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Toyota 1000 Desert Race, Botswana

12 September 2017

The 2017 Toyota 1000 Desert Race, run over a gruelling 901km in extremely tough conditions, was a close call: just six seconds separated the first and second-placed teams. However, this riveting dice was just one act in a play with more twists and turns than a session of parliament. We travelled to Botswana in June and took in the action.

A-thousand-and-one. A-thousand-and-two. A-thousand-and-three.  A-thousand-and-four. A-thousand-and-five. A-thousand-and-six. That’s six seconds: the difference between first and second place in the 2017 Toyota Desert Race in Botswana, held around the mining town of Jwaneng. But let’s rewind, to day one of the three-day, 901km race. Toyota Gazoo Racing SA’s Leeroy Poulter and Rob Howie landed the first blow, on the Friday afternoon: the reigning Cross Country Racing champions in their factory FIA Toyota Hilux completed the 61km prologue sprint in first place, 25 seconds ahead of teammates Giniel de Villiers and Dennis Murphy.

That’s a 25-second difference after 61km of racing. The table was set for a grand showdown over the next two days of racing through some tough, sandy Botswana bush. Said Toyota Gazoo Racing SA team principle Glyn Hall after qualifying: “This close situation is a bit of a double-edged sword for us. We obviously don’t want Leeroy and Giniel to get caught up in a duel that could see one or both of them retire from the race. We also don’t want them to putter along and simply maintain the status quo. For us, this race is extremely important in our development of the Hilux bakkies for the 2018 Dakar Rally. Going slowly is not going to achieve that goal so they need to go fast. And they will.” The new Elf Renault Duster V8 of Johan van Staden and Mike Lawrenson, the only other FIA-specification vehicle in the field, followed in third position. The crew in the Nissan V8-powered, space-framed Duster has their target set on the 2018 Dakar Rally, too, and the new car seems to be pretty fast straight out of the box.

Another major battle was brewing in class T, the most competitive class. NWM Puma Lubricants Ford Ranger V8 crew Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer set the fastest qualifying time in Class T. But there was a gap of just five seconds to second-placed team of Lance Woolridge and Ward Huxtable, in another NWM Puma Lubricants Ford Ranger V8. The Malelane Toyota Hilux V8, with Werner and Johan Horn in the hot seats, was the third-fastest Class T qualifier, just 19 seconds behind the second-placed Ford.

D-Day, part 1
The second day of racing, comprising more than 400km, was always going to be a make-or-break kind of day. However, a Hollywood disaster movie scriptwriter could hardly have prepared a better storyline for this and the last day of the race. At the front of the field, Poulter and Howie immediately put the hammer down to build up a lead over De Villiers and Murphy. This plan was going perfectly. Until Lady Fate decided to intervene. Flying along at speeds of over 180km/h, Poulter unexpectedly came across a local driver, ambling along at 40km/h on the rally track, refusing to move over.  “There was no space to overtake, and this guy just sat there. I was quite ready to give his vehicle a nudge with the Hilux, to get the message across that we needed to get past, but Rob pointed out that it may cause an incident, with an accident report filed and police getting involved. So instead,  I tried to get past in the bush. I saw half a chance, and went for it… and punctured a tyre. So we had to stop and replace the wheel. I was pretty much fuming at that stage,” explained Poulter afterwards.

This stop to replace the wheel allowed De Villiers and Murphy to take the lead. It was a lead the former Dakar winner clung on to until the end of the day, shadowed by Poulter. But there was still more than 400km to go on the last day, so the fat lady had not even warmed her vocal chords yet, never mind sang a song. What was obvious though, was that both Hilux bakkies were harry flatters, every metre of the race. Behind the flying Toyotas, there was more mayhem. Atlas Copco’s Gary Bertholdt (VW Amarok) and Chris Visser (Toyota Hilux) had mechanical issues. NWM Puma Lubricants Ford’s Henk Lategan and Barry White picked up a fuel leak on their Mustang V8 powered Ranger, and with nearly 100 litres of Total’s finest 95 octane petrol lost, had to crawl back to the pits to ensure they reached it. King Price Porter driver Schalk Burger, a former rally driver and cross-country rookie, and rally navigator champion Elvene, had a head-on collision with a local truck. The truck had been on the rally track, heading directly into the oncoming rally traffic. Thankfully no one was injured. Many other teams also had issues in the thick Kalahari sand. The Desert Race was living up to its tough reputation.

D-Day, part 2
With patched racing cars, the remaining field lined up for the last day of the Desert Race. It would cover more than 400km, so the race was far from won. Or lost. Several teams who did not finish the second day also started. Although they were no longer in the running for the final results, drivers like Burger and Bertholdt were determined to finish the event. At the sharpest end of the field it was still a two-car race: teammates De Villiers and Poulter, in the factory Toyota Hilux V8s.  With no team orders in place, and with a two-minute dust gap at the start line between teams, all Leeroy had to do was to finish right on Giniel’s tail and the time made up in that two minutes would, theoretically, be enough to take a narrow victory from the De Villiers’ Hilux without taking the risk of overtaking in the Kalahari bush.

“Our Hilux bakkies are now fitted with air-conditioning to keep us comfortable over longer distances, but I’m not going to switch the aircon on. I’ll need every bit of power so I can take the fight to Giniel,” said Poulter before the start of the last day. From the word go, it was clear that De Villiers had similar intentions and the gauntlet was clearly down. The rest of the day was an amazing showcase of modern cross-country racing: two top drivers, in two international standard vehicles, absolutely flat out for more than 400km.  There were no punctures, and no more local cars on the route that influenced the outcome: it was a straight
fight. No inch was given. In the end, Poulter had to, as stated above, close the gap to De Villiers and finish right behind his teammate’s rear bumper to stand a chance of winning… and he nearly did, but it was not enough: De Villiers and Murphy managed to eke out a slender lead right at the end to pip Poulter and Howie by just six seconds. It was the closest finish in the history of the Desert Race.

Meanwhile, the leading Hilux bakkies had built up a massive 15-minute lead over the next competitor, and the Class T battle was in full swing. After some punctures, the top Ford Ranger crews had lost time, and the Horn brothers in their Malelane Toyota Hilux V8 took over the lead. After a reasonably uneventful day in the saddle, the Horn brothers brought their Hilux home in first place in Class T. They were followed by Lance Woolridge and Ward Huxtable (NWM Puma Lubricants Ford Ranger V8); the FIA-spec Elf Renault Duster V8 of Johan van Staden and Mike Lawrenson; and Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer in another NWM Puma Lubricants Ford Ranger V8 (third in class T). Defending Class T champs Jason Venter and Vince van Alleman (4×4 Mega World Toyota Hilux V8) finished in seventh place overall, and fourth in Class T.

Behind the leading crews there was much drama. The Atlas Copco SA VW Amarok 2.5T of Bertholdt and Phillip Herselman was reduced to ashes after catching fire after a fuel leak. The King Price Porter of Schalk Burger and Elvene Coetzee rolled after being hit by another competitor who had reputedly cut a corner. Burger’s left hand was severely injured in the accident. He was airlifted back to Jwaneng by helicopter, and was flown back to Pretoria for expert medical care. It was a rather eventful outing for Burger and Coetzee, to say the least. Here’s hoping he’ll be better soon, and back behind the steering wheel of a rally car to realise his dream of competing in the Dakar rally. Meanwhile, back at race control in Jwaneng, former Dakar winner Giniel de Villiers and co-driver Dennis Murphy were smiling from ear to ear. It was Giniel’s maiden Desert win after four previous attempts.

“We pushed hard all the way, and if we had the slightest mechanical or navigational issue, Leeroy would have blasted past. But Dennis did a great job with the navigational notes, and we didn’t have to stop once with an issue,” said an ecstatic De Villiers at the finishing line. In the end then, it all boiled down to six seconds, a man in his car on the rally track… and  a single puncture over 901km of harry flatters racing. Quite amazing, that.

The Dakar Challenge
Every year, the ASO (the French organisers of the Dakar Rally) gives one rookie privateer crew a free entry ticket (worth about R300 000) to the greatest cross-country race in the world. This year, they decided to choose a crew that competed in the Toyota 1000 Desert Race. In the end, the prize went to Atlas Copco SA crew Hennie de Klerk and Achim Bergmann in a Volkswagen Amarok. In a curious twist of fate, the Amarok is powered by a Ford Mustang V8 engine, which means it is (strangely enough) eligible to compete in the Dakar, as it is a naturally aspirated engine.

The story behind the race
The Desert Race enjoys legendary status in Botswana. People travel from all over to attend the three-day event. It is the only weekend in the entire year that you are allowed to drink in public in Botswana. And goodness, the crowds certainly make full use of this freedom. Camping next to the sandy tracks that are used for the rally is the order of the day. Ditto with large open areas near the main routes. Hundreds of impromptu food and drinks stalls are set up, catering for hungry and thirsty spectators.

Interestingly, the bottle stores in the mining town of Jwaneng are said to boast a bigger turnover during the three days the race is on than the other 362 days of the year. Combined. Not so surprisingly, there are a lot of jovial spectators about. The police and army keep a close eye though, and Botswana’s infamous booze truck, the police’s mobile drink and drive alcohol-testing unit, is also very active. Local vehicles, ranging from Corollas to Land Cruiser V8s, can often be found on the ‘live’ rally tracks, too. So it can get a bit dicey. Just ask Toyota’s Leeroy Poulter, who effectively lost the lead and eventually the race because of a stubborn local driver who refused to get off the track.

The bustling little town – which even has its own international airport – was formed around the Jwaneng diamond mine. The mine is said to be the richest in the world in terms of its content of gem-quality diamonds.  However, there are winds of change blowing for the Desert Race. Apparently the Botswana government wants to spread the proverbial love a bit, and move the race elsewhere in the vast, open country. At the moment, the dusty farming town of Ghanzi is said to be the favoured destination for 2018.  There are some challenges connected to such a move. For South African teams, who make up 98% of the competitors, Ghanzi is another 500km north of Jwaneng, which will mean more time and more money for the competitors to get there.  Thousands of spectators travelled to this year’s race from Botswana capital Gaborone, a distance of less than 200km (one-way). The distance between Gaborone and Ghanzi is just under 700km (one-way), which will have a big influence on travel budgets. Only time will tell where the organisers take the race in 2018, if they decide to move it.

Text and photographs: Danie Botha