Fernando Alonso's adaptation to cross-country rallying so far has been "better than expected", according to his Toyota Gazoo Racing South Africa team boss Glyn Hall, but he admits Alonso's fearless driving style exposes him to extra risks.
Toyota revealed Alonso as part of its four-strong factory line-up for the 2020 Dakar Rally last month, although the Spaniard had begun his preparations for the legendary rally-raid in earnest back in August and contested the Morocco Rally in early October.
This week, the two-time Formula 1 champion will take part in the Ula Neom Rally, a round of the Saudi Desert Rally Championship that kicks off on Wednesday and concludes on Saturday, to familiarise himself with the terrain he'll encounter in Saudi Arabia.
Speaking to selected media including Motorsport.com, Hall said that Alonso's progress so far behind the wheel of the Toyota Hilux 4x4 since his August test in Namibia alongside Dakar winner Giniel de Villiers has been impressive.
"The plan has been going better than we expected, but there is no manual that tells you how to guide drivers from one discipline to a completely different one," Hall said.
"We had no experience beyond that of Giniel who was a four-time touring car champion [in his native South Africa] and he finished fifth in his first Dakar [in 2003, with Nissan], so we know it is possible.
"Fernando arrived with zero experience on gravel and we have exposed him to all the different types of terrain that you can find. In addition, we limited the training to a maximum of four days at a time, because any more might be too much.
"The difference is incredible, he was very impressed with how tough the cars are. When he drove with Giniel he could not believe how little respect he had for the car. He taught [Alonso] many things in Namibia and the learning curve in those three days was immense."
#314 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota Hilux: Fernando Alonso
Photo by: Rally of Morocco
Hall admitted that Alonso's current fearlessness behind the wheel, especially in areas where there are unpredictable obstacles, could yet pose problems for Toyota.
“The best thing is that after the roll in his first event [the Lichtenburg 400], which was very unfortunate and is part of this discipline, his motivation remains very high," he said.
"For me, the biggest problem is that Fernando is not afraid. He is very brave, his speed is no problem, but this adds another element of risk to us.
"In the 60km of the Prologue he had the speed to win it, so speed is not his problem. It is the experience and knowing how to assess the pace at which you have to go all day."
Coma the "perfect choice" to partner Alonso
Toyota hired Marc Coma, a five-time Dakar champion on two wheels and former sporting director of the event, to join Alonso in the cockpit as navigator.
Hall admitted that other more experienced co-drivers were available, but added that he believes Coma's ability to read the dunes and the fact he can communicate with Alonso in Spanish were more important factors.
"Asking Marc to join [Alonso] was the perfect choice, because both can grow together in terms of being in the car," said Hall. "Because Marc has a lot of experience in the field, he knows everything, he feels the terrain, especially in the dunes.
"The combination is great, but as for the pace inside the car in the race, Marc learns at the same time that Fernando and that is perhaps our biggest challenge right now.
"Of course, there were other options, such as Jean-Paul Cottret [Stephane Peterhansel's former co-driver], but I think the Spanish connection inside the cockpit is very strong.
"Marc's ability to read the terrain is a feature that Jean-Paul might not have because Stephane did that [himself]. I think the balance is better with what we have."