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Vaidotas Zala returning to Mini for 2024 Dakar Rally
Vaidotas Žala will once again drive a Mini John Cooper Works at the Dakar Rally in 2024, though this time it will be an upgraded model in the T1+ subcategory. He revealed his Arijus X-raid programme on Sunday, which will be fielded with support from X-raid Team. Paulo Fiuza will remain his navigator for the fourth year in a row.
Žala raced a Mini at Dakar from 2020 through 2022, winning a stage in 2020 followed by just missing out on a top ten at the 2022 edition with a career-best eleventh. He switched to a Prodrive Hunter for 2023, where he was plagued by inconsistent results as he either finished top ten each day or retired with a mechanical issue. As a result, he ran as high as second in Stage #9 but failed to finish when his gearbox failed two days later.
To make matters worse, his title sponsor Teltonika withdrew their backing in late January, ending at two-year partnership. After facing doubts as to whether he could return for a ninth Dakar in 2024, Arijus Ramonas‘ logistics company Arijus Group stepped up to become his new sponsor in October.
“Last Dakar was one of the toughest in my career. We had plenty of technical issues, and during analysis we were surprised how many things went wrong in a single race,” said Žala. “Upon returning, we also lost a major part of funding. It was a dark moment, which tested to the limit our motivation to continue with the project.
“In such situations, it is important to have an answer as to why are we doing this. The answer to our question was simple: speed. We finished in the top ten in every stage without problems, and also came as close as fifty-eight seconds to a stage win. It would be disrespectful to long-term team partners, fans, family, and also ourselves to ditch the project without proper results.”
While Žala did not run any World Rally-Raid Championship events after Dakar and instead focused on the Lithuanian Rally Championship, he made his cross-country rally return in July at the Baja Aragón in Spain. His entry was prepared by Unique Racing Team, whose owner Luis Santos purchased his Dakar Mini in 2022 to compete in the Portuguese Cross-Country Championship. Žala finished third overall behind a pair of Toyota Hilux T1+ machines.
Santos converted the Mini T1.1 into a T1+ car, which is wider and faster than in its original T1.1 form. T1+ cars feature a wheel base of 37 inches compared to the 32 of a T1.1, along with more suspension travel at 35 cm versus 28. X-raid débuted their Mini JCW Rally Plus at the 2023 Dakar Rally, which finished runner-up in the W2RC manufacturer’s standings. Krzysztof Hołowczyc scored the Mini T1+’s maiden win at the Baja Poland in August.
“With the vehicle of such specifications, we can gather a competitive pace,” Žala continued. “It is important to note that the car will be powered by renewable fuel so CO2 emission will be lowered by ninety percent. We had a pleasant opportunity to test the pace of the car at the Baja Aragón. It was a pleasant surprise; our speed was close to the leaders on several occasions. […]
“Speed will be as important as accuracy. We will certainly not give up and dedicate ourselves to going for the top result. It is not necessary to specify the targets; we all know them very well.”
The 2024 Dakar Rally begins on 5 January. Besides Žala and Hołowczyc, Pau Navarro will also race the Mini JCW Rally Plus.
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