At last, De Villiers tastes Dakar triumph

After years of flirting with Dakar success, South Africa’s Giniel de Villiers, rally driver and fine wine connoisseur, was the toast of the world’s most gruelling race on Saturday after winning the 2009 title.

The 36-year-old from Stellenbosch became the first African to win the event.

Ironically, it came in the year when the race, celebrating its 30th birthday, was shifted to South America because of the deteriorating security situation in Mauritania.

In five previous Dakar outings, De Villiers, teased by teammates for his resemblance to pop star Robbie Williams, had been agonisingly close to the title.

He was second in 2006 while in 2007 he dominated before his Volkswagen Touareg slipped back to 11th place.

“We became hungrier an hungrier,” said De Villiers at the start of the 2009 race two weeks ago.

He thrived in the testing South American conditions while his closest rivals slipped up.

Teammate and former double world rally champion Carlos Sainz let victory slip away when his Volkswagen tumbled into a ravine on Thursday.

Defending champions Mitsubishi, who had won the previous seven editions, fared even worse with Stephane Peterhansel, Luc Alphand and Hiroshi Masuoka all retiring in the first week.

Qatar’s world rally-raid champion Nasser Al-Attiyah, in a BMW and one of the early leaders, was disqualified after the sixth stage, a decision that briefly handed De Villiers the overall lead.

The South African started his career in his domestic touring car championship, a series he dominated from 1997 to 2000.

He then turned his attentions to off-road racing in South Africa before joining the Dakar as a Nissan driver from 2003 to 2005, with a best-placed fourth spot in his final season.

In 2006, he moved to Volkswagen and on Saturday handed the German manufacturers their first Dakar title.

“Racing is in my blood,” he says. “When it comes to desert rallies, you have to overcome new challenges every day, be incredibly flexible and be focused all the time—all of which I love.”—AFP

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