Season preview

Scene set for blockbuster Bankfin Off Road Championship The curtain on a new off-road season rises at the Barberspan 500 on March 22 and 23, with the scene set for a blockbuster year. Prior to a wheel being turned in anger, the off-road...

Scene set for blockbuster Bankfin Off Road Championship

The curtain on a new off-road season rises at the Barberspan 500 on March 22 and 23, with the scene set for a blockbuster year.

Prior to a wheel being turned in anger, the off-road brigade has been buoyed up by the sponsorship agreement between the MSA Off-Road Car Racing Commission and Bankfin. At the same time the Commission and Bankfin have entered into a marketing partnership agreement with Ford, Nissan and Toyota with the flurry of pre-season activity opening new doors for off-road racing in this country.

Against this backdrop the Bankfin Off-Road Championship looks to be already riding the crest of a wave. It is against this backdrop, too, that normal pre-season musical chairs - accompanied by the usual expectations harboured by those who fancy their title chances - adds a little spice to an already enticing menu.

There are, of course, other elements that also add to the flavour. New classes in both the Production Vehicle and Special Vehicle categories, and a new scoring system are elements that have also opened new doors.

On the Production Vehicle front the battle between Nissan, Ford and Toyota will resume in the premier Class T category. Reigning champion Giniel de Villiers and former champion Hannes Grobler will both be out in Nissan Hardbodys - sporting exciting new livery - with the main opposition coming from the Team Ford Ranger of former champions Neil Woolridge and Kenny Skjoldhammer, and the Team Castrol Toyota Land Cruiser of another pair of former champions in Apie Reyneke and Robin Houghton.

Cliff Barker will again be out in the trusty Barker Performance Products Land Rover, while Cliff Weichelt has taken over the ex Woolridge Ford Ranger and could be a dark horse. The Jeep Cherokee, in the hands of Special Vehicle champion Franz Czepek / Paolo Piazza-Musso and Scott Abraham at Barberspan, is earmarked for either Class T or the new Class F for two-wheel drive bakkies and SUVs.

Should the Jeep squad go the Class F route, they will join Frik Mulder in the Jo Jo Tanks Chevrolet and Frank de Greeff in his locally designed and built Toyota. Either way Class T once again will be a playground for the bold.

On the evidence of last season's series one would expect the championship battle to develop into a scrap between the Nissans and the Team Ford Ranger, with Reyneke / Houghton running interference. The Team Castrol Toyota pair ended last season without a win, and that is something they will want to rectify this year.

Conditions look like being varied, but these days the state of the roads are almost irrelevant for the Class T vehicles. Again, on the evidence of last season where the championship went all the way to the wire, the Class T battle is going to be one of attrition and will have off-road enthusiasts smacking their lips in anticipation.

The premier class, however, won't be the only category where there is potential for drama. Vryburg farmers Piet Haasbroek and Christo Bosch (Castrol Toyota Land Cruiser) will be looking to turn local knowledge into a major advantage, but face some stiff competition in a highly competitive Class D category.

Motorsport legend Sarel van der Merwe will be out in a Mitsubishi Colt and is more than capable of winning in anything that has four wheels and an engine. Shumi van Vuuren, another Castrol Toyota entry, will again be a contender for Class D and overall honours, and Mark Corbett - in the ex Delta factory Isuzu - has the ability to throw a cat among the pigeons.

Nissan will also be well represented by factory and dealer entries. Duncan Vos and Mike Griffifth and Hein Grobler/Gerhard Prinsloo look likely title challengers, while the Nissan Western Cape Dealer Team pair of Hennie Louw and Jonathan Bright could rattle a few cages.

BB Auto will also run a Nissan Hardbody for brothers Jurie and Andre du Plessis, while husband and wife combination Neels and Zelda van der Walt will start their campaign in Class D in another Hardbody, and will then switch to Class E.

Brothers Henri and Maurice Zermatten will also be top contenders in Class D in their Playstation Pajero, which proved to be extremely reliable last season.

The Class E battlefield, where Manfred Schroder and Jack Peckham are defending champions in a Team Ford Ranger, also looks interesting. Pressure is likely to come from highly experienced Kassie Coetzee, in the Team Castrol Toyota Condor, and Coetzee Labuschagne in the Raysonic Toyota Hilux.

In an interesting development Kia join the off-road fray with Jean-Pierre Joubert and Errol Hodgson out in a Kia Sportage with N1 4x4 sponsorship. An enticing mix of manufacturers will be completed when Neels and Zelda van der Walt put in an appearance in a new turbo diesel Nissan Harbody later in the season.

The major off-season development in the Special Vehicle category was the decision by reigning champion Franz Czepek to take a sabbatical this year. Czepek won seven out of eight events last season, and his absence opens the way for other Class A hopeful to flex their muscles.

Greg Daus, the Moreca Ford Caledon 400 winner, will be out in the Nashua Mobile VW Raceco with veteran Richard Carolin making a return to action in the ex Weir-Smith Porsche Raceco. Weir-Smith will be out in the O'Hagan's Kopanong Hotel BMW 540 V8 Jimco with Tony George, who prepares the car, doing the co-driving and the pair will fancy their chances.

Special Vehicle newcomers Terence Marsh and Trevor Ahier will be in action in a Nashua Mobile backed Jimco that won the Roof of Africa two year ago. A new team, the BAT Racing squad that includes some familiar faces, will see Brandon Harcus / Carlos Jorge and Bevan Bertholdt / Colin Howell campaign a pair of locally designed and built Nissan V6 powered cars. Father and son combo, Bodo and Gary Bertholdt, will also join the Class A fray in their M&E Glass BAT Nissan.

The BAT outfit has already bared its fangs by winning the recent Mafikeng 200 regional event. Czepek's withdrawal has opened the way for a new champion and there is plenty of quality among the challengers.

Multiple Roof of Africa winner Richard Schilling and Ashley Thorn have decided to contest the new Class S for trailing arm suspension space framed vehicles and are likely to gain an early points advantage in the championship.

Class B, reigned over the veteran Giel Nel in the Truk LUK Afrika Truggy, looks like developing into a dogfight. There are any number of contenders all lining up to take pot shots at Nel, and the category could provide some of the most interesting racing of the season.

Among Nel's rivals are experienced Henry Kirstein (Sandmaster), Max Mohr in the Industrial Hardware WPP15 Footloose, Wolf Peter Pfumfei (WPP) and Pietermaritzburg based Gavan Gray in a JRE. Others who could come into the picture include father and son pair Rob and Gareth Wark (Superpave Mighty Mag), Willie Prinsloo in the ex Max Mohr Mighty Mag, Tom Smith (Pomona Porsche Mighty Mag) and Adri Roets and Frikkie Botha in a pair of WPP entries.

"There is both quantity and quality throughout the entry, and it looks as though we are in for a season that will again produce off-road racing of the highest class," said MSA Off-Road Car Racing Commission president Piet Swanepoel. "The new sponsorship and marketing agreements provide us with a terrific platform for the future, and if the competition lives up to expectations it could be a memorable season."

Documentation and scrutineering for the Barberspan 500 will open at 08h30 on March 22 at Leeupan, and the Prologue to determine starting positions will start at 13h00. Racing section two on March 23 starts at 08h00 with the first car expected back at Leeupan at around 15h30.

-msa-

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About this article
Series Other rally
Drivers Giniel de Villiers , Tony George , Sarel van der Merwe , Tom Smith , Mark Corbett , Duncan Vos
Teams AT Racing