By all accounts, the Dakar Rally, regarded as the toughest motorsport event in the world, lived up to its irrefutable reputation with its 2021 instalment in Saudi Arabia.
At the launch of the 2021 Dakar Rally, the organisers of the event, ASO, described the route as a journey of exploration and more difficult than the 2020 version.
This year’s event might have copped criticism for perhaps being a little too tough, but it brought out the best in South Africa.
“South African vehicle manufacturers, competitors and teams have once again risen to the occasion,” said Archie Rutherford, CEO of the South African Cross Country Series (SACCS). “The results again reflect that South African cross-country racing has had a major impact on the world stage.
“All the South African participants did us proud and the incentive is there for other teams and individuals to follow their dream to experience the Dakar.”
On an event plagued by punctures and navigational challenges, it was the Toyota Gazoo Racing squad that spearheaded the South African attack. Nasser al Attiyah, a two-time winner of the Dakar Rally, and Mathieu Baumel, runners-up in this year’s Dakar Rally, were always in contention for a top-three podium finish, while 2009 Dakar winner, Giniel de Villiers and Spanish navigator, Alex Haro, had a torrid time, and having only escaped one stage without multiple punctures, finished a credible eight overall.
Shameer Variawa and Dennis Murphy, fifth in the 2020 SACCS overall production vehicle championship and in their first Dakar together, had their share of misfortune, including multiple punctures and a broken side shaft, but delivered a sterling performance to finish 21st overall.
Privateers Brian Baragwanath and Taye Perry, former Dakar Rally quad and bike competitors, overcame a plethora of challenges in their first attempt at the car category, including a barrel roll on stage six, to prove their mettle in their South African-designed and built Century Racing CR6. The pair finished 32nd overall and seventh in the T1.3 Class for two-wheel drive petrol cars, two positions behind Brazilians Marcelo Gastaldi and Lourival Roldan in another Century Racing CR6.
In the lightweight vehicle class, known as the side-by-side (SxS) class in the SACCS championship, another South African constructor was quietly building an enviable Dakar record. Kyalami-based WCT Engineering, under the guidance of Stuart Thompson, saw 12 South African-designed and built under license by South Racing in Europe, vehicles entered in this year’s iconic event.
American Casey Currie and South African Sean Berriman conquered the world’s toughest race in a WCT Engineering designed SSV last year. This year, seven South African-designed Can-Ams, represented by South Racing and Monster Energy, finished in the top ten, with the overall title going to Chileans Francisco Contardo and Juan Pablo Vinagre.
Less fortunate in this year’s merciless 4 500-kilometre marathon epic were Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Henk Lategan and Brett Cummings, and Botswana rider Ross Branch (Monster Energy Yamaha).
Multiple SACCS overall production vehicle champions, Lategan/Cummings quickly showed their flair as they settled into the demands of the Dakar Rally, and by the end of stage four had moved into the top five overall. Unfortunately, this good form came to a grinding halt when the pair crashed out of the rally early in stage five, fortunately only suffering minor injuries.
The Toyota Gazoo Racing Team Principal, Glyn Hall, said, “Henk and Brett have made their mark on the biggest cross-country stage in the world, and we’re looking forward to watching their progress in the months and years to come.”
In his first outing in the Dakar, Branch showed his class when he won the 2019 Dakar Rookie of the Event accolade and finished an incredible 13th overall. His excellent performance as a privateer in 2019 and 2020 secured him a place in the 2021 Monster Energy Yamaha Rally Team. From the start of this year’s event, Branch displayed his exceptional talent and placed fourth at the halfway mark.
Despite a heavy crash on stage seven, he soldiered on, but was sadly sidelined with mechanical failure on stage nine.
“It was an unbelievable performance for everyone connected with the teams and they deserve a pat on the back,” said Rutherford. “It is stories like these that make the Dakar such a memorable event.”
After a lengthy break and the excitement of the 2021 Dakar Rally, competitors and teams will now be turning their focus to the first of seven rounds of the SACCS series in Dullstroom on March 26 and 27.