The Dakar Rally is in Giniel de Villiers’s blood


When you are having that second helping of gammon and yet another plate of your aunt’s awful trifle, washed down with a cold one on Christmas Day, please spare a thought for Giniel de Villiers.

South Africa’s most famous rally export won’t be able to join in the annual festive gluttony as his body will be in pristine shape and his mind already on the dunes rising above the Peruvian coastline.

Barely a week after Christmas, De Villiers will be in Lima lining up his racing Toyota Hilux alongside German navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz at the start of the Dakar Rally, which will be his 16th attempt at arguably the world’s hardest – and one of the deadliest – motorsport race.

“When December 31 comes along I’m normally at my fittest. That, unfortunately, means that I can’t join in with celebrating Christmas with champagne along with the rest, but that is one of the small sacrifices that comes with the job,” he says with a wry smile during a break in testing outside Bloemfontein.

Exactly how does a driver prepare his body for this arduous race, which next year will be solely hosted by Peru after Argentina and Bolivia pulled out?

Although the number of stages was down from the traditional 14 to 10 in 2019, De Villiers’ team principal at Toyota Gazoo Racing South Africa, Glyn Hall, reckons the racing time will be very similar to a 14-stage race because of the sand, which will make up 70% of the more than 3 000km race.

“It’s fairly tough physical training at the moment,” De Villiers says. “I ride a lot of bicycle and also run a bit. It’s just a case of general fitness and trying to commit yourself to it every single day.

“I’m trying to get as fit as possible because the fitter you are, the longer you are able to concentrate and the faster you recover to get ready for the next stage.

“The best place to prepare yourself for the exact physical challenges you’ll experience during the race is in the car itself and we do spend a lot of time in the car during testing. We recently spent two weeks testing and racing at a rally in Morocco, so the more time you can spend in there, the better.

“But I must add, at the moment it’s so hot in the Cape that spending time outside is about the same temperature as in the car.

“In the past, when we had stages at very high altitude, I slept in an altitude tent during our testing in Namibia, but there’s no need for that this year, so you do customise your exact training for the conditions you’ll experience during the race itself.”

After starting his racing career in touring cars and winning the national championship for four years running, De Villiers, 46, has been in off-road racing for almost two decades.

Although he has seen everything in the Dakar, remarkably finishing all 15 races he started, which includes the top step of the podium with Volkswagen in 2009, he isn’t entertaining any thoughts of a career change yet.

“I’m not tired of racing at this stage of my life. Even though I’ve done 15 Dakars, there are just so many challenges in the race. Every time you go there are different challenges, which offers something new,” he says.

“It’s so different from something like Formula One, where you go around a track which is always the same. Even when you get dunes again in the Dakar, it will be different kinds of dunes from what you’ve experienced before. Therefore, the overall challenge is always fresh.

“I believe you must live in the moment and take it day by day. You don’t know what is going to happen and how you will feel about it. So if you feel good about something, do it and make the best of it.”

Even though peddling his bike is one of his pastimes, believe it or not, De Villiers does do things that don’t involve wheels.

“Golf. I just love it,” he smiles, admitting he boasts a credible handicap of 13. “When I do get the time for golf I really enjoy it. It’s a difficult game, make no mistake, but it’s also very good for your head. I like being outdoors and golf fits the bill perfectly.

“And then I also like a bit of kite surfing. It’s something I’ve been doing for quite a while.

“The big thing is to find time for it all. It’s really a balancing act, because I’ve got three young children and you can never do too many things.”

He might just be faced with another balancing act for his trophy cabinet when he returns with more silverware from South America in January.

By the numbers

  • 3 – The kilometres De Villiers’ racing Toyota Hilux will average per litre of fuel during the worst conditions in the Dakar, which are stages consisting of soft sand.
  • 7 – The litres of liquid De Villiers will drink during an average stage, lasting six to seven hours.
  • 8 – The number of times De Villiers has stood on the Dakar podium in his 15 starts.
  • 30 – The number of behind-the-scenes staff members in Toyota Gazoo Racing SA’s team that completely strip and rebuild the car after every stage.
  • 550 – The number of litres De Villiers’ fuel tank can hold. It is filled up at the start of most stages.

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