Dakar : Volkswagen Motorsport - Preview
Call of the wild: On 6 January, Volkswagen starts the 2007 Dakar Rally with four Race Touareg 2 prototypes. For Volkswagen factory drivers Mark Miller/Ralph Pitchford (USA/South Africa), Carlos Sainz/Michel Périn (Spain/France), Ari
Vatanen/Fabrizia Pons (Finland/Italy) and Giniel de Villiers/Dirk von Zitzewitz (South Africa/Germany) a total of 15 stages stretching over 8,696 kilometres are on the agenda on the road to the Senegalese capital Dakar.
After the Wolfsburg squad finished second in January 2006 with Giniel de Villiers, and, in doing so, recorded the best ever result for a Diesel vehicle in the event's 28-year history, Volkswagen is considered to be one of the favourites for overall victory.
“We want to be the first to win this extremely long and tough rally with a Diesel powered vehicle,” explains Volkswagen Motorsport Director Kris Nissen. “We have prepared ourselves for this enormous challenge over the last few months by undertaking an extensive test and development programme through which we have further improved the car, logistics and organisation.”
Volkswagen once again expects strong competition to emerge from the 187 cars in the field. “Mitsubishi will certainly be our strongest opponent,” explains Kris Nissen.
“The team has developed a new car, the team has years of experience in cross country rallying and has excellent drivers and co-drivers.”
Other rivals in the prototype category are the X-Raid Team (BMW) and the Buggy driver Jean-Louis Schlesser. “From our viewpoint a dozen cars are possible stage winners, six or seven could fight for overall victory”, estimates Nissen.
Volkswagen Race Touareg 2 further improved
The Volkswagen Race Touareg 2 has been constantly improved since the finish of the 2006 Dakar Rally. A new version of the 2.5-litres five-cylinder Diesel engine, which uses a four-valve cylinder-head for the first time, equips the all-wheel drive prototype.
“The engine produces a little more power, namely 285 hp, and delivers more torque over a wider rev range which significantly improves the drivability,” explains Donatus Wichelhaus, Head of Engine Development at Volkswagen Motorsport. During a series of intensive tests many of the Race Touareg components were further developed: In total 35 per cent of the components were either modified or newly designed.
The gearbox was also improved. “The drivers are full of praise because changing gear requires less physical effort. An invaluable advantage on the Dakar Rally's long daily stages,” explains Kris Nissen. Further improvements were found in the suspension and its geometry. “In cooperation with ZF Sachs we developed a ‘Dakar' damper that proved to be good on hard sub-surfaces and camel grass.”
Selected competitive outings also counted towards the Dakar Rally preparations. Volkswagen factory driver Giniel de Villiers and his German co-driver Dirk von Zitzewitz were successful in the FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup recording a brace of wins at the Rally Transibérico in Portugal and Spain and the Moroccan Rally. Carlos Sainz won three of the six stages in the UAE Desert Challenge together with co-driver Michel Périn.
“These wins reflect our current level of performance. We are capable of putting the strongest competitors under pressure and beating them,” endorses Kris Nissen Giniel de Villiers is highly motivated after his two wins this season. “We want to win the “Dakar”. We are well prepared, the team has worked hard on the development of the Race Touareg,” explains the South African. “At the tests and races the improvements to the suspension and engine were very noticeable. A lot of small details were also improved in the cockpit, from which we will benefit while we are at work on the long daily stages.”
Strong driver quartet with quality and reputation
Volkswagen has a strong and experienced driver quartet for the 2007 Dakar Rally. Finn Ari Vatanen bolsters the Volkswagen team since the autumn. With victories in 1987 and 1989, 1990 and 1991 the former Rally World Champion is one of the most experienced competitors and, at the same time, the most successful driver in the car classification of this cross country classic. His experienced co-driver Fabrizia Pons is a long serving member of the Volkswagen team.
Last year's runner-up Giniel de Villiers make his second appearance for Volkswagen in the cross country classic. His co-driver is the German Dirk von Zitzewitz, who started in the Volkswagen Race Touareg alongside Robby Gordon in 2005 and as co-driver to Mark Miller in 2006.
Carlos Sainz, who made his “Dakar” debut with Volkswagen in 2006, has contested another three competitions since then with threetime “Dakar” winner Michel Périn and, in the process, familiarised himself with more cross country rallying peculiarities. As in 2006 the American Mark Miller is a part of the Volkswagen team, his new “Co” is the South African Ralph Pitchford.
“We wanted a mix of drivers and co-drivers who possessed not only speed and the will to win, but also maturity and experience. We achieved these targets with our squad. A driver's age is not as crucial in cross country rallying as it is on other motorsport disciplines. Actually, what is required during the Dakar Rally is a mixture of driving quickly, car control and reading the lie of the land. An excellent level of fitness and stamina also plays an important role, which every driver and co-driver proved to have in the team and individual training session,” explains Kris Nissen.
Mammoth event requires perfect logistics
Around 80 team members set off towards Dakar on 6 January. The entire team of personnel and 25 tonnes of tools, equipment and spare parts must be transported throughout the course of fifteen days of competition in the fleet of support vehicles, which includes three Race-Trucks racing in the Truck classification, seven Service-Trucks, three T5 Volkswagen Transporters and ten Service Touareg.
“In other motorsport disciplines it is possible to improve the car significantly from weekend to weekend. The moment the threeweek Dakar Rally starts there is no chance of changing anything on the car or with the organisation or logistics. That's why every team member must do a perfect job each and every day there,” explains Volkswagen Motorsport Director Kris Nissen. "During such a long rally, after all it is almost as long as the combined distance of every Formula 1 race in a season, everything must run like clockwork otherwise you have no chance of winning. And even if a team has prepared meticulously there is no guarantee of success.”
Classic “Dakar” route starts in Lisbon
A classic “Dakar” route through six countries includes a mix of the stages from last year. “This route holds an advantage for the participants in that this rally should be very well organised as a result of the organisers experience and contacts made over the previous years,” believes Kris Nissen. “The rally will provide the drivers with a great many challenges: The organisers have announced that the percentage of sand will be very high.”
The Dakar Rally runs over a total of 15 stages through Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Mauretania and Mali to the Senegal. On two evenings, 14 January in Tichit and on 16 January in Timbuktu, no regular service is permitted on the so-called marathon stages that span two days of competition.
The traditional rest day is on 13 January in Atar, Mauretania. “Rest day is a somewhat misleading term because the team is faced with such a huge amount of work,” explains Kris Nissen. “The drivers and co-drivers have many meetings with journalists and sponsors. Also, the entire team will use every minute available on the rest day after the first half of the rally to prepare the cars perfectly for the tough second week of competition." The teams are expected at the picturesque finish on Lac Rose near Dakar on 21 January.
“Team Lagos” customer team enters Race Touareg for Carlos Sousa
A private Race Touareg 2 run by customer team “Team Lagos” also contests the 2007 “Dakar” alongside the four factory run cars. Phoenix Sport from Meuspath at the Nürburgring enters the car. The driver pairing is the Portuguese Carlos Sousa and German Andreas Schulz. Carlos Sousa, 2003 FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup titleholder, is the local matador on the European “Dakar” stages. For his twelfth start in the Dakar Rally the 40-year old from Lisbon trusts the directions given by experienced German co-driver Andreas Schulz, who won the classic rally in 2001 and 2003.