be sourced and flown in to repair the battered race vehicles – and personnel.

Case in point was the retirement of Giniel’s team mate, Duncan Vos, in the other Hilux.

Vos rolled his bakkie on stage three and though the damage looked mostly cosmetic (he finished the stage and his Hilux was running fine) a critical triangle joint on the roll cage’s tubing had fractured. It was declared by organisers as unsafe to race and the Toyota team, on a budget and without spare chromoly joint tubing within their spare parts bouquet, had to retire Vos. It was a cruel blow and underlined the reality of team Toyota South Africa’s situation. From here on out all hope was on Giniel, and he knew that an error of judgement would render another bakkie unsalvageable, him retired and end the heroic South African Dakar campaign in total failure.

‘JUST GET ON WITH IT’

Despite losing Vos early on the team just manned-up in typically hardegat South African fashion. The mechanics, with an average age of 26 (much younger than the bivouac’s average, where experience is considered paramount in technical matters), displayed maturity and resolve beyond all measure. They had the most thankless of jobs and suffered a toilsome existence of the Dakar. Their days consisted of driving the supports trucks from bivouac to bivouac; never seeing the race; sleeping rough in the bivouac each evening and after servicing Giniel’s Hilux, which only arrives an hour or so before sunset, trying to salvage a few hours’ sleep amidst the cacophony of Kamaz trucks rumbling and KTM bikes being tended to.

The military transit camp conditions were of no consequence to Giniel’s mechanics, though. In-between the banter and swearing and smoking I saw them manage to extract, service, reassemble and refit three differentials, all the suspension bits and brakes of the racing Hilux (a not at all insignificant task) in less time than it takes your average Toyota dealer to change a filter on your Hilux D-4D and vacuum the carpets. Everything is done to a faultless standard too, in the desert, with enough sand swirling around to sandpaper coat your beer and require motocross goggles to retain sufficient vision to avoid stumbling over things.

Their reward? An average meal in the bivouac and one beer. Just one. Then up at 6am the next morning to navigate the huge support trucks to the next bivouac. It’s not fun, but then again: no great adventure transits from business lounger to business lounge, now does it?

Notwithstanding budget being an issue, do not for one moment think the V8 racing Hilux is a backyard weld and wrench special. The considered – and consolidated – Dakar racing vision of Welshman turned naturalised South African and former rally champion, Glyn Hall; it’s a fantastically robust and tractable racing machine. Its space-frame structure’s integrity saved Vos from serious injury when he rolled on stage three and though there was lingering doubt about the perceived lack of sophistication regarding the rear axle kinematics, it jumped and barged its way across the worst terrain of Dakar 2013 with only an exploding front brake on stage 9, the sole mechanic malady to befall Giniel.

The 5-litre V8 Lexus engine was by far the acoustic sound signature highlight of Dakar 2013; you’d hear it wail in a sound-check at times five minutes ahead of powering into view as Giniel navigated around and over dunes or tracked a valley floor. New mapping and calibration ensured Giniel had those last few torques to keep momentum up the Atacama’s dunes – some of which are properly mountainous in specification and assaulted in fifth gear.

EVEN BETTER NEXT YEAR?

Team Hilux South Africa was a combination effort then: Giniel’s driving prowess and resolute toughness, Hall’s fundamentally flawless Hilux V8 design and his technical team’s dodged commitment to task at hand each evening in the bivouac.

Forgot about the selectively edited highlights package broadcast each evening – it’s a fallacy. The Dakar is mad. I’ve been on two and even just as a peripheral member of the media without any team responsibilities of note; it’s a debilitating and draining event: the driving from bivouac to bivouac each day is murderous in distance, fellow Latin American road users are simply suicidal and there is never any margin of comfort to retreat to.

Quite how Giniel managed to absorb it all and swirl on the opposite lock when required (frequently enough) on the special stages, flailing the Hilux V8 at three figure speeds over terrain I’d traverse in low-range/third gear, is incomprehensible and something to be marvelled at.

And celebrated.

So: not a great weekend then for South African sport, but rather: a fantastic one. Team Hilux South Africa: 2014 for the win…

     

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