The Toyota Dealer 400, round five of the Bankfin Off-Road Championship, at Sun City on Friday and Saturday (30/31 August) ushers in a critical period for contenders with visions of winning national titles in the various categories. The return to...
The Toyota Dealer 400, round five of the Bankfin Off-Road Championship, at Sun City on Friday and Saturday (30/31 August) ushers in a critical period for contenders with visions of winning national titles in the various categories.
The return to the Pilansberg resort signals the start of the second half of the season, and shifting sands in the various championship categories offer a combination of danger signals and open doors of opportunity for those involved in title chases. The danger signals fly for those competitors who got off to flying starts but who have gone a little off course in recent events, while doors are open for those who have surged into title contention after iffy starts to their campaigns.
The recent O'Hagan's/Kopanong Hotel 500 in North West Province saw plenty of movement up and down championship ladders. The Toyota Dealer 400, therefore, is important to both camps.
For the sliders it offers the opportunity to steady the ship, and for the upward movers the Sun City event is a golden opportunity to consolidate. Either way the stakes are high and the fact that the event breaks new ground for the series, adds a little extra to an already enticing pot.
The event was originally scheduled to break into new ground in Mpumalanga, and venturing back to the Pilansberg for the first time since 1996 provides for a touch of uncertainty for the off-road fraternity. As a replacement for the cancelled Mpumalanga event the route for this weekend's affair is based on the Sun City 200 regional event earlier this year, and will be made up of a single 115 kilometre loop which competitors will complete three times.
It is against this background that some telling shots in championship battles will either hit the target or provide for some costly misses. After four rounds of the series, sponsored by Bankfin, the specialist vehicle finance division of ABSA Bank, there are new overall leaders in both the Special Vehicle and Production Vehicle categories, and the same applies to battles being fought out in the various classes.
The Special Vehicle category has produced four different winners so far this season, but the team leading the overall championship is not among their numbers. Eastern Cape crew Greg Harvey and Boy Stone, in the Castrol Queen Motor Spares Jimco, have strung together a record of consistency that has seen move to the top of the drivers and co-drivers championships.
Harvey leads Greg Daus, in the Nashua Mobile Raceco, by three points. Daus, winner of the Toyota 1 000 Desert Race with Andrew van Zyl, has used three different-co drivers this season, and that has allowed Stone to build up a 17 point lead over Marc de Chalain and Billy Bond.
Such has been their propensity for consistency over the years that Harvey and Stone, perhaps unfairly, are sometimes overlooked as potential overall and Class A winners. Crews like John Weir-Smith, now reunited with Geoff Minnitt after the departure of Tony George from the O'Hagan's/Kopanong Hotel Superteam, Atang Makgekgenene and Alec Salley (SAM Racing Jimco), Daus and Gary and Bodo Bertholdt (M and E Glass BAT) are more often than not preferred to the Eastern Cape pair.
Another ingredient was added to the Class A mix when brothers Laurence and Gerhard du Plessis won the O'Hagan's/Kopanong Hotel 500 in the Mobil Jimco. Their progress at Sun City will be watched with interest, and it is going to be interesting to see if Weir-Smith, Makgekgenene, Daus and the du Plessis brothers can win again -- or whether Harvey/Stone and the Bertholdts, with both crews due a win -- can provide a fifth different winner in five events.
Apart from his threat in the overall stakes, Daus will be heavily favoured to score his fourth Class S win of the season. In Class B, however, there is another of those situations where winning races doesn't mean you are going to win championships.
Reigning champion Giel Nel, in the LUK Africa Truggy, still leads Class B and is joint third in the overall championship. Nel, however, is now under serious threat and is only three points clear of Marcus Taylor and de Chalain in the Truck Time Ysco.
There is plenty of quality in a class that is starting to hot up. Nel is a wily old campaigner, but he now has the rest of the pack snapping at his heels, and needs a big result to reassert his authority.
Storming performances in recent events have seen the factory Nissan Hardbody pair of Duncan Vos and Mike Griffiths move to the top of the table in both the overall Production Vehicle championship and Class D. In both cases they have unseated early season pace setters Piet Haasbroek and Christo Bosch in the Castrol Toyota Land Cruiser.
And, once again, that word consistency crops up in the context of the overall championship. Surprise packages Jaap and Hugo de Bruyn, in a Toyota Hilux running in Class E, have quietly gone about gathering in enough points to lie second in the championship.
The de Bruyns edge out a far more fancied couple in former national champions Neil Woolridge and Kenny Skjoldhammer, in the factory Ford Racing Ranger. Like Harvey and Stone in the Special Vehicle category, the Ford crew have yet to win this season, but three second places in four events sees them well placed in the overall title race, and puts them on top of the Class T pile.
An overall win must be the target for Woolridge and Skjoldhammer at Sun City, but a good finish for them is equally important in the context of the championship. In terms of wins the factory Nissan Hardbody squad has dominated the season with three victories, two for reigning champions Giniel de Villiers and Francois Jordaan and one for Hannes Grobler/Richard Leeke, and the battle between the hi-tech brigade in Class T will again be fascinating.
Another set of former champions, Apie Reyneke and Robin Houghton won the opening event of the season, but since then have not had much to shout about in the new Team Castrol Toyota Land Cruiser. The Toyota Dealer 400 is obviously an event Reyneke and Houghton would love to win, but on a course that is not likely to be a car breaker the Nissans will be hard to beat.
One always expects Production Vehicle overall winners to come from Class T, but there will be a few off-road fundis prepared to wager a Rand or two that a Class D entry will pick up a win before the end of the season. In Sun City conditions it may be asking too much for all the top Class T contenders to fall by the wayside, but Class D is developing into a "knock 'em down and drag 'em out" type battle.
Vos and Griffiths are the men of the moment, but Haasbroek and Bosch will be thirsting to get back into the fray in a class bristling with manufacturer rivalry. On the Nissan side Vos and Griffith will be supported by team-mates Hein Grobler and Gerhard Prinsloo, while Shumie van Vuuren and Hennie ter Steege (Kwa Noken Lodge Castrol Toyota Land Cruiser) provide back up for Toyota.
But very much a part of the Class D dogfight are Mark Corbett and Juan Mohr in the Isuzu, the Zermatten brothers Henri and Maurice in the Playstation Mitsubishi Pajero, Marius and Tracey van Vuuren in a Land Rover and Alfred and Tommy van Vuuren in a Jeep. It is a mixed cast that has plenty to offer, and they are likely to produce a how to remember on a stage that is made for intense competition.
The father and son de Bruyn combination continue to lead Class E, but are being hunted down by reigning champions Manfred Schroder and Jack Peckham in the Ford Racing Ranger. It is a classic privateer versus factory scrap, but one wonders for how much longer the Toyota pair can hold on.
Kassie Coetzee, after his trials and tribulations in North West Province, will be back in harness with Okkie Fourie in the Team Castrol Toyota Condor. The Toyota Dealer 400 would be a good stage for the pair to also get their season back on track, but the smart money will probably be on Schroder and Peckham.
Down in Class F the Paolo Piazza-Musso/Scott Abraham combination, in the O'Hagan's/Kopanong Hotel Superteam Jeep, will be looking for another class win after breaking the ice last time out. The intriguing factor about the squad, however, is that sans reliability problems they have the potential to slug it out with Class T and Class D frontrunners.
Where the manufacturers championship is concerned, their own event is hugely important for Toyota. A disappointing showing on the O'Hagan's/Kopanong Hotel 400 saw Toyota surrender the championship lead to Nissan.
The Toyota Dealer 400 is the ideal platform for Toyota crews to hit back. At this stage the Nissan lead is a slender one, and Toyota cannot afford another performance like that in North West Province where they failed, for the first time since most people can remember, to win a single class on a national off-road event.