Celebrated for its adventurous spirit, South America’s Dakar rally captures the imagination of hardcore travellers for the first three weeks of January each year. Its sheer length and scale astounds, linking 8,000km of the worst possible roads, in the most isolated and inspiring landscapes, during a race that lasts just short of three weeks.
What very few spectators and followers of the race realise, is the substantial South African component amongst the racing machines which participate. The 2018 podium featured two Johannesburg-built bakkies and among the top ten, no fewer than five vehicles were engineered and assembled in South Africa.
The Dakar is an important business tool for South Africa’s highly specialised motorsport industry. Competing against rivals from the global motorsport hubs in Europe, with budgets which dwarf any rand-denominated R&D project, South African Dakar vehicle manufacturers have thrived in the last few years. And it’s not because they are cheap in euro or dollar terms, it’s because these Mzansi motorsport exports are rugged, reliable – and above all: fast.
Of all the locally built Dakar racing vehicles, Toyota’s Hilux has been the most successful, scoring six podium places since its debut in 2012.
The brainchild of legendary engineer Glyn Hall, these Hilux V8s have become the Dakar vehicle of choice for many international competitors with sufficiently deep budgets to afford just about anything they desire. Built to impeccable strength and quality standards by Hallspeed’s technicians at the company’s Kyalami headquarters in Gauteng, they are as truly South African as, well, a Hilux could possibly be.
Former Dakar champion, Qatar’s Nasser Al-Attiyah, commands an immense motorsport budget and after frustratingly attempting to build his own custom Dakar racing vehicles, he eventually commissioned the South African Hilux option, finishing second this year.
Toyota’s Dakar achievements mirror its local sales success, where Hilux is our most popular vehicle, yet there is great diversity within the South African motorsport manufacturing portfolio. Red-line motorsport continues Nissan’s very strong local association with the Dakar, with a fleet of Navaras, especially popular amongst Chinese and Russian competitors.
South Africa’s off-road racing industry can trace its beginnings to Nissan, as Glyn Hall originally achieved acclaim at the Dakar with his Hardbody and Navara project bakkies in the noughties, before finally podiuming with Toyota’s Hilux.
Beyond the Gauteng fabricators there are Ford Ranger V8s too, built by Neil Wooldridge motorsport in Pietermaritzburg. At this year’s Dakar, one of these KZN-sourced bakkies finished 33th overall, from a field of 105 starters. Last year, Czech driver, Tomáš Ourednicek, won the Moroccan desert challenge in a Maritzburg-built Ranger V8.
Despite exchange rate volatility, South African off-road racing manufacturers have been prodigiously successful this decade, besting their American and Australians rivals to become the preeminent alternative to European built Dakar racing vehicles. It’s a credit to the quality of local technical training and engineering education.