CORDOBA – The 2018 Dakar Rally finally drew to a close on Saturday. The closing stage of the race, stage 14, proved to be very exciting, with just 08:08 separating Toyota Gazoo Racing South Africa’s driver Giniel de Villiers and his German navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz in overall third place, from Peugeot’s Stephane Peterhansel in fourth.
“We always knew that Stephane was going to push on the last stage, but making up eight minutes on such a fast WRC-style stage isn’t easy,” said an elated De Villiers at the end of the final stage, near Villa Carlos Paz in Argentina. “At the same time, we had to make sure we made no mistakes, and one slip could cost us the podium.”
In the end, De Villiers and Von Zitzewitz did much more than simply keep their noses clean: The 2009 Dakar winners drove a faultless stage as they finished 40 seconds ahead of Peterhansel to claim their first stage win of Dakar 2018.
This meant that De Villiers and Von Zitzewitz retained their third position in the overall rankings, while teammates Nasser Al Attiyah and Mathieu Baumel set the third-fastest time of the day, just one second behind Peterhansel.
“For us, Dakar 2018 was extremely tough,” said the Qatari driver. “But we are very happy to finish in second place overall. Of course, we would have been happier with a win, but to have two of our three cars on the podium, is an amazing achievement, and we have every reason to be proud.”
The opening stage saw Al Attiyah and Baumel take the spoils, and an early lead on the world’s toughest automotive event.
But stage two quickly bit back, as Bernhard ten Brinke and navigator Michel Perin lost time in the thick sand; and Baumel falling ill mid-stage.The pick of the bunch was De Villiers and Von Zitzewitz, who posted the fourth-fastest time on stage two.
Stage three saw Al Attiyah and Baumel bounce back with a second stage victory, while De Villiers and Von Zitzewitz recorded a solid stage, steadying their ship in the process. Next came stage four, where all three Toyota Gazoo Racing SA cars fell foul to the fearsome dunes of Peru.
But then, on stage five, the team consolidated. Ten Brinke and Perin posted the second-fastest time on the day.
Stage six saw the Dakar move into the high altitudes of the Bolivian Altiplano, where the naturally aspirated V8 engines of the Toyota Hilux were at a disadvantage.
Stages seven and eight proved to be no problem for the highly-reliable Toyota Hilux cars. Stage nine followed, but was cancelled due to flooding - so next up was stage 10.
A second-place finish for De Villiers and Von Zitzewitz was backed up by a fifth-place for Ten Brinke and Perin. Ten Brinke and Perin won on stage 11 - the much-feared section of dunes known as Fiambala.
Possibly inspired by Ten Brinke’s performance, Al Attiyah and Baumel took the bull by the horns on stage 12, winning the stage for the team.
Peterhansel crashed on the stage 13, and lost 57 minutes on the day. This allowed both Al Attiyah and Baumel, as well as De Villiers and Von Zitzewitz to move up one position in the general ranking - putting two of the team’s three cars on the podium.
With Peterhansel dropping down the order, and the two Toyota Gazoo Racing SA cars on the podium, only one thing remained in Dakar 2018: To complete the final, 120km-long stage without mishap, while De Villiers and Von Zitzewitz fended off Peterhansel for the final podium position.
The Toyota Gazoo Racing SA crew started the stage with 08:08 in hand over the Peugeot driver, and pushed hard to make sure they stayed clear of the hard-charging Frenchman.
In the end, De Villiers did more than enough - not only staying ahead of the Peugeot, but winning the stage in the process.
“It is always special to win a stage on the Dakar, and this year we got a win right at the end,” said De Villiers. “But more than that, we brought the Toyota Hilux home on the podium, just behind our teammates Nasser and Mathieu. What a fantastic feeling.”