Asuncion, Paraguay – With Just four days to go to the start of the 2017 Dakar Rally, here’s a roll call of the South Africans who will be competing in the 39th running of the world’s toughest motorsport contest.
Heading the charge is the only South African driver in the car category, Giniel de Villiers from Stellenbosch. Now 43, De Villiers can boast an impressive Dakar resume, having finished outside the top 10 just once in 13 starts, including a win on the first South American edition in 2009, driving a Volkswagen Touareg.
He’ll share one of two official Red Bull Gazoo Toyota Hilux bakkies with long-time partner, German navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz, alongside Qatari veteran Nasser Al-Attiyah and navigator Mathieu Baumel.
De Villiers is hopeful that changes in the restricter-plate rules will make the big V8 Hilux bakkies more competitive this year against the lighter Peugeot buggies with their smaller, turbocharged engines – particularly at the extreme altitudes of the Andes mountain stages, where force-fed engines have previously enjoyed a significant advantage.
"We realized from the first stages last year that it would be difficult to beat the Peugeot," he explained. "But we’ve improved the car during the year and after more than 3000 kilometres of testing, we can count on huge improvements, especially thanks to our better balance of performance restricters versus the turbos.
"This is the fastest Hilux yet; Nasser proved that on the Rally of Morocco. He’s also the fastest driven on the team; his arrival has pushed all of us to raise our game."
The two Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Hiluxes were shipped to Toyota Argentina, north of Buenos Aires, at the beginning of December; the crews flew out on Christmas Day to begin reassembling and testing the bakkies – and preparing the support trucks – ready for the start in Asuncion.
The support vehicles follow the entire route, carrying all the personnel and equipment needed to service the the Hiluxes every day – including more than 1000 spare parts, catalogued and packed so that the mechanics can find anything they need without delay.
More SA-built entries
Top South African rally navigator Rob Howie will be reading the notes for Zimbabwean rally ace (and former SA Rally champion) Conrad Rautenbach, who’ll be taking on the ultimate driving challenge for the first time in another of Glynn Hall’s SA-built Hiluxes, standing in for Howie’s usual chauffeur, multi-talented Leeroy Poulter, who’s recovering from major surgery.
"My goal is to finish my first Dakar," Rautenbach said. "I'm very fortunate to have a lot of experienced people around me, but I really need to have a clean run and gather experience.
"Speed won't be the issue, I just need to get used to stages of more than 400 kilometres and maintain that pace, so the trick will be finding a good rhythm.”
There will more ‘Midrand Monsters’ for Dutchmen Erik van Loon and Wouter Rosegaar, Frenchmen Ronan Chabot and Christian Lavielle, Argentinian Alejandro Yacopini, and Lithuanian drivers Benediktas Vanagas and Antanas Juknevicius.
South Racing will be running Neil Woolridge-built South African Ford Rangers for Spanish driver Xavi Pons and Bolivian Marco Bulacia, while Emiliano Spataro and Facundo Ardusso will be driving SA-built Thompson Racing Renault Dusters.
Sean Berriman is the only South African competing in the truck category, as a mechanic on South Racing's MAN truck alongside German driver Mathias Behringer and navigator Stefan Henken.
South African bikers
Three South African motorcycle rookies will realise their dreams when they tackle the Dakar for the first time this year, with David Thomas - a veteran of 20 Roof of Africa enduros - riding a Husqvarna, and Joey Evans and Walter Terblanche on KTMs.
Thomas, 40, explained: "My dad got me into the Roof of Africa and extreme enduros, but I only started rally-raids in 2016, so my main challenge will be the navigation – you can only ride as fast as you navigate and I've never done 9000 kilometres in two weeks.
"I'm not going to be a hero on my first Dakar – I just want to finish."
Joey Evans was paralysed in a racing accident in 2007, but got back on a bike within two years.
"I remember looking at my body and not feeling my legs after that crash," he said. “I had two choices – feel sorry for myself or keep on fighting – so I fought.
"The Dakar dream came after I could ride again – my body isn't strong, but Dakar represents the full-circle, an accomplishment and the completion of my healing."
"Everybody used to watch the Dakar when I was a kid," said Terblanche. "I wanted a piece of it too; I’ve used the past year to prepare and I plan to take it day by day, but I will push as hard as I can to finish strong.”
The Dakar Rally will start on Monday 2 January with a short stage of 454km from Asuncion to Resistencia in northern Argentina. The next day the race will continue from there into the Andes, through Bolivia to La Paz on 8 January, before turning south to the finish in Buenos Aires on 14 January.