Dakar Series: China Rally a learning experience

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The inaugural Dakar Series: China Rally took place from 24 to 27 September 2017, near the inner Mongolian town of Alxa in China. The event was organised by the Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO), who also run the Dakar Rally, giving Toyota Gazoo Racing SA the opportunity to take part in a grueling seven-stage race over extreme terrain, to exactly the same rules and standards as will be in place when Dakar 2018 gets under way early in the new year.

The team fielded two cars in the race, with Giniel de Villiers and navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz taking charge of the first; and Argentine racers Lucio Alvarez and Pacha Rodriguez in the second. For Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Team Principal Glyn Hall, the China Rally was an invaluable opportunity to test and prepare for the Dakar.

“We came to China to learn as much as possible,” said Hall after the race ended at the spectacular FB-Festival near Alxa. “And we certainly achieved that goal. The terrain was much tougher than expected, with the dunes making navigation extremely tricky. We started the race fairly strongly, but then slipped back a little due to navigational issues. Then came the trouble with Lucio, before Giniel and Dirk hit back hard, taking over the lead of the rally, before having to retire on the penultimate stage. It was an emotional rollercoaster – but well worth it in the end.”

Stage 1 saw De Villiers / Von Zitzewitz power their Toyota Hilux to a second-place finish, ending the day just 13 seconds adrift. Teammates Alvarez / Rodriguez were 5th-fastest on the opener, and the team was feeling upbeat about their chances.

Next came early difficulties for De Villiers on Stage 2, when the former Dakar winner fell foul to some soft sand early in the stage. Car #111 lost a mass of time, but the experienced crew pushed hard towards the end, coming through in the 5th-fastest time on the day, but retaining their second position in the overall standings. At the same time, Alzarez / Rodriguez pushed hard to post the second-fastest time on the stage, moving up to third place in the standings.

But then came Stage 3, and a missed waypoint causing time loss for both Toyota Gazoo Racing SA crews. De Villiers / Von Zitzewitz came through the stage in the 10th-fastest time, and moved down to 3rd in the overall standings. Alvarez / Rodriguez had it even worse, slipping to 6th overall after going only 16th-fastest on the stage.

For Alvarez, however, Stage 3 turned out to be his last of the event. The Argentine decided to withdraw from the race after a hard impact with a dune caused him to initially lose feeling in his left leg, before feeling extremely dizzy after the stage. In order to avoid any further damage, he decided to call it quits, leaving De Villiers / Von Zitzewitz as the sole remaining Toyota Gazoo Racing SA entry.

The pair battled on in Stage 4, but managed only the 3rd-fastest time due to more navigational woes. They retained their 3rd place in the overall standings, and then hammered the field on Stage 5 by leapfrogging straight into the lead of the event.

“We finally had a clean stage,” said De Villiers after completing Stage 5. “Now we’re at the head of the field, we can push for victory on the final long stage, before the ceremonial closing stage of only 28 km.”

But it wasn’t to be: De Villiers / Von Zitzewitz fell foul to a rock embedded on the blind side of a dune – as did the rest of the top four competitors. As Hall said later: “It really turned the race on its head. Massive disappointment for us, of course, but there’s nothing we can do.”

The impact bent one of the wishbones of the Toyota Hilux, and put paid to the power steering system as well. Together, this rendered the car undrivable, and necessitated a recovery from deep in the Mongolian desert. The technical crew repaired the Toyota Hilux on site, and De Villiers drove it back to the bivouac.

In the end, Toyota Gazoo Racing SA completed the rally’s final, short stage of only 28 km, officially ending the race in 18th place in the overall standings.

“The victory was so near and yet so far for us,” said a rueful De Villiers after the race. “But still, we learnt a lot from this event, and I won’t ever look at dunes in quite the same way again.”

For Toyota Gazoo Racing SA, the China Rally was the last international event before next year’s Dakar Rally. The team will now focus on the final race in the South African Cross-Country Series, which takes place on 27 and 28 October; as well as preparing the Toyota Hilux vehicles that will be shipped to South America during December.

“There’s a lot we still have to do for Dakar,” concluded Hall. “But the learnings from China will help a lot, and we’ll be using a lot of the data gained from this race in our final tests and preparations for the Dakar Rally.”

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