Sugarbelt 400 preview

Major skirmish expected on Nissan Sugarbelt 400. sugarbelt one The Nissan Sugarbelt 400, round two of the SA Off Road Championship - presented by Bankfin, the specialist vehicle finance division of ABSA, Ford, Nissan and Toyota -...

Major skirmish expected on Nissan Sugarbelt 400.

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The Nissan Sugarbelt 400, round two of the SA Off Road Championship - presented by Bankfin, the specialist vehicle finance division of ABSA, Ford, Nissan and Toyota - gets underway on Friday, May 9 in Eston near Pietermaritzburg.

The Prologue to determine starting positions for Saturday's main event starts at 12:30 on Friday and the main event, comprising three laps of a 130km loop starts at 08:00 on Saturday morning with the leading vehicle expected to cross the finish line at 14:30.

87 entries have been received for the Nissan Sugarbelt 400, which is one of the showcase events in the championship and, if previous events are anything to go by, it promises to develop into a battle royal in all the classes.

The SA Off Road Championship comprises two categories with one for Production Vehicles and the other for Special Vehicles and both are equally hotly contested.

The Production Vehicle category has attracted 36 entries with 11 hopefuls entered in Class E for near-standard four-cylinder vehicles, a lone entry in Class F for Unlimited 2-wheel drive vehicles, 14 in Class D for near- standard six-cylinder vehicles and 10 in Class T for Unlimited 'supertrucks'.

In the Special Vehicle category for space framed vehicles, many of which are state-of-the-art and have been imported from the USA, there are 51 entries of which there are 24 entries in Class B for 2 litre powered vehicles, 6 in Class S for vehicles fitted with beam or trailing arm front suspensions and 21 in Class A for Unlimited space frame vehicles, the majority of which are fitted with A-arm front suspensions.

While the Production and Special Vehicle categories are scored separately on events and in the championship the quest by top competitors in both categories is to win overall.

This mentality on the part of the teams sets the scene for some interesting skirmishes between the Production and Special Vehicle contenders.

Atang Makgekgenene was the Special Vehicle category winner and finished third overall in the SAM Racing Jimco in the season opening Nissan Dealer 400 in the Western Cape and would love nothing more than to take the chequered flag ahead of Production Vehicle category and overall winner Hannes Grobler in the Proudly South African Nissan Hardbody.

The Production Vehicle squads have shown the Special Vehicle brigade the way home in the overall battle on most events in recent years, with Nissan taking the overall honours eight times on the last nine events, and the odds of an overall win by a Special Vehicle seem rather slim.

Based on their track record the Proudly South African Nissan team is the one to beat in the Production Vehicle category. Dakar 2003 star Giniel de Villiers and co-driver Francois Jordaan won three events on a trot in 2002 and teammates Hannes Grobler and Richard Leeke have won the last four in a row.

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The only other Production Vehicle crew to have won in the past two seasons is Apie Reyneke and Robin Houghton in the Castrol Toyota Land Cruiser who won last year's Barberspan 500 and finished second on the recent Nissan Dealer 400.

Pietermaritzburg based Neil Woolridge and co-driver Ken Skjoldhammer will return to action in the repaired SBM French-built Ford Racing Ranger, which was extensively damaged in a high-speed crash during the Carnival City Casino 400 in November 2002. The pair had to make do with a Class E Ford Racing Ranger, which they entered in Class T to score maximum class points, on the Nissan Dealer 400.

Reigning Production Vehicle champions Duncan Vos and Mike Griffith could cause an upset in their Class T Proudly South African Nissan Hardbody. The pair started 30th on the Nissan Dealer 400 but carved their way through the field to eventually move up to 5th overall before the mechanical problems forced them to retire.

Veteran Cliff Barker and Vic Campher will be making an appearance in the Class T Barker Performance Products Land Rover, which is powered by a BMW M3 motor and has proved to be extremely fast and reliable in past events. Barker and Mike Reddin won the event in 1994.

The dark horse in Class T is the Atlas Copco / Chicago Pneumatic Jeep crewed by Richard "Ouboet" Carolin (54) Scott Abraham (22), who will share the drive in the 5,9 litre V8 powered, American-built monster.

Abraham made his debut as a driver and Carolin his as a navigator on the Nissan Dealer 400 and finished 3rd in Class T, despite getting stuck in thick sand for 45 minutes and surviving an under-bonnet fire.

Newcomers to Class T Mike Tomsett and Brian Haviland will debut their Dakar- style Mitsubishi ClubCab, which is powered by a Mitsubishi 3,3 litre V6 engine. Tomsett previously raced a Colt in Class D and has the experience and the consistency to put up a good performance.

Class D sees Toyota, Nissan, Land Rover and Mitsubishi crews pitted against each other.

Tosca farmer Piet Haasbroek and co-driver Freddie Scheepers can always be counted upon to put in a charge for a podium finish in the Class D Castrol Toyota Land Cruiser but reliability problems have seen them sidelined more often than not.

Relative newcomers to the sport Johan and Marthinus van der Merwe from Harrismith took the honours on the Nissan Dealer 400 in the Chavani Mitsubishi Colt and their consistency might just secure them another Class D win in KwaZulu Natal.

Nissan Motorsport's decision to concentrate their effort on Class T has led to the establishment of a number of prominent Nissan privateer teams with the leading contenders coming from the GBS Racing Team of four Class D Hardbody pickups.

Former Class D champion Hein Grobler and Gerhard Prinsloo from Klerksdorp spearhead the GBS Racing, which saw three of the four finish in the top ten in the Nissan Dealer 400. Despite losing four-wheel drive, Grobler finished ninth overall and 3rd in class.

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Team-mates JP and Linda Augustin from Hartswater and Coetzee Labuschagne and Johan Gerber finished seventh and 10th overall and second and fourth in Class D respectively.

There is a new kid on the block in the form of 12-times South African off road and Enduro motorcycle champion and Dakar star, Alfie Cox. The wiry Pietermaritzburg based rider made his transition from two to four wheels on the Nissan Dealer 400 and showed the established runners a thing or two in his Arnold Chatz Cars Nissan Hardbody.

The Dakar veteran was heading for a remarkable third overall and first in Class D when the Nissan's clutch failed 8 kilometres from the finish.

Class E delivered some surprises in the Western Cape.

Three Class E entries finished in the top ten the most notable of which was the reigning Rotax Max World Karting champion Mark Cronje. The 25-year old Gauteng based driver made his off road racing debut in the Castrol Toyota Hilux and he and co-driver Chris Birkin put up a giant killing performance to claim 3rd overall and first in Class E in the season opening race.

Veteran Kassie Coetzee and Ockie Fourie finished 2nd in a similar vehicle and can always be expected to put up a solid performance.

Ford Racing pair Manfred Schroder and Jack Peckham are cane farmers in the area where the race is run and local knowledge of the road conditions will certainly be an advantage. They won Class E last year and will most certainly be the team to beat on their home turf.

Jean Pierre Joubert and Errol Hodgson in the N1 4X4 Kia Sportage, who were well placed early on during the Cape event before mechanical problems dropped them down the field forcing them to settle for 5th in class, have the potential to finish on the podium.

Brothers Andre and Jurie du Plessis from Pietersburg and husband and wife team Neels and Zelda van der Walt have won Class E in their Nissan Hardbody pickups in 2002 and have the potential to win again in KwaZulu Natal.

The lone Class F entry for unlimited two-wheel drive vehicles is the ex- Frik Mulder Chevrolet, which has been totally refurbished and will be campaigned under the O'Hagan's / Kopanong Hotel Superteam banner by rookies Andre Botha and 'Beans' Heydenrych.

21 Special Vehicles have entered in Class A and it is here that American technology and design will be pitted against local ingenuity and enterprise.

Jimcos are the make of note when it comes to American space frames but they may just have met their match in the form of the locally designed and constructed BAT Racing vehicles, which are powered by Nissan V6, 3,5 litre engines.

The Midrand based BAT Racing team is the brainchild of Brandon Harcus, whose father Arthur is one of the pioneers of off road racing in South Africa. Harcus Jr's brother, Justin Rose, is a leading contender on the US and European PGA Golf Tour and Brandon himself is a former professional golfer turned off road racer.

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BAT entries have yet to win a race but KZN crew Gerald Mundell and Billy Bond gave notice of the vehicles' potential when they out-qualified the rest of the Special Vehicle field on the Nissan Dealer 400.

Former Special Vehicle champion Mark Corbett and Gary Bertholdt will share the drive in the Century Property Developments BAT and the two young guns can be relied upon to put up a solid performance.

However, the Jimco brigade is the one to beat.

John Weir-Smith won two races in 2002 with Tony George and Geoff Minnitt as co-drivers respectively in the O'Hagan's / Kopanong Hotel Superteam Jimco and is hell bent on winning the Nissan Sugarbelt 400 for the second consecutive time.

Botswana businessman Atang Makgekgenene won this event as a co-driver for Bevan Bertholdt in 2000 and wants nothing more than to win it as a driver this year.

Gerhard du Plessis and his brother Lawrence won four races in 2002 but this time out he will have his wife Kobie sitting alongside him in the Porsche powered Jimco.

Between them Weir-Smith, Magkekgenene and the du Plessis brothers won seven of the eight races in 2002 and it is unlikely that anyone other than the Nashua Mobile Racing team can present a threat to them.

The two-car Nashua Mobile Racing team of 2002 Toyota 1000 winner Greg Daus and Archie Rutherford in the ex-Mark Ferguson Chenowth and Terence Marsh and Trevor Ahier in the Jimco have put together a formidable package. The vehicles are powered by Mitsubishi 3,5 litre V6 engines with Daus running a twin turbo version and Marsh a supercharged version and both crews are in with a chance of victory.

Class B is wide open with a number of KZN, Western Cape and Gauteng entries in with a chance of a win but only if Germiston resident 'Mr. Consistency' Giel Nel in the Luk Africa Truggy doesn't finish. Nel has a well-earned reputation for finishing high up in the rankings and is the 2001 Class B champion and was the Class B winner on the Nissan Dealer 400.

Reigning Class B champions Marcus Taylor, who farms in the Drakensberg area, and co-driver Marc de Chalain finished third in Class B in the Cape and are hoping that Taylor's local knowledge of the terrain will provide them with the necessary edge to win on home ground.

Father and son Bez and Deon Bezuidenhout from the Western Cape had one Class B victory in 2002 but didn't finish in their home event in March this year. The Bezuidenhout family is the driving force behind getting off road racing established in the Western Cape and father, Bez, can always be relied upon for a strong finish.

Class S for Special Vehicles with beam or trailing arm front suspensions poses the biggest threat to the Class A fraternity as far as overall victory is concerned.

Two times Special Vehicle drivers champion and multiple Roof of Africa winner Richard Schilling makes a rare championship appearance in the Nissan Sugarbelt 400 in the Plastotech Raceco. He and his Lesotho based co-driver Ashley Thorn could well spring a surprise and upset the Class A applecart.

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The battle lines have been drawn and the skirmish for overall category and class honours on the Nissan Sugarbelt 400 will be notable.

-msa-

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About this article
Series Other rally
Drivers Tony George , Mark Corbett , Duncan Vos
Teams AT Racing