Giniel de Villiers finished his first Dakar Rally in a respectable fifth place. The 30-year-old talked to CARtoday.com about the race, the Nissan Hardbody, the dunes and his plans for the future.

Giniel de Villiers finished his first Dakar Rally in a good fifth place. The 30-year-old talked to CARtoday.com about the race, the South African-built Nissan Hardbody, the dunes and his plans for the future.

De Villiers’ best stage finish was third spot, but was disappointed not to have achieved a stage victory. He came close a few times, but the elements slowed him down each time. He had a few punctures, got lost, hit a few rocks and finished the last stage with a broken camshaft. Not bad for a first Dakar race.

CARtoday.com: What was the Dakar Rally like?

Giniel de Villiers: It was an unbelievable experience. In Europe there were lots of people crowded along the route watching. People were on the bridges that we passed and at one stage I remember we finished at 2am and there were about 30 000 people there to welcome us. When we got to the desert it was different, there was nothing but the scenery, and the challenges.

We were averaging about 700 to 800 km a day and had five support trucks. We had a road book to follow and the trucks followed a different route. You had to be careful and the incident where one of the KTM support trucks was damaged by a landmine reminded us of that.

When we got in after a day’s racing, the support team started working on the cars and sometimes they would still be busy the next morning when we were ready to start again. We drove flat out every day. It was a fast race. If you drove at 80 per cent you lost time quickly.

Our team had never taken part in the Dakar before and we didn’t know what to expect. Next time we will know what to do, what to take with us and what will make the race easier. It’s a hard race and you have to do whatever you can to make the race easier.

The terrain was very rough and we had a lot of flat tyres. I often couldn't believe they were actually sending us through in cars. But it’s a hard area to cross. Like Hannes (Grobler, who drove in the truck division, which was also De Villiers support truck) said, even a baboon couldn’t walk across here with a stick.

What happened on stage 15 when your co-driver, Pascal Maimon, said the car looked like a fighter plane?

We were about 60 km into the stage in sixth position trying to gain some time. We had gone just 50 m or so to the right to overtake a motorbike when we hit a step-up in the road. The car jumped about three metres into the air and the first thing that touched the ground was the rear right light. But we landed well, even better than the landing after my flight to Cape Town!

What was it like crossing the dunes?

One of the big problems was not knowing what was on the other side of a dune. We followed the road book, but a lot of the time the cars followed the motorbike tracks and the problem there was that the bikes could go over some of the dunes that the cars could not manage. Plus the nose of our car was quite high and sometimes we didn’t know what to expect.

It was quite an art driving over a dune because it was always changing, sometimes we were blinded by the sun and there were a lot of things to look out for. The small dunes were actually trickier because you thought it would be easy when it was so small, but they could catch you out the most.

Was it easy to communicate with French co-driver Maimon?

He spoke good English though things weren't so good when we got lost. We had a good relationship and sometimes we argued, but I don’t see the point of arguing in the car because it doesn’t fix anything. We needed to have a French navigator because the officials only speak French and it helped when we were in France.

Did you see much of Alfie Cox?

Yes, we saw him often until his accident. He often came over at the end of a day to ask how our stage had gone. We saw him at the end of the race again.

How did the vehicle's inflation system work?

It worked very well and we would have been stuck without it. It took 20 seconds to deflate a tyre one bar and 25 seconds to inflate it one bar. We used diving gas bottles to do this. We actually used the bottles to go diving at the end of the race in Sharm el-Sheikh.

What were the highlight and low point of the race?

There was nothing specific that was a highlight, the whole race was a highlight. It was a new experience. The worst moment was (Nissan team-mate) Kenjiro Shinozuka’s accident. It was a terrible accident and it had a bad effect on the team. It affected how we drove after that. (Shinozuka is recovering well after hitting his face against the steering wheel during an accident on stage eight. The car flew into the air before hitting the sand nose first and cartwheeling.)

Did you test the car extensively before the race?

Actually, I only drove the race car for about 100 km before Dakar and that included about 20 km around Gerotec because the Japanese signed off the programme late. It’s a well-built vehicle and performed well and we saw that when we landed on the rear light and the suspension took most of the impact.

But I practised with another Hardbody in the dunes in Walvis Bay for about two days. That was a good experience as the dunes were difficult to race on. Next year I want to be better prepared and practice more - especially in the race car.

Have you got any suggestions for Nissan on how to improve the vehicle?

A few things, yes, maybe air-conditioning! I think they need to work on the aerodynamics a bit and more torque. We also needed more visibility over the dunes as the nose was quite high. All these small things could make a big difference. I think it could make us maybe a second per km quicker, which could add up to about two hours.

What gave the Mitsubishis the edge?

Experience. They have been racing the Dakar for about 20 years and knew what to expect and what to do. Our team had only been doing this for a year. But we still managed to challenge them. Next year we will be better prepared.

What do you have planned now?

First I will have a few days' rest, then I’m going to France on February 4 for my debriefing and we will discuss the plans for next year, but I think I will be racing. I’ll continue racing in the South African championships, which will be good practice for the Dakar. I also want to spend some time in Namibia practising on the dunes.

Career history:

1993: Stannic Group N National Class D Champion

1994: Nissan Sentra, Class B and SA Production Car Champion

1995: South African Touring Car Championship - Nissan Sentra

International Touring Car event : 2nd and 3rd (against International competitors)

1996: South African Touring Car Championship - Nissan Sentra

South African Rainbow Cup (International Touring Car event) : 2 wins - Nissan Primera

1997: South African Touring Car Driver Champion - Nissan Primera

1998: South African Touring Car Driver Champion - Nissan Primera

Awarded National Protea Colours

1999: African Touring Car Driver Champion - Nissan Primera

2000: South African Touring Car Driver Champion - Nissan Primera

Ranked as the world's most successful Touring Car Driver

2001: National Off Road Championship - Nissan Hardbody T1

National Production Vehicle Champion

2002: National Off Road Championship - Nissan Hardbody T1

2003: Dakar Rally - fifth place Nissan Nardbody.

Original article from Car