ABSA Off Road Championship season preview

EXCITING SEASON AHEAD FOR ABSA OFF ROAD CHAMPIONSHIP A wheel has yet to be turned in anger and already this year's Absa Off Road Championship looks to have the makings of a season to end all seasons. The first wheels will be turned in anger at...

EXCITING SEASON AHEAD FOR ABSA OFF ROAD CHAMPIONSHIP

A wheel has yet to be turned in anger and already this year's Absa Off Road Championship looks to have the makings of a season to end all seasons.

The first wheels will be turned in anger at the Nissan Dealer 400 in Darling, in the Western Cape, on March 17 and 18 and anyone in any doubt as to the huge potential for a dramatic championship need only glance through the entry list for the opening event. Both the Production Vehicle and Special Vehicle categories are loaded with enough quality and quantity to ensure that a category of South African motorsport that has produced outstanding competition over the last few years, will this season probably outdo itself.

The air of anticipation that accompanies a new season is heightened by the fact that the Cape outing will be run over a route that has undergone a major facelift. An event that in the past has been referred to as the 'Darling Desert Race' has been revamped to include tough mountain sections, and clerk of the course Robert Marle is of the opinion the course is the most challenging for any off road race ever staged in the Western cape.

On the Production Vehicle front Nissan, who have dominated in recent years via the near invincible Proudly South African Hardbody entries, face what is probably their biggest challenge in the last five seasons. The Super Truck class has given way to the Super Production category, and both Toyota and Ford are back in the mix.

Given Nissan's record for engineering excellence and the quality of their crews - multiple SA champion Hannes Grobler and Francois Jordaan and former champion Duncan Vos and current co-driver kingpin Ralph Pitchford - the SP category could see a shift in the balance of power. Toyota will field a single V6 Castrol Toyota Hilux for the Darling event, to be crewed by Mark Cronje and Chris Birkin, with a second in the pipeline for Bevan Bertholdt and Robin Houghton.

Ford will have former champions Neil Woolridge and Kenny Skjoldhammer back in harness in a factory Ford Racing Ranger with back-up from talented Shameer Variawa and VZ van Zyl. Former SA champion Variawa and van Zyl move from the Special Vehicle category into the Production Vehicle ranks and could be a surprise package.

Various other privateer SP entries are expected as the season progresses, but it is unlikely they will unduly trouble the factory vehicles. For the Cape event Nissan and Toyota have a slight advantage in that they both ran SP entries towards the end of last year's series, while Ford remain something of an unknown quantity at this stage.

The SP confrontation is going to be hugely interesting, and the same is going to apply to Class D where a straight fight between Nissan and Toyota is going to emerge. On the Nissan front Jurie du Plessis/Andre du Plessis and Arnold du Plessis/Johan Knox, in BB Auto Hardbody entries, and Coetzee Labuschagne/Johan Gerber in the Raysonics form a formidable line-up.

Toyota, however, will be able to fight fire with fire. Bertholdt and Houghton will make a lone appearance in a Castrol Toyota Hilux 2.7i factory entry before switching to the SP category, and will be backed up by reigning and former Class E champions in Chris Visser/Japie Badenhorst (Tyco Trucks Toyota Hilux) and Hugo and Jaap de Bruyn in another Toyota Hilux. Cliff and Louis Weichelt, in the Bosal Toyota Hilux add to the mix in a category that is going to be cut-throat.

Deon Schoeman and Jan Sime, in the Inspector Car Nissan, could also have their moments, and a pair of roses among thorns will provide added interest to the class. Ann Evans and Caroline Jooste will be out in the Sandown Motors Mitsubishi Pajero, and their progress will be carefully monitored.

Class E is going to be a test of character for reigning Class D champion Manfred Schroeder, now partnered by Ward Huxtable, in a factory Ford Racing Ranger. They find themselves stacked up against a horde of Toyota Hilux entries and an interesting new manufacturer in Mahindra.

Leading the Toyota challenge will be Brian Martin/Ockie Fourie in a factory Castrol Toyota Hilux, with major opposition from a two-car Team Ruwacon challenge. The Team Ruwacon Toyota Hilux entries will be in the hands of George and Sharon Barkhuizen and newcomers Pieter/Ruthven and Dewaal Boshoff.

Two highly interesting newcomers to the off road ranks are circuit racers Jaco Swanepoel, who teams up with Graham Bishop, and Fabio Tafani, linking up with Mike Baron, in Toyota Hilux entries. Their progress will also be carefully monitored, as will the Mahindra in the hands of Douw de Boer and actor Ben Kruger.

Down in Class F the Moffat brothers, Stuart and Mark, will have a much easier time of it in the Bosal Land Rover. They are the only entry in a class that is a little thin on the ground.

The battle between reigning champions Nissan and Toyota in the manufacturers championship is ongoing. All that means is that fuel has been added to the fire this season.

While the Production Vehicle classes are loaded with interest and potential for drama, Class A in the Special Vehicle category is a powder keg waiting for a spark. There are no fewer than 15 entries for the Darling outing with any one of half a dozen or more crews capable of winning.

Adding to the mix are some interesting new combinations who join familiar Class A faces in the likes of reigning champions Terrence Marsh and Mike Whitehouse in the Nashua Mobile BAT, Nick and Ryan Harper (BAT), Gerhard du Plessis/Ferdi Seegers (Jimco) and Clint Gibson and Marcelle Trethewey in the Gibson Plant Hire BAT. Topping the list of newcomers is motorcycle legend and reigning Production Vehicle champion Alfie Cox who teams up with the experienced Hennie ter Steege in a Motorite BAT.

Given his past exploits on two and four wheels, Cox is going to make waves. He might, however, need a race or two to settle into a spaceframe, but he brings to the party an awful lot of expectation.

Joining Cox in the Motorite team is reining Class B champion Evan Hutchison. The former quad racer made a huge impact in his first season last year, and it will be interesting to see how he handles the more powerful Class machinery.

And, although they can hardly be classed as newcomers, the return to the fray of the Sullwald brothers, Karl-Heinz and Herman, in a pair of Zarcos, could rock a few boats. The former champions return after a hiatus of 10 years in a two-car team that, given their past attention to detail, will provide a formidable challenge.

Throw into the pot the likes of Gary Bertholdt, now partnered by Henry Kirstein, in the Atlas Copco Spec 1 BAT, Brandon Harcus in a singleseater Motorite BAT, Mark Corbett/Juan Mohr (Century Property Developments BAT), Rob and Gareth Wark in the Superpave Chenowth and Nardus Alberts and Collin Hunter in a new mid-engine Wrapsa BAT and you have the ingredients for all out war. Trying to pick a Class A winner is a near impossible task, and the only given is that it is a category in which no prisoners will be taken this season.

With Hutchison moving to Class A, the way is open in Class B for former champions Marcus Taylor and Marc de Chalain, in the JRE Ford, to add to the silverware. There will, however, be tough opposition for the pair in the likes of Cape Town based Bez Bezuidenhout/ Johann de Bruyn (Adenco Sandmaster), John Thompson and Clinton McNamara in a Zarco, Ernest Corbett and Warwick Goosen in the Century Property Developments BAT, Johann and Ettienne Bezuidenhout (Adenco BAT) and Colin Matthews and Jannie Erasmus in a WPP VW.

On the Class S front reigning champions Richard Schilling and Chris Davies, in the Plastotech entry, will be relying on age and cunning to repel boarders. They face tough opposition from the likes of Naeem Moosajee/Naazim Moti in the Tyre Rack Mighty Mag, the Kopanong Hotel Superteam pair of Nick Goslar and George Bowie in a Raceco with added interest coming via Gary Gillingham and Peter van Vuuren in a Raceco.

Last year's championship saw all but one of the titles on offer go all the way to the wire. The early indications are that this season could well go the same way.

-msa-

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Series Other rally
Drivers Alfie Cox , Ralph Pitchford , Mark Corbett , John Thompson , Duncan Vos , Japie Badenhorst