Kyalami, Midrand - Toyota has built an (almost) completely new Hilux racing bakkie for the 2017 Dakar Rally in South America, on public display for the first time at the South African Festival of Motoring.
The major change is that Toyota Gazoo Racing SA has opted for rear-wheel drive for the Hilux Evo racer, rather than all-wheel drive as in the past - mainly because the rules for two-wheel drive vehicles allow a lot more freedom than is allowed to 4x4s.
Minimum weight is 1300kg, a huge advantage compared to the previous all-wheel drive version. The rules also allow 940mm wheels and tyres rather than the 805mm of the 4x4, significantly more suspension travel and an onboard tyre inflation and deflation system for running in soft sand - one of the defining characteristics of the Dakar Rally. FIA rules do not allow onboard tyre-pressure systems on all-wheel drive vehicles.
We did say almost completely new: the Hilux Evo bakkie has the same well-sorted petrol V8 as its predecessor, placed well back in the new, lighter chassis so that all the weight of the engine and transmission is between the axles - and well away from the front suspension, so that it can be mounted lower between the frame rails, significantly lowering the centre of gravity.
But here there's a twist - the average altitude of the proposed 2017 Dakar route is more than 2000 metres - which will affect the naturally aspirated V8 Hilux much more than the smaller-engined turbocharged cars - so the diameter of the compulsory restrictor for the V8's has been increased from 36mm to 38mm, which means that for the first time the Toyotas will be running the same size inlet tracts as their Mini and Peugeot rivals.
Team principal Glynn Hall said: "We've taken all the testing and real-world experience we gained with the four-wheel-drive Toyota Hilux over the past five years, and repackaged it in the lighter, faster Toyota Hilux Evo."
The Toyota Gazoo Racing SA line-up for the 2017 Dakar Rally - which will start in the Paraguayan capital of Ascension on 2 January 2017 - includes two former winners of the world's toughest motorsport challenge.
Joining the team will be double former Dakar winner Nasser Al-Attiyah from Qatar and his French navigator Matthieu Baumel, who not only won the 2015 Dakar in a Mini, they took that year's Cross-Country World Cup - and they've posted five consecutive wins in the 2016 series in a South African-built Hilux racer, clinching this year’s title in the process.
Local hero Giniel de Villiers, who won the 2009 Dakar in a Volkswagen Touareg, will again be partnered by German navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz. They've been running 4x4 Hiluxes in the Dakar since 2012, finishing third that year, second in 2013, fourth in 2014, second again in 2015 and third in 2016.
South African Cross-Country champions Leeroy Poulter and Rob Howie will race their fourth Dakar in 2017 - but with one of the world's fastest and most consistent crews as team-mates they'll need to up their game.
"Leeroy was fast enough to win stages in 2016," said Hall. "He'll keen to gauge his performance against Nasser's this year."
"Winning the Dakar isn't easy," he added. "There are a lot of people trying really hard. It takes more than just fast drivers, good navigators and a reliable car. We've got all that, but you also need Lady Luck to smile on you. Who knows, maybe 2017 is our year?"