A week of concentrated testing in the Namib Desert near Walvis Bay has taken Toyota Motorsport South Africa a big step forward in their preparations for the 2014 Dakar Rally in South America from 5 to 18 January.
It will be the third time the Toyota Imperial Dakar Team tackles the world's longest and toughest motor race following a third place in 2012 and a second in 2013. The team will again enjoy sponsorship support from commercial partners Imperial Toyota, Duxbury Netgear, Innovation Group and Toyota Financial Services.
2009 Dakar winners Giniel de Villiers and Dirk von Zitzewitz, third in 2012 and second in 2013, and Imperial Toyota Hilux team-mates, Dakar rookie Leeroy Poulter and Rob Howie, who navigated Duncan Vos to 10th place in 2012, travelled to the vast, open expanse of desert, some 32 kilometres southeast of Walvis Bay and within 18 kilometres of the Atlantic Ocean, to take advantage of the combination of sand dune fields and gravel tracks closely resembling the geography they will experience in the Dakar Rally.
"Since our success in the 2013 Dakar Rally in January we have continued our development of the Toyota Hilux in the Donaldson South African Cross Country Championship, which is one of the toughest and most respected national championships in the world," said team principal Glyn Hall.
"Anthony Taylor and Dennis Murphy are leading the championship with three rounds remaining after winning the last three rounds and Duncan Vos and Rob Howie are third, so we are happy with our progress. I'd say that the local championship satisfies 55% to 65% of what we need to know to tackle the next Dakar with confidence, with the obvious exception of driving on sand dunes.
"The local championship gives us the opportunity to test the reliability of the vehicle's components. For the rest we've come to Namibia - for the sand dunes and the semi-desert environment that is so similar to geography of the South American coastal areas, specifically in Chile's Atacama Desert, reputed to be the driest in the world."
The team, under the ever-watchful eye of Hall, has been concentrating on setting up the chassis and suspension of the Hilux and also worked on the aerodynamics, brakes, gearing, drive train and new air conditioning, the latter greatly appreciated by Giniel and Dirk . Poulter took full advantage of the opportunity to drive the Hilux in the sand dunes for the first time.
While other engines were evaluated, it was decided to stick with the five-litre V8-version that did duty on this year's Dakar and that powers the two domestic championship vehicles
"The weather conditions were perfect for the entire week enabling the team to complete over 2 000 kilometres of valuable testing in the desert," said Hall. "We got through our very full programme of tasks and nearly all were completed with good results, especially the new suspension which was only finished the day before we left. A great team effort. We still have some issues to sort out, which is commonplace when you are developing new ideas.
"Leeroy, as we expected, has fitted into the Dakar team very easily and has gained valuable knowledge in both the big sand dunes and rough gravel conditions ahead of the Dakar. He used every hour available to run in the dunes and finalised some of the testing of the new car while Giniel completed some TV work on the final day.
"We now need to complete the two new Dakar bakkies that are under construction in our workshop and apply what we've learnt this past week in Namibia. There is still a lot of work that lies ahead and the pressure will be on until we deliver the Dakar vehicles to South African Airways early in December."
The team returned to home base at Barbecue Downs near Kyalami on Sunday to complete preparations for the next round of the South African cross country championship, the all-new Vryburg 400 in North West Province on next weekend.