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Kyalami Racetrack is one of South Africa’s most famous motorsport venues. It should come as no surprise, then, that some of the country’s biggest names in motorsport are also near the racetrack. After all, if you’re going to prepare a racecar you’ll want to be near a venue where it can stretch its legs, right?

Except that’s not quite the scenario in the case of Toyota Motorsport, which operates as Hallspeed. This relatively tiny motorsports workshop, based in Kyalami, prepares very special vehicles – and none of them see the famous racetrack’s tar in their lifetime. Well, at least not to turn a wheel in anger.

Hallspeed, headed up by one of South Africa’s most famous motorsport development gurus, Glyn Hall, builds rally and off-road race vehicles. On its lifts are a handful of Toyota Yaris rally cars that race in the S2000 spec, and soon a couple of very, very special Hilux pick-up trucks – or, to use the South African term for these beloved machines, bakkies.

The two Hilux racers being built will go on to compete in the most famous international off-road race of all: the Dakar. They’ll be piloted by the legendary Giniel de Villiers, whose co-driver is Germany’s Dirk von Zitzewitz, and newcomer-to-Dakar (but not motorsports) Leeroy Poulter, whose right-hand-man will be Rob Howie.

A team of accomplished South African drivers. A South African motorsport development house. And an icon of South African roads. As they say, local is lekker.

Glyn Hall, team principal for Toyota Motorsport SA.
Glyn Hall, team principal for Toyota Motorsport SA.

That mantra – that local things are better – carries the entire development of the Dakar Hilux. The project was a South African idea. While Toyota Motor Company in Japan knows about it, the South Africans in charge of the Dakar Hilux hold it near and dear to their hearts. That’s why it has local sponsors, local drivers, and the car is built locally.

Glyn Hall, the team principal for Toyota Motorsport South Africa, says that 80% of the Dakar Hilux is built right here, on South African soil. Even the imported parts – specialist items from industry leaders – are fine-tuned here, using local expertise. And of the locally-made parts, 60% are machined on premises at Toyota Motorsport.

According to Hall, if a component can be made here, they’ll have it made here. That even goes for the battery in the Hilux, which is a special gel-type battery (normal car batteries are lead acid-based), and is made by a local company.

While the Dakar Hilux looks like its road-going counterpart, it doesn’t start life as one. Under those Hilux-a-like body panels sits a space frame – essentially the core structure and safety cell of the car, made using tubular steel. It’s designed in-house, by Hallspeed, and has some of the company’s industry secrets – so no photo, here.

It’s clad in body panels made from high-tech lightweight composite materials, like carbon fibre, and to keep things authentic the final product has bits right from the production Hilux – door handles, Toyota badging, headlights, and grille. Despite all the weight-saving, though, it still weighs about as much as a double-cab Hilux on a showroom floor.

Glyn says that the target weight, for the 2014 car, is to be as near as possible to the minimum allowed weight for the category. The 2013 car – which placed 2nd at this year’s Dakar – was a bit tubby, but they’re aiming to hit the target weight of 1 975kg.

So it’s had to shed weight, to become more competitive, while still remaining tough enough to complete the 9 000km drive across the worst of what South America has to offer. Some of the weight savings have come from more extensive use of carbon fibre for the body. More weight was saved through a revised suspension geometry which makes use of components that are machined from new materials. Some of these machined bits need to withstand 20 000kg of force when the car lands – the Dakar isn’t all smooth roads, and when things get airborne the laws of physics will apply.

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This is home for 14 days, in the scorching hot South American desert summer.

Amazingly, the engine – a 5-litre V8 unit – has to remain mostly stock, as per regulations for the Dakar. The exhaust and air intake systems can be customised, so Hallspeed builds these parts in house. That said, the team is still weighing up options for the 2014 race, and a final spec on the powerunit hasn’t been decided just yet.

The engine gets an uprated cooling system, which uses two radiators that have to cool 20 litres of water, but the most important upgrade to next year’s car is something vital to the driver’s performance: air conditioning. With every effort going into saving weight on the car, the aircon offsets most efforts in that department. Ripped straight out of a road-going double-cab Hilux, it’s run at full blast for the days it’s needed. The desert gets pretty hot, and a 45-degree ambient temperature outside means that it can get closer to 60 degrees celsius in the cabin.

 

That might sound very pedestrian to people who were expecting more from a custom-built car that costs in excess of R3.9-million. Previous Dakar vehicles had inboard tyre inflation and deflation systems: the push of a button could give you the tyre pressure you needed for a specific terrain. Those systems were banned a number of years ago – so what exciting toys are on the modern cars?

Glyn revealed one of the Hilux’s party tricks: onboard hydraulic jacks that extend from the bottom of the car, to raise it by up to 600mm. This makes it invaluable in the event of a tyre change, a tightly-rehearsed procedure where driver and co-driver work in unison to change a tyre in just 90 seconds. Any longer, and they’ll be caught in the dust wake of opponents that overtake them.

Essential information on a bright, clear display.
Essential information on a bright, clear display.

In the cockpit, the driver is left free from distractions with only a central dash display that shows him which gear he’s in, as well as the oil and water temperature – the three most crucial things to keep the engine safe. But the rest of the system, a central data readout computer built by Cosworth – an F1 engine supplier – gives the co-driver essential information. He monitors everything, including real-time fuel consumption, and lets the driver know when something goes wrong or they need to slow down.

Dakar organisers also fit each vehicle with a special satellite tracking system, but it’s hardly the kind you’d use to get directions. Should a car be involved in an accident where it tips over or rolls, an operator phones in from Paris, France, and ascertains whether the occupants are still all right. If there is no response, an emergency helicopter is despatched to their location, using the GPS coordinates the tracking system supplies.

If a competitor accepts help from the operator or the helicopter, their race is over – that’s why it’s not uncommon to see highlight reels of drivers and co-drivers attempting to resurrect their stricken vehicles.

The co-driver's view, with mounting spots for the Dakar-specific tracking equipment.
The co-driver’s view, with mounting spots for the Dakar-specific tracking equipment.

The tracking system can also be used in another emergency: when competitors are lost. Route books are used to navigate the rally, but they don’t exactly have directions for which roads to drive on. The are no roads, and instead compass heading are given. Once a car is within 800 metres of a waypoint marker, the satellite tracking system activates the next marker – imagine driving for 20 kilometres in a certain direction, on no roads, and then be expected to land within 800 metres of a certain spot.

In this case, if a team is lost, the GPS can be activated to help point them in the right direction. However, doing so attracts a 2-hour time penalty. And since rallies positions are are based on time, that’s a hefty punishment.  As if desert sands and rocky roads aren’t enough of a challenge.

The two Toyota Motorsport teams have their work cut out for them. The Dakar takes no prisoners, but they have new cars that boast lighter parts, hydraulic jacks, Cosworth computers, and – most importantly – aid conditioning. All built, right here. They stand as good a chance as their toughest competition.

Their hopes for the 2014 race?

Well, looking at their past successes on the podium, it’s been 3rd, 2nd…

Why the Hilux?

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When Toyota South Africa decided to enter the Dakar it was an easy decision: they’d use the Hilux. While this might just be another bakkie to some, it’s the livelihood for our entrepreneurial nation. Farmers rely on their Hiluxes for flawless everyday duty. Construction workers punish these vehicles day in and day out. The Hilux is so popular, it outsells every other passenger car model – and it’s not even classified as a passenger car.

Sure, the Dakar truck only shares a name and shape (and a few accessories) with the road-going Hilux, but that doesn’t detract from the inherent toughness in Toyota’s little truck. We’ve seen them used as military vehicles in civil wars, and British TV show, Top Gear, famously tried to destroy one.

It even serves as the base vehicle for the Arctic Trucks range of polar and expedition vehicles, which have driven across the North Pole, up to volcanos, and many more places you’d probably never take your own car.

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The race in the desert

dakarThe Dakar gets its name from the city where the race used to end – Dakar, in the West-African country of Senegal. In fact, it used to be called the Paris-Dakar, since it kicked off in the French capital.

After running since 1979, the 2008 the race was cancelled due to security concerns in Mauritania, and the organisers chose to host the 2009 race in South America. Tradition just made the name stick.

It’s mostly the same, though: daily stages of up to 900km through tortuous desert conditions that would kill any normal car, making it one of the toughest tests for automotive durability in the world. The 2014 race kicks off in Rosario, Argentina, on the 5th of January, and ends in Valparaíso, Chile, on the 18th of January.

Gadget, gadget, on the go

ginielWhat gadget would you take to a 9 000km race in the desert? For Giniel de Villiers that’s a simple question: his iPod shuffle. While he admits he’s not much of a techie, his music player find a place in the cramped cockpit of the Hilux for two reasons.

Firstly, he says it’s invaluable to have music for those long transit stages. These are parts of the Dakar where drivers aren’t competing, and need to drive normally to the next checkpoint.

Secondly, because the iPod shuffle is incredibly small and light. When a 1kg weight saving on a near 2-ton car makes a difference, you don’t have the luxury of a touch screen or 160GB of music.

 

Eleven years ago Christo started writing about technology for one of South Africa's (then) leading computer magazines. His first review? A Samsung LCD monitor. Hey, it was hot news, back then. Nowadays he gets more excited about photography, cars, game consoles, and faster internet connections. He's sort of an Apple fan, but will take any opportunity to remind you about his Windows-powered home theatre PC and desire to own a vanilla Android tablet.   Currently uses: Apple 13-inch Macbook Pro with Retina Display, Apple iPhone 5, Microsoft Laser Mouse 6000, Audiofly AF78 Earphones, Xbox 360, Nikon D50.