There is a tendency in motorsport to judge the success of a formula - or category of racing - by the number of manufacturers it has managed to attract. Using this as a rule of thumb the MSA Off-Road Car Championship is in a more than healthy ...
There is a tendency in motorsport to judge the success of a formula - or category of racing - by the number of manufacturers it has managed to attract.
Using this as a rule of thumb the MSA Off-Road Car Championship is in a more than healthy state. Four manufacturers - Ford, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Toyota - have locked horns in Class T of the Production Vehicle category throughout a hugely competitive season.
A fifth manufacturer, Isuzu, also entered the off-road battlefield this season, but has preferred to stay out of the hi-tech bun fight in Class T, and runs a vehicle in Class D. Privateer entrants like the Vacation Vans Jeep Cherokee, the N14x4 Toyota Land Cruiser and the Barker Performance Products Landrover have bolstered the factory teams, and the entire package has seen a resurgence of public and media interest in the off-road championship.
In recent seasons the South African Superbike brigade, a circuit-racing category that also has support from manufacturers like Honda, Yamaha, Ducati and Suzuki, has perhaps consistently produced the most competitive racing in South African motorsport. The key factor in the success of Superbike racing is that while it has its superstars like 12 time SA champion Russell Wood, any one of half a dozen riders can win races.
Over the last two years, however, the off-roaders have struck back with Class T now a category where, as the Americans like to say, "winning ain't easy." Nothing stands still in motorsport with technology always moving forward, but apart from the high degree of technical development and high cost of the vehicles involved on the Class T battleground, the quality of the crews involved in the fight for supremacy makes winning that little bit harder.
On the recent Moreca Ford Caledon 400 no fewer than 11 South African champions were included in the Class T entry list. The champion's roll of honour included drivers and co-drivers who have not only won off-road championships, but also featured those who have won national rally, saloon car, single-seater and kart championships.
"In all the years we have been competing, the competition has never been tougher," said five times South African co-drivers champion Robin Houghton who sits alongside nine time champion drivers Apie Reyneke in the Team Castrol Toyota Land Cruiser. "Perhaps the biggest change is in the level of professionalism that is now associated with Class T, and it has changed the culture of off-road racing."
Way back in 1986 Hannes Grobler, the affable Hartebeesport Dam garage owner and a driver synonymous with Nissan products, and Piet Swanepoel, now managing director of AA Racing and president of the MSA Off-Road Car Commission, achieved a unique double. They won both the national off-road and rally championships, and nearly 20 years down the road are still winning championships.
Grobler has twice won national Group N rally championships, and Swanepoel and driver Schalk Burger this year became the first South Africans to win the FIA Africa Rally Championship. Grobler also found himself back in the Nissan factory team fold when he and another veteran, Richard Leeke, were contracted to drive the Nissan Hardbody entry in Class T of the off-road series.
For his part it was Swanepoel, as co-driver, who eased Giniel de Villiers into off-road racing. Swanepoel sat alongside the hugely talented de Villiers who, after multiple Bankfin Touring Car Championships, was to find in off-road racing a new niche for his skills.
In only his second full season of off-road racing de Villiers has so far done more winning than anyone else. In Grobler, Swanepoel and Glyn Hall, another former SA rally champion who has masterminded Nissan's circuit racing and off-road racing successes in recent years, de Villiers has had the benefit of wise and experienced mentors.
"Off-Road racing provided all of us, technical personnel and the crews, with a new challenge," said Hall. "It has quickly escalated to an incredibly high level of competition.
"You simply cannot underestimate the quality of the opposition, and these days off-road races are one very long rally special stage. It has placed a heavy burden on the technicians and crews, but it is all very exciting and Nissan are proud to be a part of it."
Technology never stands still in any form of motorsport but, for his part, Swanepoel cannot recall when off-road racing, particularly in Class T, has been more competitive. "In all my years in off-road racing the sport has never before attracted the sort of input that is now coming from manufacturers," said Swanepoel.
"It is a healthy situation and the level of competition in Class T has had spin-offs. With the increased interest in off-road we are getting bigger fields in other classes, and the level of vehicle preparation has improved."
A season or two ago there were always one or two crews who could be tipped as potential winners of a national championship event. Nowadays it is almost impossible - even though some teams have this year done more winning than others.
Of the seven races run so far this season Nissan have won four times, Ford twice and Land Rover once. Reyneke and Houghton have had a tough year in a vehicle that has not been as highly developed as those run by Nissan and Ford rivals, but it is significant that Buks Carolin and Hennie ter Stege have led the Class T and overall championship for most of the season in the Mitsubishi Pajero - without winning.
For Carolin and ter Stege consistency has been the key. The consistency of the Mitsubishi pair and the spread of wins between Nissan, Ford and Cliff Barker's Land Rover have also led to a situation where the championship has gone all the way to the wire.
The Carnival City 400, an event that sees Sun International return to the off-road fold as a major sponsor, will decide the championship. It is an organizers dream - but also reflects the hugely competitive nature of Class T.
There is a simple answer to why the Class T lure is so attractive to manufacturers. The old adage of what wins over the weekend will sell on Monday still holds true, and success in off-road racing is a major marketing tool in a country where a large segment of the market is made up of bakkies and the ever-growing Sport Utility Vehicle market.
Toyota marketing communications director Francois Loubser probably echoes the sentiments of other manufacturers when he says motorsport is very much a part of the Toyota culture. "Our involvement with a wide variety of motorsport, not only in South Africa, is an integral part of our marketing strategy," said Loubser with Toyota, until their recent withdrawal from the Midas Production Car Championship, the only manufacturer in South Africa to run works teams in off-road, rallying and circuit racing.
The Class T protagonists in this year's national off-road series have been sniping away at each other all season. A few skirmishes have been won and lost with a few noses bloodied here and there, but the Carnival City 400 represents the final battle.
The big guns are set to fire their final salvoes of the year in a category that has rekindled interest in off-road racing, but all the Carnival City event will underline is that "winning ain't easy in Class T."