Well, that all changed recently as I got an exclusive invite to sit in the navigators seat of the Toyota Gazoo Racing Hilux alongside Giniel de Villiers as well as Toyota's new driver, Nasser Al-Attiyah.
You might be wondering why the Toyota Gazoo Racing team is out testing the cars in the Upington area? Well the answer is simple; it offers similar kind of terrain that the team will encounter in South America.
Out at the Goerapan Pan, the team was able to test the cars over a combination of sand dunes, rocks, bumps and fast gravel sections, all found within a 17 km course. The pit crew also practiced in the art of changing vital components on the cars. For example, the shock absorbers, of which there are eight, would take a dealership a good few hours to change. These boys do it in five minutes.
At the beginning of the year, I was lucky enough to attend the Dakar and experienced what it was like from a spectators point of view. Now it was time to get into the navigators seat of one of these vehicles and see just what it is like. As mentioned, joining the team for 2017 is double former Dakar winner, Nasser Al-Attiyah.
Al-Attiyah, who last won the event with MINI in 2015, took me for my first outing. Inside the Hilux I noticed three things; firstly, the seat is extremely tight fitting and uncomfortable, secondly there are so many buttons, screens and switches that you need an engineering degree to comprehend all of it and thirdly, Al Attiyah does not drive with an air-conditioner….
One mechanic came and strapped me in, quite tightly and borderline painful at that. He told me that I will thank him later. As we headed out the, eight-cylinder Hilux rockets across the terrain and before I knew it, we were airborne, jump after jump at speed.
It felt as if I was being tackled by a rugby player over and over again. Al-Attiyah would approach a sharp left hander at over 150 km/h yet with a quick pull on the handbrake and a smooth turn of the wheel, I was looking out of the passenger window.
The sound, the heat and the constant body bashing motion is something truly unreal. The Hilux literally goes anywhere and over just about anything at pace. Driving with both Giniel and Nasser, one thing was apparent, both drivers are smooth, they are not rushed and know exactly what their Hilux is capable of.
When I returned after my 17 km thrill ride, I sat down with team boss Glyn Hall to get his thoughts on the race to come. He and his team are the brains behind the Gazoo Racing Hilux vehicles which are built right here in South Africa.
I immediately asked him why they were not using the Hilux Evo which they unveiled at the Festival of Motoring earlier this year. Hall said that they were all very excited about the arrival of the Evo, however, despite the promising performance of the car, they found significantly more performance in the four-wheel-drive version during parallel testing.
This, together with Nasser and co-driver Matthieu Baumel's victories abroad in the car already, have made it clear that four-wheel-drive is more than capable of taking on the very best cars and drivers in the world.
Hall is positive that Al-Attiyah’s influence will benefit the entire team: “Not only is Nasser a very popular driver with a truly massive global following, but he is also exceptionally fast," Hall said.
With the new race regulations, that allow for a slightly larger 38 mm restrictor in the Toyota Hilux, as well as the addition of Al Attiyah/Baumel to the team, Hall has every reason to be upbeat about Dakar 2017.
Also new for 2017 is a partnership with Red Bull. The Austrian energy drink manufacturer and media brand already supports both de Villiers and Al Attiyah, and a tie-up for the 2017 Dakar seemed a natural fit.
“We’re pleased to be able to partner with Red Bull for 2017. As a global media and communications brand, Red Bull is the perfect match for our all-star line-up," said Toyota SA Vice President for Marketing, Glenn Crompton.
The Toyota Gazoo Racing team seem to be confident that the car is better than ever, they have the best drivers and have partnered with one of the best energy drink companies out there.
Everything is pointing towards a victory in what is known as the toughest race on the planet. However, as we all know, it’s only over when you cross the finishing line. We here at Autodealer wish them the best of luck and we will be keeping an eye on their progress throughout the race.