Von Zitzewitz, Pitchford, Nissen, Miller, de Villiers
As Volkswagen Motorsport Director, Kris Nissen is the man behind the fielding of the four Race Toaureg vehicles – and the one-two victory clinched by Giniel de Villiers/Dirk von Zitzewitz (ZA/D) and Mark Miller/Ralph Pitchford (USA/ZA).
What were the three best moments of the Dakar Rally for you?
Kris Nissen: “The start was one of the outstanding moments of the ‘Dakar’ straight from the outset because you could feel a whole country joining in the celebration. The ‘Dakar’ is known the world over, and everyone in Argentina and Chile wanted to witness the event ‘live’. Another moment occurred four or five days later when we realised that our preparation was paying off and that the team and the car were functioning perfectly. The third good moment was when we learned that Carlos Sainz and Michel Périn’s accident did not result in any severe damage to their health. This is very important for anyone in a position of responsibility in as large a team as Volkswagen’s. And then there was a fourth special moment – the arrival at the finish. That was simply an incredibly good feeling.”
Volkswagen is the first manufacturer to win the “Dakar” with a diesel-powered vehicle. How do you assess this exploit?
“I believe that this is a historic victory. Winning the ‘Dakar’ is a very difficult task. There are too many unknowns and it’s impossible to make any predictions beforehand. Volkswagen has been successful in this multi-dimensional sport from the outset and, for example, clinched stage wins with the Race Touareg as early as at the first ‘Dakar’ in 2004. The first podium result soon followed, and it was further improved by a second-place finish. In 2007, we were strong but minor issues cost us victory. In 2009, we were able to prove that we’ve got the best package in the overall outcome as well. Compared with our rivals from Mitsubishi and X-raid-BMW, Volkswagen – with its TDI technology – successfully demonstrated its diesel expertise. This is a nice realisation.”
And what does the “Dakar” victory mean to you personally?
“It’s no doubt a special kind of relief to have delivered almost perfect teamwork in the world’s most difficult race. ‘One team, one goal’ – that was our motto for this ‘Dakar’ and we breathed life into this commitment. We worked toward this goal for a long time. Now, the emotions are gradually emerging, we’re slowly starting to realise what we’ve really achieved. Looking our boys into the eyes, you’ll see that some have tears in them, while others are simply happy – and nobody is unhappy, to be sure. I’m proud of having been given the opportunity to work with such a squad, with such a fantastic team.”
What are the most important pieces of the puzzle in the Volkswagen Motorsport organization that have contributed to the “Dakar” exploit?
“You can divide this into two major areas. For one, with a small, powerful TDI diesel engine and a highly advanced chassis, we created the technical potential which gave us the best package on each of the special stages. In this area, the Volkswagen Motorsport technical staff, as well as Technical Development in Wolfsburg, are key elements. For the other, we get on well as a team – we’ve built a team in which all members handle their own tasks but also help out their colleagues. Everyone accepts everyone else. And that makes for a very cohesive squad.”
The TDI technology of the Volkswagen Group has been successful wherever it was used – for example, with Audi at the 24-hour race at Le Mans or in the SEAT in the World Touring Car Championship. Now, Volkswagen has won the “Dakar” with this concept. What gives this technology such a leading edge?
“First of all, the Volkswagen Group had paved the way for this technology from the outset, recognising its potential and driving the development forwards, step by step. As a consequence, it was possible to use this diesel technology – in collaboration with motorsport engineers – to put together good packages in the various disciplines, be it in touring car, sportscar or offroad racing. I personally believe that Volkswagen Group’s TDI technology is more advanced than that of others. And of course the exploits achieved in motorsport benefit the production side of the house as well.”
Another remarkable aspect at the Dakar Rally was the cool, calm and collected manner in which the team tackled its tasks. How would you rate the share the team has had in this exploit?
“Anyone who’s ever tried buttoning a shirt or putting on a tie under stress knows that this seldom produces the desired success. So, you’ve got to start all over two or three times. That’s what happens in a team at the Dakar Rally as well: if everyone takes a reasonable amount of time to finish a job, then the job will be finished in one go. That’s not only better but also quicker. I think we’ve successfully implemented this principle in our team. We’ve improved the way we communicate processes and can therefore distribute the load to several shoulders if necessary. This makes the whole team stronger. At the ‘Dakar’ this was a key factor. Although the loads put on the cars were heavier than ever, we were finished servicing them earlier than our rivals were, every day. And, as a result, our squad was constantly better rested than the others.”
A bit of luck is also necessary in order to be successful. Is there anything that should not have happened during the “Dakar” under any circumstances?
“In terms of technical aspects we were prepared well enough to always know where we stood. The worst thing that could have happened to us would have been a very large gap in trailing our rivals at the beginning of the rally, considering our restrained way of driving. In that case, it would have been difficult to slow down our drivers and to convince them to continue our pace. But the opposite happened: After a few days our rivals realised how strong we were, which at times prompted them to drive faster than their capabilities permitted. Carlos Sainz and his co-driver Michel Périn were always able to counter such attempts without taking any undue risks. I think that drove some of our competitors into making mistakes.”
But with Sainz/Périn a Race Touareg retired after an accident as well. Could all four Volkswagen vehicles in the field be expected to reach the finish?
“At such a tough rally you can’t expect to start with four cars and take all of them to the finish. As expected, we hardly encountered any technical problems. You can never prevent losing a car. We’ve got to accept that Carlos and Michel were unlucky. They set the pace and, as a result, frequently had to open the stage afterwards. That’s always a risk. I’m happy that they came out of the accident without serious consequences. However, compared with our immediate rivals, considering that we only had one car retire from the event, we did an outstanding job.”
Watching you in the bivouac one could feel the tension. What has made this Dakar Rally such a nerve-racking experience?
“At a cross-country rally, and particularly at the ‘Dakar’, the special stages are always very long and there is little information available as to how things are going during the stages. Even if you tap all the communications channels – such as receiving intermediate times via satellite phones – there is still a lot of uncertainty. For those waiting in the bivouac that’s sometimes hard to bear and the tension consistently rises. But after just a few days we knew that we were competitive on gravel and in sand and that we’re even a bit better than our rivals on these huge dunes. And I knew that the team was working well and without making mistakes and that the drivers were fully focused. In the end, all this served to calm me down again quite a bit.”
Kris Nissen – Motorsport Director with racing exploits of his own
Kris Nissen, who was born on 20 July 1960 in Arnum, Denmark, achieved numerous international exploits as a professional racer and has since continued his motorsport career in management. After racing karts in his native Denmark, Nissen managed to ascend to formula racing, culminating in his title win in the German Formula 3 Championship with Volkswagen in 1986. This was followed by a number of victories in sportscar and touring car championships as well as tests in Formula 1. Since 1998 he was instrumental in the conceptualization and preparation of the Lupo Cup and assumed the role of Volkswagen Motorsport Director in July 2003. Kris Nissen is married, with two children.