Today's opening stage of the Rally of Morocco saw South African Dakar legend Giniel de Villiers, with navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz beside him, finish just twenty seconds behind the early leader, defending champion Orlando Terranova of Argentina (MINI All4Racing). The pair powered their locally built Dakar-spec Toyota Hilux through the stage of 276 km in 2:23:07, at an average speed of 115 km/h.
The stage, which was run between the towns of Erfoud and Damia in the East of the country, offered crews a mix of terrain that included some spectacular dunes, similar to those encountered on the Dakar. But the stage also included some rough sections, especially early on - and this cost De Villiers the early lead of the rally.
"We started strong," said the Paarl racing legend after the stage, "but unfortunately we had a puncture before the second checkpoint. This cost us a couple of minutes, but that's the nature of the game."
De Villiers and Von Zitzewitz were in sixth place at CP1, just 1:46 behind Terranova, but despite moving up to fourth overall by CP2 (at the 150 km mark), the gap to Terranova had increased to 3:14 due to the puncture. Just 87 km later, at CP3, the gap was down to a mere 19 seconds, clearly showing that the Hilux has the pace not only to match the MINIs, but to deal serious blows if De Villiers has a clean run.
"We are very happy with the way the Hilux performed today," continued De Villiers. "It never missed a beat, and were it not for that puncture, we would've been leading the event for sure."
Nasser Al-Attyah (MINI) is currently in third place, 43 seconds behind the Toyota Imperial Hilux of De Villiers / Von Zitzewitz. Dutch driver Bernhard ten Brinke is in fourth (Overdrive Toyota Hilux), with Marek Dabrowski in the Orlen Toyota Hilux rounding out the Top 5. The 2014 Dakar winner Nani Roma (MINI) is 24 minutes behind the leaders after a disastrous opening stage.
"We are very pleased to have three South-African built and developed Toyota Hilux race vehicles in the top five today," said Team Principal Glyn Hall. "It really shows that we are a force to be reckoned with on this global stage, and we can only hope that things keep going this well for the next five days."
The Rally of Morocco takes place over six stages, with a total race distance of 1,442 km. Starting in the town of Erfoud, the route heads North and West to Cheggaga via Damia and Merzane, before a grand finale in Marrakech.
Tomorrow's stage, Stage 2, again starts in the town of Erfoud. The route then takes the crews on a 211 km loop towards Merzane, before ending with a liaison of 37 km that brings everyone back to Erfoud for the evening.
Fans can follow the action via Toyota's social media: www.twitter.com/toyotasa (#hiluxvsmorocco); and www.facebook.com/toyotasouthafrica.