The Japanese manufacturer has never won the Dakar Rally, but the impressive team line-up features three former champions and the recently crowned winner of the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies. All cars safely negotiated technical scrutineering checks in Asunción on New Year’s Eve and the crews are relishing the start of the opening special stage between the Paraguayan capital and Resistencia in Argentina on January 2.
Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah crushed the opposition in this year’s FIA World Cup and the two-time winner of the Dakar teams up with his regular French navigator Matthieu Baumel to drive a South African-built Hilux for the first time. Al-Attiyah has further support from Red Bull and Ooredoo, as he bids to add a third South American win to the two he claimed in 2011 and 2015.
His team-mate is the experienced and consistent South African Giniel de Villiers, the winner of the Dakar in 2009 who has finished the last five Dakars with Toyota and taken two second-placed finishes, two thirds and a fourth. De Villiers has additional backing from a plethora of sponsors including Red Bull, Oakley, Duxbury Netgear, Innovation Group, SAA and TFM.
Both De Villiers and Al-Attiyah drive the two Toyota Gazoo Racing South Africa cars, while the Zimbabwean former WRC star Conrad Rautenbach replaces Leeroy Poulter in a third Overdrive Racing-run car alongside South African Robert Howie. Poulter was forced to withdraw on medical grounds.
Toyota Gazoo and Overdrive Racing have worked together to develop the Hilux during the course of the season and the Belgian operation also fields a strong line-up of Toyota Hiluxes, with two-time Dakar champion Joan Roma fronting the line-up. Roma won the Dakar on a motorcycle in 2004 and took victory on four wheels in 2014. On this occasion his list of sponsors includes Monster Energy, Air Europa, Alpine Stars and Michelin.
The Dutch crew of Erik van Loon and Wouter Rosegaar crew a second Overdrive Toyota Hilux. Van Loon’s best finish to date was fourth overall in 2015. He has additional support from Heisterkemp, Van Loon Group, Eurol, SeaVSat and Wilvo.
The French pairing of Ronan Chabot and Gilles Pillot crew a third Toyota Hilux prepared by Overdrive Racing and running under the management of Jean-Marc Fortin.
The Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO) has laid on a challenging and modified route for the 2017 Dakar. There are no longer any special stages through Chile or the Atacama Desert, but crews will see extensive action at altitude in Bolivia and that, coupled with excessive summer temperatures in northern Argentina, will ensure that the Dakar is no less difficult than in previous years.
Paraguay hosts the ceremonial start for the first time in Dakar history and then the route passes through the border into Argentina and on to the town of Resistencia for the first time. Teams then head further across Argentina to the cities of San Miguel de Tucumán and San Salvador de Jujuy on January 3 and 4, before climbing on to the Bolivian Altoplano and taking in night halts in Tupiza, Oruro and La Paz – the location for the event’s traditional rest day on January 8.
With energy-sapping altitudes of up to 4,800 metres expected, action resumes from La Paz and crews head towards the first part of a Marathon stage in Uyuni on January 9. Teams then re-cross the border into the northern Argentinean town of Salta on January 10 and then tackle more familiar stages via stopover bivouacs in Chilecito, San Juan and Rio Cuarto before the final dash towards the finish in Buenos Aires on January 14.
NASSER SALEH AL-ATTIYAH – Car 301
“I remember my first race. It was 1989 and I was a co-pilot and I did not like it at all. The following year I put myself at the wheel and I started by playing some races in Qatar. Then I stopped completely between 1995 and 2002 to develop my shooting. The QMMF asked me to return in February 2003 and then came the Dakar in 2004. Now I have a great car with the Toyota. It is a car that has never won the Dakar and the challenge is interesting. We beat Peugeot in Spain (Baja 2016) and Morocco (2016), but that does not mean we will win the Dakar. We must take altitude into account, but I am looking forward to this new challenge.”
GINIEL DE VILLIERS – Car 302
“If I was to describe the Dakar in a nutshell, I would say ‘adventure’. It’s a huge race, human and extreme. It is part of my life and the most important event of the season. I’m preparing for it for one year. We have worked to improve the car during the season with more than 3,000km of testing. The base is very good and we have enormous improvements. This is the fastest Hilux I have ever driven. Nasser’s arrival is also a real asset to the team and will force me to raise my level.”
JOAN ROMA – Car 305
“The preparations we have done have been really very good. We are optimistic, but still cautious because the Dakar is a complicated test. One must be humble, even when the work has been done well within the framework of a powerful team. I really hope everything will be fine.”
ERIK VAN LOON – Car 310
“For me, the Dakar invites one to push to his limits. Thanks to the Dakar, I also became a better businessman. I am very proud of the results I have achieved over the past two years and now it’s time to take another step. Driving the Toyota is completely different to my previous car. We still do not know what we are really capable of and our goal remains to finish inside the top five.”
CONRAD RAUTENBACH – Car 320
“My dad was a rally driver and that gave me the taste for racing. As soon as I got my licence (16 in Zimbabwe), I competed in my first rallies. I have memories of watching the Dakar on TV when it was still in Africa. My goal for this first Dakar is to finish it. I am fortunate to have a lot of experienced people behind me. Finishing in the top 10 would be a great achievement, but I really need to have a clear run and gather experience. Speed won’t be the issue. I need to get used to stages of over 400km and maintain that pace. It will also be great to see familiar faces from my WRC years, like Loeb, Hirvonen and Prokop. Concerning the altitude, it shouldn’t be too much of an issue due to the fact that I fly a lot. It’s also great to be representing Zimbabwe on the Dakar. I hope that a new career will start for me on the Dakar. I hope this Dakar will be the first of many, but first I have to finish. I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself.”
TOYOTA TEAM LINE-UP
301. Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah (QAT)/Matthieu Baumel (FRA) Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Hilux
302. Giniel de Villiers (ZAF)/Dirk von Zitzewitz (DEU) Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Hilux
305. Joan Roma (ESP)/Alex Haro (ESP) Toyota Hilux Overdrive
310. Erik van Loon (NED)/Wouter Rosegaar (NED) Toyota Hilux Overdrive
317. Ronan Chabot (FRA)/Gilles Pillot (FRA) Toyota Hilux Overdrive
320. Conrad Rautenbach (ZBW)/Robert Howie (ZAF) Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Hilux