- Eben Basson and Leander Pienaar competed in their first Dakar race in 2023.
- Basson explains how the opportunity to compete came about and the all-round support they enjoyed.
- Basson and Pienaar finished seventh overall in their class.
Fans of the Dakar Rally will quickly point out that more than 50% of all vehicles participating in this year’s race were built in South Africa. They will also say that a Qatari national won the race for the second consecutive time racing for the South African arm of Toyota Gazoo Racing.
But what real fans of the sport will tell you is that two South Africans won this year’s coveted Rookie award.
The G Rally Team’s Eben Basson and Leander Pienaar had all the intention of competing in their first Dakar, but a shot at the 2022 South African Rally Raid championship saw the duo opt to shift their focus to the 2024 edition of the world’s most gruelling race.
But three weeks before the start of the 2023 Dakar, everything changed.
“After we won the Rally Raid championship and kind of accepted that we won’t be going to the Dakar, we started relaxing and making plans for the December holidays,” Basson explains to News24 Sport.
“That was until Glyn Hall from Toyota Gazoo Racing SA contacted us and mentioned this amazing opportunity for us to experience our first Dakar. It is probably the best learning opportunity to take advantage of, considering our plans for 2024. We had so many reasons not to stay at home!”
Eben Basson (left) and Leander Pienaar, Dakar 2023
Little time to prepare
The day before the prologue to the 2023 Dakar started was when Basson and Pienaar first ‘met’ their racing car, the OT3, that will compete in the Lightweight Prototype class. With the limited preparation time, the duo knew they could not immediately push the car to its limits.
Taking on the 13km prologue stage, the South Africans finished 10th in their class, from where they would launch their attack on the race. Basson explains the relationship between man and machine, saying that you need first to establish the car’s performance potential, and then your performance potential drives said car.
“Nothing can prepare you for this race mentally. It’s a mental challenge. We accepted that from the start and knew we were in for a tough race.”
Eben Basson, G Rally Team driver
But what helped them was their affiliation with Toyota Gazoo Racing in the South African Rally Raid championship.
“Having had the motivation from one of the world’s best rally raid race car developers such as Glynn, we knew from the start we could trust the capability of the team and the car they are going to give us for the race,” Basson notes.
“The team is very professional, and they understood exactly how to do our setup and quickly adapt the car to our driving style. It wasn’t difficult to be confident in the car, and we could give it our best efforts after just a few kilometres behind the steering.”
Basson and Leander would use the race’s first four stages to familiarise themselves with the OT3, even if they could have gone a bit faster, according to Basson. Yet, so impressive was their performance over the two weeks of racing that they finished their class in seventh overall.
Eben Basson racing the OT3 lightweight prototype
The mental readiness
This year’s race was Basson and Pienaar’s first Dakar taste. The three weeks of preparing for it and still getting to grips with the car from the word ‘go’, was not easy. Yet, the excitement of representing South Africa and testing yourself against the world’s best racers is a high they would not have exchanged for anything.
And as they readied for it, they also realised that they needed to be in the right mental frame of mind. Thankfully, they had the full support of Hall, who availed a support crew to the Lightweight Prototype class contenders.
“Nothing can prepare you for this race mentally,” Basson exclaims.
“We were part of a very professional team, and it took a lot of pressure off our minds. We could just settle in and do our thing. It’s a mental challenge, that is for sure, but nothing that we couldn’t handle. We accepted that from the start and knew we were in for a tough race.”
Eben Basson and Leander Pienaar, Dakar 2023
Knowing that they are alone in a foreign country in some of the harshest conditions on the planet, Basson notes that the support from South Africans motivated them more than people could realise. When the going got tough, the messages of support and social media posts rejuvenated their drive.
Basson concludes: “You actually cannot put into words how it motivates us out there in the middle of nowhere in the toughest race we’ve ever done. It gives you a certain energy that just pulls you through challenges and motivates you to give that extra 10% when you are already giving it your 100.
“Without the support, it’s almost not possible to push yourself so far!”
Eben Basson and Leander Pienaar, Dakar 2023