When two people understand and trust each other blindly, throughout many hours a day, across a period of more than two weeks – the chemistry between them simply must be right.
Giniel de Villiers and Dirk von Zitzewitz are far more than just driver and co-driver to each other, but have been genuine friends for years. Having won the 2009 Dakar Rally will now weld them together for the rest of their lives. 36-year-old Giniel de Villiers from Stellenbosch in South Africa together with Dirk von Zitzewitz, who is four years older and hails from Karlshof in northern Germany, made history in the 280-hp diesel-powered Race Touareg not just in one but several respects: De Villiers/von Zitzewitz have given Volkswagen the first victory of a diesel-powered car in the 30-year history of the legendary “Dakar”, and they are the winners of the maiden event of this unique cross-country rally on the South American continent. By the way, Giniel de Villiers is the first African to win the desert classic that used to be staged in Africa.
“As a co-driver, you need to really trust the skills of your driver in order to be able to fully concentrate on navigating without being able to see the terrain all the time,” says Dirk von Zitzewitz. “Because of the many shocks inside the car you’ve got to constantly keep your body taut – but this can easily cause you to tense up if you don’t have complete faith in the driver’s abilities. This is exactly our distinguishing trait, though – the fact that we respect and highly value each other’s performance.” The result of this rapport is calm, focused communication during the up to eight hours of strenuous driving across gravel, scree, dunes and camel grass.
“When something goes wrong we don’t shout at each other but immediately – and calmly – look for a way out of the particular predicament,” says Giniel de Villiers. “This should not be taken for granted. And it’s the same way we deal with each other outside the cockpit as well. We can have oodles of fun together. We simply get on great with each other. During two weeks as intensive as those of the ‘Dakar’, when you’re spending many hours together in the car, that’s really worth a lot.”
Navigational flash of inspiration: preliminary “Dakar” decision on twelfth leg
The twelfth stage of the 2009 Dakar Rally showed how unusual the solutions de Villiers/von Zitzewitz come up with can be and how successful they are. When they got into an almost insurmountable field of scree, Dirk von Zitzewitz simply jumped out of the car and pointed the way to Giniel de Villiers. “I’ve never had an experience quite like this one before. I’ve never had to get out of the car to find the way,” the northern German says with a smile. “In the end – despite our low speed – this saved us a lot of time.”
On the same leg a navigational flash of inspiration on the last five kilometres of the special stage gave the South African-German duo the crucial advantage over Mark Miller/Ralph Pitchford (USA/ZA), their team colleagues in the Volkswagen that was leading the event at the time. “We’d been leading the rally on a previous occasion and then dropped to third place,” recalls Giniel de Villiers, who goes by the name of “Ginny” while Dirk von Zitzewitz’ nickname within the team is “Schnietzel”. “Then the twelfth leg came – an incredibly rough day for us. But about five kilometres before the finish Dirk recovered a lot of time for us by being the quickest to find the way out of the special stage while others were still looking for it.” Just one waypoint before, they had still been running about two minutes behind Miller/Pitchford, at the finish they were over 16 minutes in front. This was the preliminary decision.
Volkswagen’s one-two victory with de Villiers/von Zitzewitz and Miller/Pitchford
De Villiers/von Zitzewitz achieved four of the 13 possible stage wins and after 9,000 kilometres were 8m59s ahead of their team-mates Miller/Pitchford. Hence Volkswagen, the “Dakar” winner back in 1980 with Kottulinsky/Löffelmann in the Iltis, not only celebrated the historic first diesel-powered triumph but a one-two victory at that – with a total of ten stage wins. “Of course we’re proud of having been able to give Volkswagen this exploit,” unanimously says the winning duo. “And we’re grateful for being able to drive in such a strong team and such a reliable and fast car. Everything was simply perfect.”
Nevertheless, the road towards victory included setbacks as well. “When I announced the wrong way for a change on the tenth leg and this caused us to lose about 20 minutes of time, things were pretty quiet in the cockpit for the rest of the day,” says von Zitzewitz. “It’s not that we were blaming each other for this mishap – it’s just that we were simply frustrated for the remaining distance. These things don’t harm our friendship. We can never be angry with each other for a long time anyhow.”
Two multi-talented people share a cross-country rally cockpit on the second try
Giniel de Villiers and Dirk von Zitzewitz, who spend up to 150 days together per year, joined cross-country rally racing after having started in other disciplines. While the South African had five touring car titles to his credit at home before seeking a new challenge in off-road racing, the northern German switched to cars from motorcycles. As a 15-time German Enduro champion, von Zitzewitz contested his first “Dakar” on a motorcycle, switched to a co-driver’s cockpit in 2002 alongside Mark Miller, by the way, and in 2005 formed a team at Volkswagen with Robby Gordon – the three drivers who clinched top places in the 2009 “Dakar” as well.
“When I was sitting in the car with Giniel for the first time – that was during a test in 2005 – I immediately felt that we’d be a good match. My choice would have been to team up with him straight away but Volkswagen had selected Tina Thörner for him at the time. They already knew each other, so that seemed to be a logical choice. And, after all, they clinched second place in the 2006 ‘Dakar’ together.”
“We’ve got common goals for which we fight tooth and nail”
When the duo was finally united in 2006, this sparked the beginning of a successful partnership. During their first joint competition, the 2006 Tunisia Rally, they immediately clinched sixth place. Six further podium places followed. “We’ve got common goals for which we’re able to fight tooth and nail together as well,” says Giniel de Villiers. “But the good thing about it is that outside the cockpit we both have the ability not to take ourselves too seriously. This is what really makes me feel very comfortable about our teamwork.”
While de Villiers enjoys circuit racing as well and, together with Carlos Sainz, Hans-Joachim Stuck and Dieter Depping, finished the maiden race of the new Scirocco as the runner-up of Volkswagen’s one-two victory at the 24-hour race at the Nürburgring, Dirk von Zitzewitz cuts a good figure behind the steering wheel too. Whenever the opportunity presents itself, such as for so-called taxi rides for sponsors, von Zitzewitz really enjoys piloting the Race Touareg himself. “That’s huge fun for me,” says von Zitzewitz, who organises motorcycle training sessions and desert tours in his free time and certainly dreams of contesting the “Dakar” as a driver some day. No matter what these two may be involved in, they both work with maximum professionalism and dedication, but also have a good sense of humour. Their constant smiles are contagious and make them likable exponents of the Volkswagen team as well as of their sport, particularly now as brand new “Dakar” winners.