With the first half of Dakar 2017 done and dusted, it was time for the race crews to relax a bit, on the so-called ‘rest day’ of the 12-stage race. While the rest day may offer some respite to the race crews, however, it is one of the busiest days on the race for the technical crews. The rest day is also a good opportunity to take stock of the race so far.
For Toyota Gazoo Racing SA, Dakar 2017 could hardly have started better. Star driver Nasser Al-Attiyah, twice a winner of the Dakar, set a blistering pace to win the short opening stage of the event. Together with navigator Mathieu Baumel, the pair, driving Toyota Hilux #301, took an early lead in the race. Teammates Giniel de Villiers and navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz (#302) posted the fifth-fastest time of the day, setting them up with a good road position for the following stage.
Stage 2, from Resistencia to San Miguel de Tucuman, was another good one for Al-Attiyah/Baumel, who narrowly missed out on a second consecutive stage win after a small navigational error cost them some time. Still, they posted the second-fastest time on the day, but saw the outright lead of the rally slip to Sebastien Loeb (Peugeot). De Villiers/Von Zitzewitz were fourth-fastest on the day, and found themselves in fourth position overall once the dust had settled.
Then came Stage 3, between San Miguel de Tucuman and Jujuy in northern Argentina, and a turning point in the race for Toyota Gazoo Racing SA. The stage started well, especially for Al-Attiyah/Baumel. The Qatari chased hard from the get-go, and by the middle of the stage he had reeled in not only the stage leader, but also taken back the overall rally lead. With a stage win all but in the bag, it looked as if Toyota Gazoo Racing SA would be back in the lead of the Dakar by the time Stage 3 ended.
But the Dakar is a cruel mistress, luring competitors with a siren-song of glory and adventure, just to turn on them when they least expect it. Near the end of the 364 km stage, Al-Attiyah/Baumel drove through a jagged hole on the side of the route, ripping the rear wheel off their Toyota Hilux, and irreparably damaging the suspension in the process. It meant the end of the race for them, and turned what was so nearly a triumphant stage win, into bitter disappointment for the team.
De Villiers/Von Zitzewitz lost time due to navigational problems early in the stage, but then maintained their position until the final section of the stage. But a fuel pressure problem brought a halt to their charge, and they lost 36 minutes after stopping to make repairs. This dropped them down in the overall standings, but they lived to fight another day.
Stage 4 was up next, and saw the crews depart from the Argentine town of San Salvador de Jujuy for Tupiza, in Bolivia – a total stage distance of 521 km. Of that, 416 km were covered as the special stage, which started at 4,300 m altitude, before finishing around the 3,400 m mark. And what a stage it was!
For the Toyota crews, Stage 4 was an opportunity to steady the ship after the double-whammy disappointment of Stage 3. Toyota Gazoo Racing SA’s De Villiers/Von Zitzewitz reported a tough start to Stage 4, after getting stuck in what the experienced duo referred to as “some of the softest dunes we’ve ever seen.”
After crossing the dunes near the start, they made good headway until two consecutive punctures slowed them down. Navigation was also a challenge on the day, which saw the pair finish in sixth place on the stage, moving them up into seventh place in the overall standings.
Nani Roma and Alex Haro Bravo (#305), driving another SA-built Toyota Hilux, run by Overdrive Racing, was the fastest Toyota crew on the day. They posted the third-fastest time on the stage, which was won by Peugeot’s Cyril Despres. For Roma/Bravo Stage 4 brought a very similar experience to that of De Villiers/Von Zitzewitz, but they managed restrict their time loss to Despres to 12:51. They were in fifth place overall, and looking to move further up the rankings.
Stage 5 was the first full racing stage in Bolivia, and saw the teams go from Tupiza to Oruro via a racing stage of 447 km – or that was the plan, anyway. But the Dakar gods had different ideas, and sent some severe weather to add to the challenge. As a result, the stage was shortened to just half the planned distance, robbing the teams of valuable racing distance.
Even so, Nani Roma and navigator Alex Bravo flew the flag for Toyota by finishing second on the stage, just 44 seconds behind stage winner Sebastien Loeb (Peugeot).
“We had a very good stage today,” said the Spaniard from the flooded bivouac at the town of Oruro. “The Toyota Hilux handled the conditions perfectly, and were it not for a small navigational error near the end of the stage, we may well have come out on top.”
Roma/Bravo (#305) had closed to within 28 seconds of Loeb at one point, before dropping back slightly after taking a wrong turn. But Roma’s navigational trouble was nothing compared to that experienced by most others on Stage 5. Miko Hirvonen (MINI) lost 42 minutes, while De Villiers and navigator Von Zitzewitz (#302) lost close to 30 minutes to stage winner Loeb.
“The navigation today was extremely tricky, and we lost a lot of time,” said De Villiers after the stage. “To make things even tougher, the weather wreaked havoc with the stage, and the organisers had to shorten the route significantly.”
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De Villiers/Von Zitzewitz were in eighth place, and trail rally leader Stephane Peterhansel (Peugeot) by 01:08:11. Roma/Bravo remained in 4th, 05:35 behind the leader.
The bivouac at Oruro will be one to go down in the history books. The incessant rain quickly flooded the sandy area, and turned the entire bivouac into a quagmire, which had to be closed to teams at one point, as many vehicles were stuck inside. That, together with the continued rain in the area, forced the organisers to cancel Stage 6 of Dakar 2017, in effect giving the crews an extra rest day, as they used the liaison route to transit to the Bolivian capital of La Paz.
The rest day, however, was nothing more than an opportunity for the technical crews to strip and repair the Toyota Hilux race vehicles, and prepare them for the next six stages. Only half the race is done, and there’s still a mass of distance to cover before the Dakar finishes in Buenos Aires on Saturday, January 14th.
“It is called a rest day, only because the race crews get to put their feet up a bit,” explained Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Team Principal, Glyn Hall, from the muddy bivouac at La Paz. “But for the rest of the team it is a day of frantic activity. And the conditions here in La Paz doesn’t make it any easier.”
Once the cars are fully prepared for the final assault on Dakar 2017, it will be time to focus on Stage 7. As the rest day drew to a close, it was announced that the racing section of Stage 7 has been shortened to just 161 km. With that said, the stage still serves as the marathon stage of the event, which means no service for the Toyota Hilux race vehicles at the bivouac.
“This is a critical stage of the race,” continued Hall. “We aren’t allowed into the bivouac in Uyuni, and the drivers and navigators have to do basic servicing themselves. It is a heart-in-the-mouth situation, as we are powerless to help if anything goes wrong. We do, however, have Rob Howie navigating for Conrad Rautenbach, putting him in the bivouac with the other Toyota crews. Rob is the chief fabricator of our race vehicles, and knows then intimately. As such his presence in Uyuni may well prove invaluable.”
Stage 7 runs over 622 km, including the shortened racing stage of 161 km. The altitude remains high for the time being, until the race crosses back into Argentina later in the week.