Darling: Round one preview

PRODUCTION VEHICLE CATEGORY A WAR ZONE The Production Vehicle category is going to turn into a war zone when the Absa Off Road Championship gets underway via the Nissan Dealer 400 in Darling, in the Western Cape, on February 29 and March...

PRODUCTION VEHICLE CATEGORY A WAR ZONE

The Production Vehicle category is going to turn into a war zone when the Absa Off Road Championship gets underway via the Nissan Dealer 400 in Darling, in the Western Cape, on February 29 and March 1.

The premier SP Class is also going to be no place for the faint of heart this year. Phenomenal growth over the last two seasons has seen the SP Class swell to no less than 15 entries, from four manufacturers, for the pipe-opener. Perennial champions Nissan along with Ford and Toyota have been joined by a lone entry from Land Rover with a bevy of privateers now running alongside the factory teams.

Nissan, aiming for their eighth championship in a row, will once again start the favourites. But the factory Toyota and Ford teams came up with enough evidence last season to suggest that Nissan will this season have a battle on their hands.

There are familiar faces in the Nissan Navara factory teams with Juan Mohr who takes over co-driving duties for veteran Hannes Grobler the only new face. Driver's champion Duncan Vos again teams up with Ralph Pitchford with Norwegian Ivar Tollefsen and Briton Quin Evans in the third factory entry.

Fly by wire throttle control will be a new innovation from Nissan. For the rest the team will rely on tried and tested professionalism and reliability.

Toyota's hopes will rest mainly with Castrol Toyota Hilux factory crews Mark Cronje/Chris Birkin and Bevan Bertholdt/Robin Houghton. There will be solid back up from Chris Visser/Japie Badenhorst in another Castrol Toyota and Hugo and Jaap de Bruyn in the Micaren Exel Dealer Team Toyota Hilux.

Visser/Badenhorst and the de Bruins inherit last year's factory vehicles and, in turn, their cars have gone to George and Sharon Barkhuizen (Ruwacon Toyota Hilux) and Jaco Swanepoel/Keith Solomon in the IDM Cement entry. Both teams make a quantum leap from Class E.

After two near misses last season Cronje and Birkin have a point to prove. Bertholdt and Houghton are in much the same boat and there is no doubt that in terms of pace the Toyotas are a match for the Navara entries.

Ford's line-up also has a familiar look about it -- with one exception. The ex Mark Ferguson Ford Ranger will now be campaigned, in Motorite colours, by off road legend Alfie Cox and Hennie ter Stege.

They join the factory cars of former champions Neil Woolridge and Kenny Skjoldhammer and Mark Ferguson/Craig West with another ex factory car, the Unifreight Ford Ranger, again in the hands of Kobus van Tonder and Riaan Guelpa.

The Fords may be outgunned in terms of sheer pace, but Woolridge/Skjoldhammer and Cox/ter Stege are proven winners and hugely experienced. It is a tough combination to beat.

The lone Land Rover is the ex Cliff Barker car, rebuilt by Rob Green Racing, in the hands of Harold and Tiaan Coen. Powered by a BMW motor the Land Rover is indecently quick, and could give the more fancied vehicles an anxious moment or two.

Class D will be a straight Toyota versus Nissan fight with the odds evenly matched. Reigning drivers champion Cliff Weichelt has plenty of experience but will have a new navigator in the N1 4x4 Toyota Hilux D4D in Jimmy Goch.

Also in Toyota Hilux colours will be last season's rookies of the year in Ramon Bezuidenhout and Stefan Lock. With a new 3,4 motor in the Hilux they should be more competitive than ever.

Taking up cudgels on behalf of Nissan will be Coetzee Labuscagne and Johan Gerber, in the Raysonics Nissan Hardbody, and brothers Henri and Maurice Zermatten in the Ryobi Hardbody. They also have plenty of experience and the Toyota/Nissan confrontation could turn into one of the highlights of the year.

Class E is a mixed bag with familiar faces mingling with unknown quantities. Team Ford Racing pair Jack Peckham and Lucio Santoro will renew hostilities with Jannie Visser and Joks le Roux in the Team Barberspan Toyota Hilux. Thomas Rundle and Brian Roberts could give them a few problems in the Barden Tyres Services Nissan Hardbody, along with Deon Venter and Ian Palmer in the 4x4 Mega World Toyota Hilux.

For the rest Toyota Hilux crews Johan Fouche/Wentzel Pretorius and Wynand van der Linde/Sefie van Schalkwyk are an unknown quantity.

The first salvos of the season often set the battle lines for skirmishes over the rest of the season. All the indications point towards a vintage year.

SCENE SET FOR MIGHTY SPECIAL VEHICLE BATTLES

The scene is set for another mighty tussle in the Special Vehicle category when the Absa Off Road Championship opens with the Nissan Dealer 400 in Darling, in the Western Cape, on February 29 and March 1.

In recent seasons Special Vehicle title chases have had a habit of going all the way to the wire, and there is every reason to believe it won't be any different this year. A quick look at the entry list for the Darling event suggests this year's title race is going to be just as competitive.

Last year's Class A battle went to the final event of the season before Evan Hutchison and Achim Bergmann (Motorite BAT) saw off a challenge from Nick and Ryan Harper in the Atlas Copco BAT. The two teams are back in harness this season and will again be frontrunners, but there is no shortage of challengers.

BAT builder Brandon Harcus, teamed with veteran co-driver Richard Leeke, rejoins the Motorite team after a season in Production Vehicles and will be a major threat. So too will be Shameer Variawa and Siegfried Rousseau, in the Total Porter, and the Sullwald brothers Karl-Heinz and Herman in a pair of Zarcos.

Gary Bertholdt, in the Atlas Copco Porter, is seriously quick but has underachieved in the last season or two. The answer to his problems could lie in new co-driver Pierre Arries who, like Leeke, is a rally national champion and a cool, calm and collected customer.

After consistent performances last year one can also expect the Regent Racing teams of former champion Terence Marsh and Pieter Groenewald and Mike Whitehouse and Mathew Carlson to push for wins. Whitehouse, in his second year as a driver after sitting alongside Marsh, will be out in a new BAT Spec 4 and could turn out to be a dark horse.

Veterans Nardus Alberts and Collin Hunter won last year in the Wrapsa BAT, Naeem Moosajee/Rayhaan Bodhanya (Jimco) had their moments and Botswana based Garry Gillingham (Shell Botswana BAT) looks set to benefit from having the experienced Andrew van Zyl sitting alongside him. Pieter Ruthven and Dewaal Boshoff will again be teamed up in the Ruwacon BAT, but all eyes will be on a pair that could set the cat among the pigeons.

Mark Corbett returns to the Special Vehicle fold in a new car that is going to attract a huge amount of interest. Early reports suggest the new Century CR1, built in house and fitted with a Nissan motor, incorporates some radical design features.

New race cars are notoriously fickle and prone to teething problems. Only time will tell whether Corbett and co-driver Rudi Balzer emerge as championship threats, but the new car supplies an injection of fresh interest in an already intriguing Class A battle.

The one off road championship that did not go all the way to the wire last season was in Class B where Jan and Hendrik Kraaij, in a Regent Racing BAT, totally dominated. A string of five wins in a row put the championship beyond doubt.

In Darling, however, Jan Kraaij will be partnered by Tiddo Voogt with the pair back to the Keymax banner under which the Kraaij's first made their mark. Whether the change in personnel has any affect on performance remains to be seen.

Bes Bezuidenhout./Johann de Bruyn will be back in the Adenco BAT with veteran Giel Nel, now partnered by Deon de Kock, again out in the LUK Africa Truggy Zarco. Gauteng pair Alastair Stubbs and Marc de Chalain, in the Stafix Racing Viper, will be a threat along with Louw de Bruin and Rudi Britz in the Ruwacon BAT.

Newcomers Simon Beckett and Steve Harris, in a Century Property Developments BAT, are an unknown quantity but could shake up a few of the regulars. Kraaij and Voogt will start as favourites, but the odds may have shortened.

The new Class P category, with Class S to be phased out at the end of the year, has drawn an interesting early season mix. Reigning Class S champions Richard Schilling and Chris Davies (Aceco) and arch rivals Nic Goslar/Richard Carolin (Raceco) will be at it again

But brothers Johan and Etienne Bezuidenhout (Adenco BAT) make the switch from Class B and another set of brothers, David and Gary White (Ruwacon BAT) make the switch from Class A. Other Class A and B crews can be expected to follow suit as the season progresses, and the new category has the makings of a highly competitive class.

With an extended 75 kilometre prologue and what is largely a new route, the Darling event is set to get the season off to a flying start.

Any of half a dozen or more crews could walk away with overall honours, but that is what one has come to expect from the upper echelons of the Absa Off Road Championship.

-credit: absa/mweb.co.za

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About this article
Series Other rally
Drivers Alfie Cox , Ian Palmer , Quin Evans , Mark Corbett , Duncan Vos , Japie Badenhorst