Dakar: Volkswagen preview

Through a sea of sand: Volkswagen well equipped for "Dakar" Through a sea of sand, longer and harder -- the route to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Dakar Rally demands a good portion of respect from the participants just days before...

Through a sea of sand: Volkswagen well equipped for "Dakar"

Through a sea of sand, longer and harder -- the route to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Dakar Rally demands a good portion of respect from the participants just days before the start. Volkswagen faces this 16-day long challenge with four factory entered Race Touareg 2 prototypes driven by Carlos Sainz/Michel Perin (Spain/France), Giniel de Villiers/Dirk von Zitzewitz (South Africa/Germany), Mark Miller/Ralph Pitchford (USA/South Africa) and Germans Dieter Depping/Timo Gottschalk (Wedemark/Berlin). Fifteen stages covering a total of 9,273 kilometres lie before the 570 competitors in the car, motorbike and truck categories who tackle the 30th running of the desert classic starting on 5 January in Lisbon and who aim to reach the finish on in the Senegalese capital Dakar on 20 January.

After Volkswagen won the 2007 FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup with Carlos Sainz and Michel Perin at the beginning of November and led the entire field for eight days during the Dakar Rally a year ago the Wolfsburg based automobile manufacturer once again numbers among the small group of favourites to take victory in the world's hardest and longest rally. "Our goal is and remains to claim the first 'Dakar' win for diesel power with the Volkswagen Race Touareg," says Volkswagen Motorsport Director Kris Nissen.

Tough anniversary route: A challenge for both man and machine

Event organisers ASO devised an extremely challenging route to coincide with the 30th running of the Dakar Rally. The desert classic starts, like the previous two years, in the Portuguese capital Lisbon and finishes traditionally after more than two weeks in Dakar. "Many long and difficult stages await us in between," explains Volkswagen factory driver Giniel de Villiers and 2006 "Dakar" runner-up. Team mater Dieter Depping adds: "The route driven against the clock is almost a third longer than in the previous years and, furthermore, the length of sandy sections is significantly higher."

The route runs through the "sea of sand" in the relatively uninhabited country of Mauritania for eight days. "The decisive moment influencing the outcome of the rally can happen on these stages at any time," knows Volkswagen factory driver Mark Miller. "Apart from the fact that it's easy to get bogged down in soft sand and lose lots of time it's also easy to get lost. The long days and loneliness in the Mauritanian desert are, in addition, very hard psychologically." Several tracks have not been a part of the rally route for more than a decade. Three time "Dakar" winner Michel Perin who is co-driver to Carlos Sainz is firmly convinced that "the stages before and after the rest day in Nouakchott (13 January) will be tough. The route between Nouadhibou and Atar was last used in 1994 and caused drama after drama at that time because the majority of the competitors got stuck in the dune mountains." Carlos Sainz hits the nail on the head: "This 'Dakar' will be a real challenge for man and machine."

Volkswagen backs experienced driver/co-driver quartet

"We rely yet again on our extremely well-rehearsed and stable team, which has collected even more experience and which functions perfectly together," explains Volkswagen Motorsport Director Kris Nissen. Three of the four factory duos start in the same combination as they did for the 2007 Dakar Rally. The drivers Mark Miller, Carlos Sainz and Giniel de Villiers are members Volkswagen's factory team since 2005. Carlos Sainz, World Rally Champion in 1990 and 1992, found a new challenge after finishing his career in classic rallying. During the 2007 Dakar Rally the Spaniard and "co" Michel Perin celebrated five stage victories and held the overall lead for four days. In the Rally Transiberico "El Matador", as he is known by his fans, claimed his first overall victory and crowned the 2007 season by winning the FIA Cross County Rally World Cup title.

US American Mark Miller with his South African co-driver Ralph Pitchford finished fourth and, in doing so, claimed the best position for a Volkswagen driver in the 2007 "Dakar". The former enduro rider and ex-Fund Manager is highly motivated for the 2008 event. "For me, this 'Dakar' is the most important sporting event in my life. To be absolutely ready for this challenge I completed an intensive fitness programme over the last few months and prepared myself meticulously for the event." His team mate Giniel de Villiers celebrated the best ever result for a diesel vehicle in the event's history after finishing second in a Volkswagen Race Touareg at the "Dakar" in 2006. In 2007 he won the Moroccan Rally together with his German co-driver Dirk von Zitzewitz. "We work perfectly together," say the pair. "Now we look forward to the challenge of the Dakar Rally."

Although the Germans Dieter Depping and co-driver Timo Gottschalk contest their first Dakar Rally at the wheel of a Race Touareg, they are however very familiar with both the Volkswagen team and the desert classic, more recently as crew in a Volkswagen Race-Truck. "I've reeled off many thousands of test kilometres and so know exactly just how enormously competitive the car is," says Dieter Depping.

Carlos Sousa in fifth Race Touareg 2 entered by customer outfit 'Team Lagos'

Alongside the four factory cars sporting the striking Red Bull colours a Race Touareg 2 entered by Portuguese "Team Lagos" starts the Dakar Rally for the second time. Competing together, as last year, are Portuguese ace Carlos Sousa, 2003 FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup Champion, and his German co-driver Andreas Schulz, "Dakar" winner in 2001 and 2003. Sousa held the overall lead on the opening two days of the 2007 "Dakar".

Large entry list and strong competition

In the morning of 5 January five-hundred and seventy competitors roll over the start ramp, 60 more than last year. In addition to the 245 motorbikes and 100 trucks there are 205 vehicles registered in the car category. Apart from the large factory teams, numerous privateers also start and for whom just arriving in Dakar is like a victory.

"Our strongest competitor in the battle for victory is the Mitsubishi team which is unbeaten at the Dakar Rally since 2001 and which also relies on four experienced drivers again this year," explains Kris Nissen. "However, at the final round of the World Cup in Dubai we also saw that the BMW X3 drivers are in with a shout, especially Nasser Al-Attiyah who is very good in sand. You also shouldn't underestimate Robby Gordon in the Hummer and Jean-Louis Schlesser with his Buggy."

Extensive detail work on Volkswagen Race Touareg 2

Volkswagen further improved the Race Touareg, powered by an innovative 280 hp, 2.5-litre five-cylinder TDI diesel engine, during an intensive test and development programme. "The last 'Dakar' showed that our performance is very good. Afterwards, the target was to specifically optimise details, purely and simply to undertake precision work," explains Eduard Weidl, Technical Director of Volkswagen Motorsport. "An important point was also to simplify and ease work in the cockpit. The sealing of the car was improved to such an extent that hardly any dust penetrates the cockpit. Also, a new air-conditioning system ensures that cockpit temperatures remain acceptable on extremely hot days - they still reach 50 degrees Celsius."

Modifying the Race Touareg to suit the new regulations was one of the main points during its preparation. Rally prototypes such as the Race Touareg and the competition from Mitsubishi, BMW and the Buggies can now only be equipped with a five-speed gearbox, six gears were previously allowed. The diameter of the intake air restrictor on the Volkswagen TDI engine was also reduced from 39 to 38 millimetres. This measure should reduce the maximum speed of the top cars. "The changes to the regulations affected all the top teams in the same way," explains Kris Nissen. "We had already defined the Dakar specification for the Race Touareg in August which allowed us to contest the Moroccan Rally and UAE Desert Challenge with the vehicle. The drivers even found the gearbox to be more comfortable as they don't have to shift gear so often."

Kris Nissen: "Well equipped for this demanding and high-calibre sporting event"

Volkswagen Motorsport Director Kris Nissen: "All five Race Touareg are well prepared, the team is highly motivated, and the drivers and co-drivers have not only honed themselves for the competition in tests and rallies, but also during technical training sessions, at fitness camps and navigation weeks. We are also well equipped and are looking forward to a challenging 'Dakar' with high-calibre competition. It's about time that it finally started."

-credit: volkswagen-motorsport.com

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About this article
Series Dakar
Drivers Robby Gordon , Mark Miller , Carlos Sainz , Jean-Louis Schlesser , Dieter Depping , Andreas Schulz , Carlos Sousa , Giniel de Villiers , Michel Périn , Timo Gottschalk , Ralph Pitchford , Kris Nissen
Teams Volkswagen Motorsport