Sugarbelt 400 class battles preview

NISSAN SUPREMACY TO BE CHALLENGED Nissan's supremacy in the Production Vehicle category of the Absa Off Road Championship will again be put to the test on the Nissan Sugarbelt 400, round two of the series, in KwaZulu-Natal on May 5 and...


Nissan's supremacy in the Production Vehicle category of the Absa Off Road Championship will again be put to the test on the Nissan Sugarbelt 400, round two of the series, in KwaZulu-Natal on May 5 and 6.

After year's of domination the works Nissan team started off this season with another win, on the Nissan Dealer 400 in the Western Cape, via veteran former South African champions Hannes Grobler and Francois Jordaan in a new Nissan Navara running in the super Production Class. But there were ominous signs, particularly from the Ford camp, that Glynn Hall's super successful team might come under the whip this season.

After a year's Sabbatical another set of former SA champions, Neil Woolridge and Kenny Skjoldhammer, gave the new 4.0 Ford Ranger a more than encouraging debut in the Western Cape. The pair picked up second place ahead of the Nissan entry crewed by Duncan Vos and Ralph Pitchford, and will again have back-up in KZN from Shameer Variawa and VZ van Zyl in the Total Ford Racing Ranger.

Woolridge will also be on home ground this time out, and that is always a confidence booster. Adding to the mix is the fact that the Castrol Toyota squad will for the first time run both their 4.0 V6 Hilux models with Mark Cronje/Chris Birkin and Bevan Bertholdt/Robin Houghton doing the crewing.

As yet there is no benchmark in the SP Class by which to judge the performance of crews and vehicles. The field will be bolstered by a Century Property Developments Nissan Navara in the hands of Mark Corbett and Juan Mohr, and the Nissan Sugarbelt will certainly provide a few answers about the new SP Class.

An interesting Toyota versus Nissan battle is on the cards in the highly competitive Class D. Toyota drew first blood when reigning Class E champions Chris Visser and Japie Badenhorst, in the Tyco Trucks Toyota Hilux 2.7i, won in the Western Cape. They again look to be the team to beat with Hugo and Jaap de Bruyn, in the Team Castrol Toyota Hilux, keen to bounce back after a disappointing start to the season.

The experience Cliff and Louis Weichelt, in the Bosal Toyota Hilux, are also potential winners while the Nissan challenge is spearheaded by highly competent teams in the BB Auto entries of Jurie and Andre du Plessis and Arnold du Plessis/Johan Knox, and the Raysonics entry in the hands of Coetzee Labuschange and Johan Gerber. Deon Schoeman and Jan Sime could also come into the picture in the Inspectacar Nissan.

While the Class D winners look certain to come from the Toyota/Nissan ranks, the progress of the Sandown Motors Mitsubishi Pajero will be watched with interest. Driver Anne Evans is having to scout around for a new navigator with regular co-driver Caroline Jooste retiring after falling pregnant.

Four manufacturers - Ford, Mahindra, Nissan and Toyota - are all represented in Class E with the more fancied crews coming from the Toyota and Ford factory stables. Brian Martin and Ockie Fourie, in the Castrol Toyota Hilux, won in the Western Cape but face a stiff challenge from experienced Manfred Schroeder, the current Class D driver champion, and Ward Huxtable in the Ford Racing Ranger.

Back-up for Toyota comes from George and Sharon Barkhuizen and newcomers Pieter Ruthven and Dewaal Boshoff, in Ruwacon Toyota Hilux entries, and former track racers Fabio Tafani and Jaco Swanepoel. Tafani, partnered by Mike Baron in the Club Refrigeration Toyota Hilux and Swanepoel, with Graham Bishop alongside him, both made it to the finish in the debuts in the Western Cape, and will be confident of good results.

Support for Schroeder/Huxtable will come from Rob Gurney and Graham Stainbank in a second factory entered Ford Ranger. The Mahindra challenge will be in the hands of Douw de Boer and actor Ben Kruger, while Jeremy and Michele Fall and Thomas Rundle and Brian Roberts will be out in Nissan Hardbody's.

There should be some good racing in Class F where brothers Mark and Stuart Moffat, in the Bosal Land Rover, will be up against two Kopanong Hotel Superteam entries. Andre Botha and Richard Carolin will be out in a Chev with Chris Fick and Herman de Villiers in another Land Rover in a category where the smart money will probably be on the Moffat brothers.

With a traditionally tough and technical route, the Nissan Sugarbelt 400 is not an easy event. The battle between Nissan, Toyota and Ford at the front of the field in the SP Class is going to be fascinating, and the Nissan Sugarbelt could set a trend for the rest of the season.


A Special Vehicle field that includes both quantity and quality provides all the necessary ingredients to turn the Nissan Sugarbelt 400 in KwaZulu-Natal on May 5 and 6 into a classic race.

The event, again based at the Eston Club just outside Pietermaritzburg, is round two of the Absa Off Road Championship, always comes up with something a little out of the ordinary. That could again be the case this year, but such is the quality and depth of the Class A field that in trying to pick an winner one might be best served by the blindfold and pin method.

The opening event of the season, the Nissan Dealer 400 in the Western Cape, produced a stunning performance from Brandon Harcus in the Motorite BAT singleseater. Harcus, who has since become the proud father of a daughter, pulverized the Class A field.

Harcus, however, is unlikely to come up with a repeat performance for the simple reason that the Sugarbelt route is always technically demanding and handling driving and navigating duties is biting off more than you can chew. For all that Harcus will be a threat on an event where one would tend to favour crews who adopt a more cautious approach to their racing.

Reigning champions Terrence Marsh and Mike Whitehouse, in the Nashua Mobile BAT, fall firmly into this category and betting men would favour a flutter on the pair at any odds. Chargers like Gary Bertholdt/Henry Kirstein (Atlas Copco BAT), Evan Hutchison/Achim Bergman (Motorite BAT) and Alfie Cox/Hennie ter Steege (Motorite BAT) all showed plenty of pace at some stage or other on the Western Cape opener.

A variety of mechanical failures sidelined the lot of them. The likes of Nick and Ryan Harper (BAT), Rob and Gareth Wark (Superpave Chenowth) and Clint Gibson and Mike Brown, in the Absolute BAT, were also hit by mechanical dramas but all have the potential to win the Nissan Sugarbelt 400.

One also needs to add to the Nissan Sugarbelt mix, however, a string of crews who missed the opening event of the season. Included in this number are Herman and Bertha Sullwald and Karl-Heinz Sullwald/Paul Helberg, with both crews out in Sullwald Transport Zarcos, Nardus Alberts and Collin Hunter in a new Wrapsa BAT and John Weir-Smith and Geoff Minnitt in a Jimco.

John Moore and Ashley Thorn, in the Koloi Chev Chenowth, were an impressive fourth in the Western Cape and Giel Nel and Johan Smalberger look as though they could weld into a useful combination in the Bosal LUK Truggy. Given the severity of the Sugarbelt route and the vagaries of motor racing, this is one event where one would fancy those crews who adopt a softly, softly catchee-monkey approach to outscore the brigade of chargers.

The Class B field is also full of quality entries and should provide for some good racing with one or two crews out to prove a point after disappointing starts to the season. Former champions Marcus Taylor and Marc de Chalain, on home ground in the Cle` JRE, fall into this category and will have a battle on their hands against impressive Western Cape winners Bez Bezuidenhout/Johan de Bruyn, in the Adenco Sandmaster, and Ernest Corbett and Warwick Goosen in the Century Property Developments BAT.

Rudi and Pierre van Graan, in the Zarco Lite, also come into the picture along with John Thompson and Clinton McNamara, in another Zarco, and David White in the Ruwacon Truggy. There will be a great deal of interest in the return to racing of experienced Marius and Tracy van Vuuren who will be out in a Bosal backed Zarco.

As was the case in the Western Cape where Bezuidenhout and de Bruyn finished fifth overall, the Class B contingent will be out to upset a few Class A applecarts. It would come as no surprise to see three or four of the Class B runners finish in the top 10.

Top 10 finishes will also be an incentive for Class S runners where the crew to beat, after an impressive seventh overall on the Nissan Dealer 400, look to be Archie Rutherford and Craig Doubtfire in the Nashua Mobile Raceco. Reigning champions Richard Schilling and Chris Davies (Plastotech Nissan) will want to get their season back on track after a disappointing first outing - with years of experience their biggest weapon.

Naeem Moosajee and Naazim Moti, in the Tyre Rack Mighty Mag, also pose a threat with Nic Goslar and George Bowie (Kopanong Hotel Superteam Raceco) completing the numbers in a class that has the potential for some interesting encounters. At this early stage, however, Rutherford and Doubtfire look to be the frontrunners.

There was never any doubt before the start of the season that the Special Vehicle category, and particularly Class A, was going to be a war zone. The opening event simply confirmed the status quo, and there will be no prisoners taken on the Nissan Sugarbelt 400.


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Series Other rally
Drivers Mike Brown , Alfie Cox , John Moore , David White , Ralph Pitchford , Mark Corbett , John Thompson , Duncan Vos , Japie Badenhorst