Sugarbelt 500: Series shakedown report

TOYOTA PAIR SET PRODUCTION VEHICLE PACE AT NISSAN SUGARBELT 400 ESTON - Fresh from a maiden victory on the recent Eastern Cape 500, the Castrol Toyota pair of Mark Cronje and Chris Birkin set the Production Vehicle pace on the prologue for the...

TOYOTA PAIR SET PRODUCTION VEHICLE PACE AT NISSAN SUGARBELT 400

ESTON - Fresh from a maiden victory on the recent Eastern Cape 500, the Castrol Toyota pair of Mark Cronje and Chris Birkin set the Production Vehicle pace on the prologue for the Nissan Sugarbelt 400, round three of the Absa Off Road Championship.

Unofficial results, however, saw Cronje/Birkin finish only three seconds ahead of reigning South African drivers champion Duncan Vos and Ralph Pitchford in a factory Sasol Nissan Navara. On an event that is likely to produce a high attrition rate, the scene is set for a tremendous battle between Cronje/Birkin and the Nissan crew.

"There is nothing in it and tomorrow is going to be a tough day," said Cronje. "It is probably going to be one of the hardest races of the year, and the first priority will be to stay on the road and finish."

Nearly a minute behind Cronje/Birkin and Vos Pitchford were former SA champion Hannes Grobler and Juan Mohr in another factory Sasol Nissan Navara. They were followed by local favourites Neil Woolridge and Kenny Skjoldhammer in a factory Ford Racing Ranger and the Sasol Nissan Navara in the hands of Norwegian Ivar Tollefsen and Francois Jordaan.

Also in the picture were the Micaren Exel Toyota Hilux driven by Hugo and Jaap de Bruyn, the Castrol Toyota Hilux of Chris Visser/Japie Badenhorst, and the Motorite SP of Alfie Cox and Hennie ter Stege. Cox is also a hometown favourite and, like Woolridge, will be hoping local knowledge will come to the fore in the race.

The scene is also set for a good scrap in Class D. Nissan Dealer 400 winners Coetzee Labuscagne and Johan Gerber, in the Raysonics Nissan Hardbody, edge out reigning drivers champion Cliff Weichelt and Jimmy Goch in the N1 4x4 Toyota Hilux D4D.

Only 19 seconds separated the two crews with brothers Henri and Maurice Zermatten not far behind in the Ryobi Nissan Hardbody. The Zermatten's battled through the prologue without power steering, and were more than happy to still be in touching distance of Labuscagne/Gerber and Weichelt/Goch.

KwaZulu-Natal crew Jack Peckham and Lucio Santoro, in the Ford Racing Ranger led the Class E contingent. They were comfortably ahead of old sparring partners Jannie Visser and Joks le Roux, in the Team Barberspan Toyota Hilux.

Third in Class E were Dewald van Breda, winner of the Eastern Cape 500, and new co-driver Pierre Mans in a Toyota Hilux. Pieter du Plessis, who sat alongside van Breda in the Eastern Cape, has an injured back after an accident on a practice run.

Fourth were local crew Rob Gurney and Paul Gonlag in a Toyota Hilux. The pair both farm in the Eston area and are another crew hoping to see local knowledge prove decisive.

BERTHOLDT/VERMEULEN WIN NISSAN SUGARBELT 400 PROLOGUE

ESTON -- Prologue specialist Gary Bertholdt and Andre Vermeulen, in the Atlas Copco Porter, took pole position today for the Nissan Sugarbelt 400, round three of the Absa Off Road Championship.

Provisional results saw Bertholdt and Vermeulen set the fastest time in the Special Vehicle category to win the prologue to determine grid positions for the race proper. Bertholdt and Vermeulen led a string of fancied Class A runners on a 65 kilometre sprint that was dominated by vehicles competing in the Production Vehicle category.

On the day the pair were eight overall with seven Production Vehicle entries coming in ahead of them on a tight and twisty route that provided for plenty of drama. Indications are, too, that the race proper will have a high attrition rate.

"It was hard going out there," said Bertholdt. "It was very tricky and easy to make costly mistakes.

"We took a conservative approach which paid off, and now the main objective will be to see out the distance tomorrow and grab a win we badly need."

Herman Sullwald and Paul Helberg (Sullwald Racing Zarco), reigning South African champions Evan Hutchison and Achim Bergmann (Motorite BAT) and Nardus Alberts and Collin Hunter (Wrapsa BAT) are all within two minutes of Bertholdt and Vermeulen. Also in the picture are Eastern Cape 500 winners Karl-Heinz Sullwald and son Quintin in a second Sullwald Racing Zarco.

Current championship leaders Terence Marsh and Pieter Groenewald (Regent Racing BAT) were in touch with the leading group but lost time after a near roll. "We almost rolled twice in what could have been a huge accident," said Marsh.

Local crew Marcus Taylor and Derek Keith, in a JRE, were the quickest of the Class B brigade. They were nearly a minute ahead of reigning drivers champion Jan Kraaij and Tiddo Voogt in the Keymax BAT.

Another minute in arrears were Nissan Dealer 400 winners Bes Bezuidenhout and Johann de Bruyn in the Adenco BAT. There was a further boost for the Adenco team when Bezuidenhout's sons, Johan and Etienne, set the second fastest time in Class P.

The Bezuidenhout brothers were behind another local crew, Don Thompson and Don Blakey in a Zarco. Third were another KwaZulu-Natal crew in Glenn Gibson and Warren Phipps in an Aceco.

-credit: absa

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Series Other rally
Drivers Alfie Cox , Ralph Pitchford , Duncan Vos , Japie Badenhorst