The Imperial Toyota South Africa Team to contest the 2012 Dakar Rally in South America in January returned to Johannesburg on Sunday after three and a half days of sand testing in Namibia.
Former South African off road champion and 2009 Dakar Rally winner Giniel de Villiers and four-time national champion Duncan Vos between them completed over 1500 kilometres of driving in the two Imperial Toyota Hilux double cab pickups that will compete in the premier T1 class of the world's longest and toughest motor race.
"One word sums up the past few days – invaluable," said team manager Glyn Hall. "It's been a long and tiring exercise, more than 2 400 km by road from our home base, in a remote part of Namibia, with the team working from before dawn until after sunset every day. However, we've learnt a great deal and successfully completed a major part of our preparation for the big race in January," said team principal Glyn Hall.
"If we hadn't gone to Namibia, despite all the testing we've done throughout the current Absa Off Road Championship season, we wouldn't be in the strong position we are today.
The majestic sand dunes of the Skeleton Coast south of Walvis Bay have been home to the team, which will also enjoy backing from Duxbury Netgear and the Innovation Group on their historic and proudly South African adventure in South America. The two South African-built and developed Toyota Hilux Double Cab pickups came through the stringent tests with flying colours – they completed the equivalent distance of four national championship off road races – and will now be prepared for the final round of the Absa championship, the RFS Magalies 400 in the Tarlton area of Gauteng this weekend (November 11 and 12).
"We had a few challenges to overcome, but then that's why we went there," added Hall. "Essentially, we achieved two things: we improved the performance of the racing Hilux and we identified areas we have to work at if we want to achieve the kind of reliability that is required to complete nearly 9 000 kilometres in Argentina, Chile and Peru, some 5 000 kilometres of which will be under racing conditions.
"We found the ideal test site and were able to use it with the kind permission of the local tribal chief and the government of Namibia., who both showed great interest in the whole exercise.
"We had sand, dunes, camel grass and rough gravel roads – all in the same area – which gave us very similar conditions to what we can expect in the Dakar Rally.
"I'd say our secret weapon on this event, apart from the Hilux itself, is Giniel de Villiers. He's regarded as one of the best Dakar drivers and the experience he has been able to share with us and the knowledge gained over the past nine Dakars has been priceless. Duncan Vos, who will be competing in his first Dakar, has been able to cram a great deal of learning into a very short space of time."
De Villiers declared himself satisfied with the test and was enthusiastic about the Toyota Hilux. "It's going to be competitive and has great potential. I was impressed with its overall performance in the Namib."
Vos, who is still in contention to add a fifth national off road title to his resume, was enthusiastic about the test session, but is acutely aware of the challenge that lies ahead in South America.
"I'm on a steep learning curve," he admitted. "Driving in the sand and the dunes is not as simple as you might imagine. My lack of experience created a few problems, but I'm happy with the progress I made. I learnt a lot from Giniel and am confident that by the time we line up for the start of the race in Mar del Plata in Argentina on January 1, I will be ready."
Co-driver Rob Howie was also able to gain some invaluable knowledge from De Villiers' experienced German team-mate, Dirk von Zitzewitz, a veteran of nine Dakars who guided the South African to victory in 2009 and has read the route notes for De Villiers in the past four Dakars.
The Dakar Rally will start in the Argentine seaside resort of Mar del Plata on the Atlantic coast of South America and will finish almost 9 000 km later in the Peruvian capital Lima on the Pacific coast on January 15. In between will be five racing special stages in Argentina, a crossing of the Andes Mountains, five stages in Chile including a crossing of the Atacama Desert before a rest day on January 8 in the Chilean town of Copiapo. Then, for the first time, the rally enters Peru for four stages and a ceremonial finish.