By John Rettie
Trophy trucks dominate Baja off-road races, but when it comes to the annual Dakar Rally, they play second fiddle to SUVs and Minis. Yes, Minis finished in first and second place this year. A Toyota Hilux pickup finished third, though.
In reality, there is not much difference between a truck and an SUV (apart from the body) in the fastest crop of vehicles. The Mini is based off a BMW 3 Series that has minimal resemblance to a production version. It would even be fair to describe Robby Gordon’s Hummer as a truck, as it is essentially a trophy truck underneath the bright-orange fiber-glass Hummer shell. If Chevrolet were to sponsor him, it would become a Chevy Silverado!
This year the Dakar Rally covered 5,000 miles, largely in deserts, through Argentina, Chile and Peru. For competitors, it was like competing in a Baja race each day for 14 days. It is quite rightly regarded as one of the toughest auto races in the world. Just to finish is a major accomplishment.
In many ways, Giniel De Villiers’ third-place finish in a Hilux is truly significant. Ever since the Dakar Rally started in 1979, the event has been won by SUVs, cars or buggies. Pickup trucks came close to winning when Nissan South Africa entered the event with top drivers, such as Colin McRae.
De Villiers won the Dakar in 2009 driving a factory Volkswagen Race Touareg. That year, Dakar moved to Argentina and Chile for the first time after terrorist threats in Africa. After winning Dakar for the third time last year, Volkswagen switched to competing in the World Rally Championship, leaving De Villiers without a ride for Dakar. He turned to Toyota South Africa, and at the last moment, three Hilux pickups — with almost stock V-8 engines — were built for the Dakar race.
Most top teams need several years to develop a winning car, so De Villiers didn’t expect to win in 2012. Instead, the truck was built to meet new rules for 2013. With less power on tap, he had a slim chance against the X-raid Mini team from Germany.
Thanks to his consistent driving, De Villiers was battling for second place by the middle of the race. The Minis were firm favorites, and yet they were being challenged by De Villiers.
Gordon ran as high as second overall, but over-exuberant driving cost him time on several stages and despite winning three stages, he finished fifth. De Villiers was much more consistent, and although he did not win any stages, he never finished out of the top 10. The only other driver who did that was Stephane Peterhansel, the winner of the race. The other two Hilux pickups finished fifth and 11th.
In all, more than 40 “regular” pickup trucks competed among the 161 vehicles in the car class. Half of these were Toyotas. The Argentinean-made Amarok, which was also an official vehicle for the organizers, was the next most popular truck. There were five Nissan Navaras (aka Frontiers) and five Mitsubishi pickups and, amazingly, a couple of Honda Ridgelines.
There was just one lone American truck, a Ford Raptor. This was the same vehicle that Sue Mead and Darren Skilton raced in last year’s Dakar when they finished 40th overall. Skilton prepared the truck again this year, but it was raced by Pedro de Uriarte from Mexico. He did not finish.
Skilton, on the other hand, entered his special prototype Revolution VI buggy that’s close to being a pickup, and he persevered, finishing 62nd overall. Among his support crew was Mark McMillin, a veteran Baja competitor who had withdrawn earlier while driving a Jeep. His pit crew in their Ford F-250 happily crewed for Skilton the rest of the way. Aside from the giant “real” trucks that compete in the actual event as well as provide support for race vehicles, full-size Ford pickups are a popular support vehicle.
Based on Team Toyota’s inaugural success with the Hilux, we might well see a pickup win next year’s Dakar for the first time. For a list of all the "car" category finishers and their times, Download General ranking stage summary car page.