A tale of Nissan domination

A quick glance at the final points in this year's Bankfin Off-Road Championship serves as a reminder of Nissan domination in a series that saw a number of championship issues once again go all the way to the wire. A peek at the final tallies...

A quick glance at the final points in this year's Bankfin Off-Road Championship serves as a reminder of Nissan domination in a series that saw a number of championship issues once again go all the way to the wire.

A peek at the final tallies will also show that a couple of title races went all the way to the wire, and were desperately close affairs. And the final list also serves as an indicator that when it comes to winning championships there is little substitute for consistency over a full season.

On the Production Vehicle front Nissan's domination is amply demonstrated by seven overall wins out of eight events -- four by Hannes Grobler and Richard Leeke and three by outgoing overall champions Giniel de Villiers and Francois Jordaan. The Nissan Hardbody squads were denied a full sweep by Apie Reyneke and Robin Houghton, who won the opening event of the season in the Team Castrol Toyota Land Cruiser.

Grobler and Leeke emerged as late challengers for the overall championship, but eventually lost out to Class D champions Duncan Vos and Mike Griffith. There may be a message in the fact that Vos, like de Villiers, came to off-road via the Bankfin Touring Car Championship and has proved to be a quick learner.

The veteran Grobler/Leeke combination, around 20 years after each winning their first national off-road titles, had to be content with the Class T title. But with seven out of eight wins, the overall, Class T, Class D and, predictably enough, the prestige South African Manufacturers Championship, it was Nissan's year.

Of the other Class T crews the factory Ford Racing Ranger pair of former champions Neil Woolridge and Kenny Skjoldhammer were in the frame throughout in terms of both the overall and Class T titles. The pair never won an event and stumbled at the last hurdle with a big crash on the Carnival City Casino 400, and it was consistency that kept their challenge alive.

Reyneke and Houghton, like the Ford pair, are former champions and after their opening flurry never really looked like challenging the Nissan domination. The pair took over a new Team Castrol Toyota Land Cruiser after the Barberspan 500 triumph and, once teething problems were over, proved to be reasonably reliable without threatening to send Nissan back to the drawing board.

By mid-season a pattern had emerged in Class T and it was much the same in Class D. After a dodgy start to the season Vos and Griffith came into their own -- which was in stark contrast to Piet Haasbroek and Christo Bosch in the Castrol Toyota Land Cruiser.

Haasbroek and Bosch got off to a flyer and dominated the early part of the season to the extent where they led the overall championship. Then the wheels started to fall off and they gradually fell away as Vos and Griffith tightened the noose.

Brothers Henri and Maurice Zermatten, in the Playstation Mitsubishi Pajero, and the Mark Corbett/Juan Mohr combination in the Century Property Development Isuzu had their moments, but by mid-season Vos and Griffiths were on a roll. Off-road fundis have often speculated about the possibility of a Class D crew winning an event overall and, such was their domination, Vos and Griffiths came pretty close on at least one occasion.

Class E provided something of a David and Goliath situation with Toyota honour being saved by the unfashionable combination of Jaap and Hugo de Bruyn in a privately entered Toyota Hilux. Up against the factory pairing of defending champions Manfred Schroder and Jack Peckham, in the Ford Racing Ranger diesel turbo, the de Bruyns would have been regarded at the start of the season as rank outsiders on anyone's betting book.

Going into the last event, however, only four points separated the two crews and, like Woolridge and Skjoldhammer, the Ford crew stumbled at the last hurdle. While others like the factory Team Castrol Toyota Condor pair of Kassie Coetzee and Ockie Fourie struggled throughout, the de Bruyns just kept plugging away and Toyota, faced with the prospect of ending the season with a bare trophy cupboard, found in the Koepel crew unlikely heroes.

Class F suffered throughout the season from a lack of entries, with just about the only constant the big O'Hagan's/Kopanong Hotel Superteam Jeep driven at various times by Paolo Piazza-Musso, Franz Czepek Sr., Richard Carolin and Sarel van der Merwe. Piazza-Musso and co-driver Scott Abraham, the other constant in the squad, won Class F on O'Hagan's/Kopanong Hotel 500. Carolin and Abraham won the class on the Queen Motor Spares Tarka 400 and the Jeep provided the platform for van der Merwe's final off-road appearance.

The fact that it is possible to win a championship without winning an event was amply illustrated in the Special Vehicle category. Eastern Cape stalwarts Greg Harvey and Boy Stone, in the Castrol Queen Motor Spares Jimco, powered by a Lexus motor, won both the overall and Class A championships without taking an overall win.

To cap what was, in retrospect, a remarkable season for the pair they were one of only two crews in the entire series to finish all eight events. Harvey and Stone simply wore down the hit and miss merchants although in the latter part of the season they had to keep an eye on Class B champions Marcus Taylor and Marc de Chalain in the Truck Time JRE.

John Weir-Smith, partnered by Tony George and later Geoff Minnitt, in the O'Hagan's/Kopanong Hotel BMW Jimco, won twice and Atang Makgekgenene scored his first national win early in the season in the SAM Racing Jimco. Greg Daus (Nashua Mobile Racing Raceco) also struck a blow for the Class S brigade with a lone win, but the surprise packages were brothers Gerhard and Lawrence du Plessis.

The Wolmaranstad brothers appeared midway through the season in the ex Makgekgenene Jimco and won first time out in the Mobil backed car. Although the championship waters were clouded on a couple of occasions when no one knew whether Gerhard or Lawrence was driving or co-driving or vice versa, the brothers won three more times and will already have been marked down as serious threats in next year's championship.

Daus was the pick of the Class S challengers and also made sporadic forays into Class A. His overall championship hopes were dented by a lack of entries in Class S on some occasions, but he remained a class performer in a category where rookies Nick Goslar and Glen Steyn, in the O'Hagan's/Kopanong Hotel Raceco, struck a blow for newcomers to the sport by winning the class on the final event of the year.

While Daus won the Class S drivers title, the co-drivers title went to Anton Lombard with he and Billy Bond out in Prolong colours for most of the season. While Daus was a comfortable winner of the Class S drivers title the situation in Class B was eventually settled by one point -- with defending champion Giel Nel (Luk Africa Truggy) losing out to Taylor.

Nel was the other competitor to complete every race and, in his case, it is probably a contradiction that consistency can have its drawbacks. The East Rand veteran will probably look back and reflect on occasions when he could have pushed a little harder - and made up the one place that would have given him back to back titles.

Such are the vagaries of motor racing, however, and there are those who will argue that it is wins that count. On this score Taylor and de Chalain were the dominant crew in a class that also produced some under achievers with no names and no pack drill.

Although there were one or two hiccups along the way with some hastily rearranged race venues and a few other wobbles, this year's Bankfin Off-Road Championship again demonstrated that it is one of the premier series in South African motorsport. Despite Nissan's domination of the Production Vehicle category, it was a series loaded with top class racing and, as one would expect when championships go to the wire, interest never flagged.

Looking to the future the championship will next year show a greater representation of venues throughout the country. That augurs well and the MSA Off-Road Car Commission's policy of taking the sport to the people is bearing fruit.

-msa-

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Series Other rally
Drivers Tony George , Sarel van der Merwe , Mark Corbett , Duncan Vos