South Africa dominates challenging Dakar Rally characterised by extreme weather conditions; tough competition and the ‘Empty Quarter’

The 2023 Dakar Rally might have thrown everything at the competitors this year, who had to take on more than 8 500 kilometres of which 4 300 were competitive racing kilometres over 16 days in the most extreme weather conditions imaginable in the desert in Saudi Arabia – South Africa still came out on top despite having to juggle a number of curve balls.

The 45th edition of the Dakar Rally, of which the 2023 event that started on 31 December 2022 at Sea Camp on the shores of the Red Sea and ended on the opposite side of the Arabian Peninsula at Dammam on 14 January, was the fourth to take place in Saudi Arabia and included a marathon stage and a four-day adventure through the unknown Empty Quarter with never-ending sand and dunes.

Going into this year’s event, a staggering 58.5% of the vehicles in the car category were designed, developed and built in South Africa with manufacturers, Toyota Gazoo Racing, Century Racing and Red-Lined Motorsport, pushing their vehicles with star-studded, experienced and competent teams into the field.

And they reaped the rewards. The 2022 defending champions, Nasser Al-Attiya and his French navigator, Mathieu Baumel, defended their title successfully to claim a back-to-back victory when they won the gruelling Dakar Rally this year with their Toyota Gazoo Racing Hilux DKR T1+. They beat their closest rival, Sebastian Loeb/Fabian Lurquin (Bahrain Raid Xtreme Hunter) by 1hr 20min 49sec with another SA built Toyota Hilux in the hands of rookie Brazilian, Lucas Moraes and navigator Timo Gottschalk, rounding off the overall podium.

Al-Attiya/Baumel won Stage 2 and took the lead after Stage 3 never to relinquish it until the end of the race.

The two South African Toyota Gazoo Racing teams, the Dakar Rally veteran Giniel de Villiers and navigator, Dennis Murphy as well as Henk Lategan/Brett Cumman Toyota Gazoo Rings also posted stellar performances by rounding off the overall top five. De Villiers/Murphy finished fourth with Lategan/Cummings, who competed together in this event for the third time, fifth and although both teams had their fair share of challenges during the race, there was disappointment for Lategan/Cummings who dropped from their runner-up position behind team-mates, Al-Attiya/Baumel after Stage 8 to fourth place after losing almost an hour when a hard landing resulted in their TGR Hilux being damaged.

Another Toyota Hilux team, Yazeed Al Rajhi/Dirk von Zitzewitz showed real sportsmanship and gave up their charge when they stopped to assist the South Africans.

There were also new records set by De Villiers who is the only competitor to have started and completed his 20th Dakar Rally. He has only finished outside of the top 10 once and his record shows a total of 15 finishes in the Top 5.

Five SA built Toyota Hilux vehicles finished in the Top 10 in the T1+ Class with Juan Yacopini/Daniel Carreras claiming the seventh place while Overdrive Racing’s Andrea Lafarja/Ashley Chavez and Al Rajhi/Von Zitzewitz finished 15th and 17th respectively in the class.

There was also a podium finish for another SA race car constructor, Century Racing. Mathieu Serradori/Loic Minaudier finished third in the T1.2 Class for 4x2 vehicles. The result came after an up and down race for the Gauteng based constructor who had no less than ten CR vehicles on the start line of the 2023 event.

The SA team, Brian Baragwanath/Leonard Cremer, together with their French team-mates, competed in the brand new Century Racing CR6-T bi-turbo vehicles. Baragwanath, who started the Dakar Rally for the fifth time having finished on the podium of the Quad category in 2016 and bagging 32nd place in the Car Category in 2021 and finishing 14th last year, was leading the class with Cremer and were seventh on the overall standings until the penultimate stage when they flipped their vehicle that caused extensive damage resulting in them not being able to continue on the stage.

After being towed to the overnight bivouac by their assistance truck and many hours of repairs by the technical crew, the team managed to tackle the final stage that was turned into a mud bath after overnight torrential rain and hail. There was more heartbreak for the team on the very last day of the race when Serradori/Minaudier ran into engine trouble and Baragwanath/Cremer had to tow them to the finish under extremely testing conditions.

Century Racing recorded commendable results with Carlos Checa/Marc Terradellas finishing 10th in the T1.2 clahile former lady motorcycle competitor, Laia Sanz and Maurizio Gerini were 14th and Baragwanss wath/Cremer 15th. Two more Century Racing vehicles finished the 2023 Dakar Rally with the Panagiotis couple, Yannick and Valérie, 18th and the Coronel brothers, Tim and Tom, 19th in the class.

Red-Lined Motorsport also proved why they are rated as one of the leading race car builders, not only in South Africa, but in the rest of the world. Competing in the T1.1 class, Red-Lined Motorsport not only filled four of the top five positions of the class and claimed a 100% finishing record, but they also walked away as the class winners.

Regular competitor in the SA Rally-Raid Championship, German driver, Daniel Schröder and his navigator from KwaZulu-Natal, Ryan Bland (PS Laser Red-Lined VK50) won the class with the team followed by another regular SARRC competitor, Thomas Bell who had Gerhard Schutte reading him the notes in their Red-Lined VK56.

Two more Dutch teams rounded off the top five in the class with their Red-Lined Motorsport vehicles with Dave Klaassen/Tessa Rooth (Daklapack Rally Sport VK56) finishing fourth and Ronald van Loon/Erik Lemmen (Oase Motorsport VK50) fifth.

South African teams also starred in the T3 Lightweight Prototype Class of the Car Category where the current SARRC FIA T1 champions, Eben Basson and Leander Pienaar competed under the #TeamHilux banner as part of the G-Rally Team. Basson/Pienaar accepted an invitation on short notice to participate in the Dakar Rally having not raced the vehicle, which is not fitted with a windscreen or windows, before the event.

They quickly got to grips with the vehicle and the event and excelled to finish seventh in the class and were the winning Rookies.

It was unfinished business for Can-Am Maverick driver, Geoff Minnitt (Hydro Power Equipment), for who the event was a second attempt in this class and together with his navigator, Gerhard Snyman, the team overcame all the challenges to finish 13th. This competitive class saw experienced Dakar Rally competitors and 38 vehicles receive the chequered flag at the finish.

Four South African motorcycle riders also completed the Dakar Rally. In the Original by Motul Category for bike and quad competitors who participate without the luxury of any assistance or support, Charan Moore, was victorious after engine and radiator problems two days before the final day saw him losing time and the lead in the class. Moore, son of the well-known John Moore who raced in SA during the 80’s and 90’s, finished just off the podium in fourth place last year in this unassisted class and was determined to finish on top this year. He was 28th overall.

There was another SA win in the Motorcycle Category with Michael Docherty who competed for the first time and featuring between the front runners on various occasions. Docherty, who is a moto-cross rider and has been living in Dubai for the past three years, won the Motorcycle Rookie category and finished 16th overall.

Two more riders, Stuart Gregory and lady rider, Kirsten Landman, took on the Dakar Rally in the Original by Motul class with macadamia nut farmer, Gregory, for who this was a fourth start and a third finish, completing the event in 9th place while he was third in Veterans. Landman, who was third in the Ladies Class in 2020 and 55th overall, completed the two-week extreme challenge in 12th place in the class while she was second of the ladies.

Stevan Wilken took the event on for the first time and finished 74th from 90 finishers while Botswana works rider, Ross Branch, had to settle for 26th place overall after mechanical misfortunes while SA’s Bradley Cox had to retire on the first stage after a crash that saw him injuring his elbow.

“There is no doubt that the magnificent performances of South African teams on the recent Dakar Rally will provide the SA Rally-Raid Championship with a major boost,” said SARRC Chief Executive Officer Archie Rutherford. “The Dakar successes will lead to much increased public and media awareness and interest.

“The Dakar proved that when it comes to Rally-Raid racing we have the technology, the personnel and the professionalism to take on the best in the world,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford added that the Dakar performances once again underlined the competitive nature of the National Championship. The domestic series has long been regarded as the toughest championship of its kind in the world, and the Saudi Arabian results reflected this fact.

“We salute the heroes!” Rutherford concluded.