UYUNI, BOLIVIA – Hailed by many as the toughest Dakar in many years, the 2017 edition of the world’s toughest motor race has seen its fair share of challenges. The extreme weather conditions experienced in the northern parts of Bolivia saw Stage 6 cancelled, and Stage 7 – the marathon stage – shortened to just 161 km. But it turned out to be a great 161 km for Toyota Gazoo Racing SA’s Giniel de Villiers and navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz.
The pair started the day in eighth place overall, more than an hour adrift of the race lead, held by Peugeot’s Stephane Peterhansel. So it was clear that they had to dig deep in order to make a move up the leaderboard. But Stage 7 brought a twin challenge: Firstly, it was shortened due to flooding on the route, making it tough to gain lots of time; and secondly, it also served as the so-called marathon stage.
Marathon stages are unique, in that they don’t allow servicing by the technical crews after the stage. As such, the race crews themselves are responsible for preparing their vehicles for the next day’s stage, making it very dangerous to push hard, as a vehicle damaged during the marathon stage could well cost a lot of time, if not the entire race.
This didn’t seem to daunt De Villiers/Von Zitzewitz (#302), who set about the business of Stage 7 with determination. The pair had a clean run, and recorded the third-fastest time of the day, just 03:33 behind stage-winner Peterhansel. Sebastien Loeb (Peugeot) was second-fastest on the stage, finishing just 00:48 behind his teammate.
“We had a great run today, and the Toyota Hilux performed surprisingly well at the high altitudes between La Paz and Uyuni,” said De Villiers from the marathon bivouac on the edge of the famous Salar de Uyuni. “We lose between thirty and forty percent engine power thanks to the 3,600 m average altitude at which we raced today, so we are very happy to be so close to the times set by the turbo-charged cars ahead of us.”
De Villiers/Von Zitzewitz moved up into sixth place in the overall standings, thanks to their performance on the stage, and now find themselves just 24 minutes behind Miko Hirvonen (MINI) in fifth.
Fellow Toyota Hilux crew, Nani Roma and Alex Bravo (#305) also moved up in the overall classification, thanks in part to difficulties experienced by Peugeot’s Cyril Despres, who was ahead of them at the midpoint of the race. Roma/Bravo was fifth-fastest on Stage 7, finishing 05:32 behind Peterhansel. This, together with Despres’ misfortune, was good enough to move them onto the Dakar podium. They are now in third place, 11:07 behind Peterhansel.
“We were very happy with the performance of the Toyota crews today,” said Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Team Principal, Glyn Hall, from the assistance bivouac at Tupiza. “The marathon stage is always a worry, and it is difficult for us to be so far away from the race vehicles. But Giniel and Nani both drove well, and neither reported any problems with the Toyota Hilux.”
Stage 8 follows ? the last of the true high altitude stages. It also signals a return to Argentina, for the four closing stages in this year’s race. The stage will take the crews from Uyuni in Bolivia, down to Salta in Argentina, via a special stage of 492 km. In addition to the racing stage, the crews will also have to cover 400 km of liaison, bringing the total for the day to 892 km.
The stage includes a number of dune sections, as well as river crossings and fast canyon sections. It gets under way at 08:55 Argentine time, as the rally clock adjusts to make up for the time difference between Bolivia and Argentina.