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| Feature Drive | Madrid, Spain | Toyota Land Cruiser KXR Dakar Rally Car |
Danny Cobbs. Photography by Max Earey. - 11 Nov 2010
As a motorsport, the Dakar Rally is the most extreme of them all. It is a gruelling challenge, pitting man and machine against the worst Mother Nature can throw at them. We got behind the wheel of the Toyota Cooper Tires team race car while they prepare for the 2011 Dakar Rally to see how it handles - and get our internal organs rearranged in the process.
In the Metal
The one thing that surprises the most about this Toyota is that it is basically a bog-standard production short wheelbase Land Cruiser, just stripped of any niceties, re-tuned, given a new set of dampers and swathed in under-body armour.
This particular Toyota had been prepared for Spanish driver Xavier Foj, veteran of twenty-one Dakar races (actually, he say's its twenty and half because the 2008 event was cancelled during the event for political reasons). When we caught up with him and the rest of the team they had just completed exhaustive tests in southern Morocco and were finalising the car's suspension set-up on Masia Perlarda proving ground, a huge expanse of wilderness three hours drive from Madrid.
The car body sits proud on its uprated springs, much taller than a standard Land Cruiser. All the rear glass has been removed and swapped for fibreglass panels. In fact, anything that is deemed to add extra weight has been completely discarded, replaced instead with a full roll-cage, Sparco racing seats and twin air compressors for the all-round Donerre suspension. A 300-litre fuel tank sits where the backseats once were and Xavier and his Argentinean navigator, Pablo Jaton, also carry two spare 7x16-inch Braid mono-block wheels with Cooper Discoverer STT tyres. A pair of fire extinguishers, basic first aid kit and lightweight sand boards completes the Land Cruiser's inventory.
There's little room left in the front for anything other than the essential navigational and communication equipment. It's a cramped area and even in the relatively mild heat of the autumnal Spanish sun it still felt like a prelude to Dante's inferno - air conditioning was a luxury thrown out with the carpets and cup holders.
The only tinkering the engine has had performed on it is a re-chipping to increase output to 220bhp, peaking at 3,400rpm. The car still only tops out at a relatively lowly 105mph. However, the Dakar race isn't all about top speed; it's an endurance race, set over 15 days, covering the most inhospitable terrain of the South Americas. This is the 32nd year for the event and although it was originally known simply as the 'Paris-Dakar Rally' (the clue here is in the title), politics dictate it is now staged away from possible troubled areas of Africa. When Thierry Sabine founded the event in 1977 he wanted to impart his love for exploring the uncharted with other likeminded adventurers (some might call them lunatics), and his ethos remains resolute today as it ever did.
During the 2011 challenge, competitors in an assortment of specially-modified bikes, trikes, cars and lorries will criss-cross Argentina and Chile, traversing mountains and deserts in the shortest possible time. So, yes, speed is an essential part of the competition, but the vehicles' ability to withstand such harsh driving conditions is equally as important.
It would be unfair to judge this car for its on-road manners because, quite simply, it doesn't have any. The compromise is that when it launches into mid-air, after hitting a crater at breakneck speeds for instance, it flies for what seems like an improbable amount of time. The 3.0-litre turbodiesel engine, free from any ground resistance, screams like a psychotic banshee before gravity finally prevails and it slams back down to earth again. But here's the thing; when it does eventually make contact with the ground the Donerre dampers amazingly soak-up the worst of it. I've had rougher landings on an EasyJet flight. You don't even need a degree in white-witchcraft-off-road-magic to manage the four-wheel drive system either, as it too is exactly the same as in 'normal' production cars; left true to the Toyota engineers' designs.
On the straight and at full pelt, the 'Cruiser hustles and jostles, completely oblivious of the mayhem it's causing to its occupants. The suspension is working overtime, constantly absorbing each blow the uneven surface throws at it. Even so, from the driver's seat, the continuous pounding is relentless. It gets worse when Xavier drives. He's seems to trying prove a point; however good a driver I think I am, he's much better. And the Spaniard isn't about to take any prisoners, me included. The racing harness, keeping me snug in the seat normally reserved for his navigator, digs into my shoulders as he slides the car around a hairpin bend at speeds I wouldn't entertain on tarmac. We hurtle towards a large fissure in the dirt track, the car hardly notices the change in the topography, as all four wheels are swallowed and then we bounce out. I don't need to be a spectator to know there's a fair amount of air between us and the ground. We're airborne again, and as we land the Toyota takes the full brunt on its two off-side wheels before the expertise of my driver corrects the situation. My arms flay around like a ragdoll in a washing machine on full spin cycle, my kidneys feel as if they've been donkey-punched. Neither the car nor Xavier seems too perturbed by our two-wheel landing. He looks over to me - now a snivelling wreck - just gives a wry smile and floors the accelerator. What kind of madness do you need to possess to willingly sign-up for such a tortuous event?
The Dakar race kicks-off on 1 January 2011 in Buenos Aires, and is due to return to the Argentinean capital for the finish on 15 January. If this is the type of adventurism missing in your life, you can still apply for the 2012 Dakar. Be warned: you'll need lots of money to compete, an aging tricked-up Land Rover with a deep-wading snorkel is hardly going to make the grade. Very few vehicles actually return, and, more importantly, some of the competitors have died while taking part.
Thierry Sabine succinctly summed-up his vision for the event. He said, "It is a challenge for those who go. A dream for those who stay behind".