The 2016 edition of the world's toughest motorsport event, The Dakar Rally, is over. In South America, the millions of fans who cheered on the Dakar convoy as it snaked its way across Argentina and Bolivia, have returned to their normal lives. And back in Johannesburg, South Africa, the members of the Toyota Gazoo Racing SA team have finally come home.
This year's race was an emotional rollercoaster. As if the racing itself wasn't tough enough, Mother Nature conspired to add floods, dust storms and scorching heat along the way. Even out on the stages, where things really mattered, the race got off to a rocky start.
"We knew all along that the Peugeots would be quick," explains Team Principal Glyn Hall. "But we didn't expect them to be that quick! And in the early part of the race, where multiple WRC champion Sebastien Loeb was at home, we had every reason to worry."
But the Dakar is an ultra-marathon, not a sprint, and consistency is often more important than raw speed. Not that things got any easier once the race started climbing towards the high plains of Bolivia.
"The turbo-charged cars have always proven fast in the thin air of the high altitude stages. And this year we saw more high altitude stages than ever before," continues Hall. "As a matter of fact, the rules state that the restrictor sizes need to change if the average altitude is above 2,000 m - and while the average was planned to be lower than that this year, the cancellation of Stage 1, which was due to take place near sea level, pushed the average over the threshold."
Into thin air...
But by that stage, the die was cast and the Toyota Hilux was forced to race without the benefit of a larger air restrictor. "This meant we were expecting a beating in the thin air, but all our crews battled on regardless, making sure that they remain in touch with the crews ahead of them."
The thin air didn't only affect the cars' performance - the human bodies inside them also took a beating. Both Giniel de Villiers and Leeroy Poulter trained significant hours using special equipment to simulate high altitude before the race. This seemed to pay off for them, but Toyota Gazoo Racing SA's third driver, Yazeed al Rajhi, had a torrid time as he ascended to the high plains of Bolivia.
"Yazeed really struggled. He was nauseous and dizzy, and we lost a lot of time on Stage 5," explains his navigator, Timo Gottschalk. "But then he bounced back on Stage 6, suddenly much better. We posted the third-fastest time on that stage, and really got back into the race after a disastrous day on Stage 5."
The bivouac on the edge of the famous salt pan of Uyuni was also the scene of a dust storm of epic proportions. The storm whipped and churned the thin air into a frenzy of fine dust and flying debris, and ploughed through the bivouac with devastating results. Many teams lost awnings and other equipment, while absolutely everything in the path of the storm was covered in a thin film of damp dust.
"The storm was so severe that we had to stop working on the cars," says Hall. "Everyone grabbed something to hold onto, as the wind howled around us. Those not wearing goggles were in deep trouble, and once the storm passed, it took us a while to get everything straightened out again."
... and flooding
This was just one example of the harsh conditions experienced on the first week of this year's Dakar. Flooding in Argentina saw the cancellation of Stage 1, as the service crews slept in flooded bivouacs night after night. Except for the days when the sun shone, which brought extreme heat coupled with crippling humidity. And through it all, the service crews worked on.
"I can't sing their praises enough. The lads pushed on no matter what the weather or conditions were, and got the job done," continues Hall. "And when the rest day finally came, they didn't hesitate for a moment - they just powered through, stripped the cars and rebuilt everything to perfection, ready for the last week of the race."
Midway through the race, however, things were looking somewhat underwhelming for Toyota Gazoo Racing SA. De Villiers/Von Zitzewitz were the best of the three factory crews, in 5th place overall after nearly 30 hours of racing. Al Rajhi/Gottschalk were in 6th, with Poulter/Howie in 7th. And up ahead, the two Peugeots of Carlos Sainz and eventual race-winner Stephane Peterhansel were setting the pace, with defending champion Nasser Al-Attiyah (MINI) in third and multiple WRC winner Mikko Hirvonen (MINI) in fourth.
"But we've learnt that the Dakar is a long race, and it isn't won or lost in the first week. You've got to keep going as fast and consistently as you can, drive your own race, and let the results come to you," explains De Villiers. "And that's what we did. We kept the pressure on, and kept things clean and tidy."
As it turned out, the transmission in Carlos Sainz' car gave up the ghost on Stage 10 of the race, and their teammate Loeb rolled his car out of contention on Stage 9. Hirvonen made a mistake and lost time too, and suddenly the race came to De Villiers/Von Zitzewitz. The pair were up into third place, with only Peterhansel and Al-Attiyah in front of them.
"Things became a bit tense at that point," laughs De Villiers. "We were dropping down into lower altitudes, with some long off-piste stages. This suited the Hilux, and we managed to cement our position somewhat. But then came the WRC-style stages near the end, where Mikko was completely at home. We had no choice but to push hard, as he was throwing everything at us in an attempt to steal our third position."
But De Villiers is, after all, a veteran of thirteen Dakars, and he isn't easily intimidated. At the same time, Poulter/Howie were under threat from former Dakar winner Nani Roma (MINI), so the race was on. Yazeed and Gottschalk, in the meantime, were holding steady in 11th overall, but still posting good stage times throughout the race.
"Then came Stage 12," remembers Poulter. "It was 481 km long, winding and tricky, and we knew we couldn't afford mistakes if we wanted Roma to stay behind us. At the same time, we had to ensure that we completed the mammoth stage with the Hilux in one piece, so finding the balance between speed and risk was the tricky part."
As it turned out, Poulter found exactly the right balance, powering the Toyota Hilux to sector win after sector win, and after five hours of racing he was more than two minutes ahead of the nearest competitor. At the same time, De Villiers was driving a great stage, posting times just behind those of Poulter.
Battle with Hirvonen
"Back in the bivouac, we were all clustered around a laptop, watching as the live timing updated. Leeroy looked as if he was going to win his first stage, but the atmosphere in the bivouac was extremely tense," says Poulter's wife and team physio, Michela. "And then, at the second-last waypoint, he didn't lead anymore."
Out on the stage, Poulter had caught up with the dust of the crews ahead of him, and a tightening right-hander finally caught out the storming South African. The Toyota Hilux left the road, and stopped in a ditch on the side. It took the crew two minutes to extract the car, which was thankfully not seriously damaged in the accident. They were immediately back on the pace, but had lost too much time, and ended up chalking up a third-place on the stage.
Then, with only Stage 13 to come, all that stood between Toyota Gazoo Racing SA and two stunning results, was 180 km of racing. Usually the final stage doesn't offer much opportunity to make up places, but with Hirvonen less than five minutes behind De Villiers, even a small mistake could have handed third place to the Finn.
The stage started and at the first waypoint, Hirvonen had already gained two minutes on De Villiers, halving the Toyota crew's lead. But then De Villiers/Von Zitzewitz found their own pace, and maintained the gap right to the end. Further back, Poulter/Howie did exactly the same with Roma, and both Toyota Gazoo Racing SA crews finished in the same positions that they started the day.
"To have one of our cars on the podium this year, feels almost like a win," reckons Hall. "The competition this year was extremely fierce, and that, together with the high altitudes, made it extremely difficult for us to compete. With that said, Giniel and Dirk were as consistent as ever, and brought us the podium position we so dearly wanted."
This means that De Villiers/Von Zitzewitz have only missed out on the podium once, since switching to Toyota in 2012. As for Poulter, taking part in his third Dakar, Hall says: "Leeroy has come of age this year. We all know he is a fast driver, and he has ample talent. But the Dakar requires a lot more than just pace and talent. It is a race where you need those elements for sure, but you also need a bit of luck and a lot of experience - and by its very nature, it takes time to gain experience."
Poulter/Howie finished in fifth overall, while teammates Al Rajhi/Gottschalk ended in 11th place. Even so, the Saudi driver and German navigator showed moments of brilliance as they had done in 2015. Were it not for the time they lost on Stage 10, the pair would certainly have brought their Toyota Hilux home in the top ten - possibly even the top 5.
"This year's Dakar was very different from past editions. We had more high altitude than before, with wetter conditions than we've ever seen, especially in the first week," concludes Hall. "But the fearsome dunes of Fiambalá played their part, and the off-piste stages were as tough as ever. Sure, we would've preferred to spend more time in the Chilean Atacama, but nonetheless we are very happy with our result this year."
Dakar 2016 consisted of 13 stages, run in Argentina and Bolivia. It covered a total distance of 9,597 km, of which roughly half was spent at flat out racing speeds. A total of 112 cars started the world's toughest motorsport event, and only 66 finished - testimony to the toughness of the Dakar. There were 28 Toyotas in the final classification, more than any other brand. This bears testimony to the legendary toughness and reliability of Toyota's products, and sets it apart amongst the brands that competed in Dakar 2016.