Malalane, Mpumalanga - Sparks are set to fly in the Nkomazi 450, Round 3 of the SA Cross Country Championship, this weekend.
Ford Racing Ranger crew Works Manfred Schroder and Japie Badenhorst will go to Mpumalanga with an 11-point lead in the Production Vehicle category over the works Toyota Hilux of Leeroy Poulter and Rob Howie,
Poulter's team-mates, reigning champions Anthony Taylor and Dennis Murphy, are four points in arrears, while Gary Bertholdt and Siegfried Rousseau in the other Ford Racing Ranger arte tied with the privateer Toyota Hilux of brothers Johan and Werner Horn, a further two points down.
The first two races confirmed that the factory teams are the ones to beat, with the Nkomazi race returning crews to more familiar territory after the opening rounds broke new ground in Harrismith and Mooi River.
Chris Visser and Badenhorst won the 2013 race, with Bertholdt and Rousseau second in a Toyota Hilux; Visser is out of action for the season after surgery for a neck injury sustained on the Dakar Rally, and Ford stalwart Schroder has turned out to be an inspired choice as stand-in.
The battle of the privateers offers some intriguing possibilities. Kobus van Tonder and son-in-law Freddie Kriel (Ford Ranger), and Johan van Staden and Mike Lawrenson (Toyota Hilux) have also picked up solid results, along with Hennie de Klerk and Johann Smalberger (BMW X3) who go to Malalane on the back of an impressive performance last time out.
Ford Ranger crew Christiaan du Plooy and Henk Janse van Vuuren will be desperate to put an end to a disappointing run of results while Nissan Navara crews - Mike Whitehouse and George Myburgh in one and Terence Marsh and Bafana Bafana soccer icon Neil Tovey in the other - will be keen to build on encouraging results in Mooi River.
The battle in Class S, for vehicles up to four litres with solid rear axle suspension, also has intriguing possibilities. Toyota Hilux crews Pieter Ruthven and Hansie Rheeder, and Deon Vente and Ian Palmer have taken a class win each so far - but Louw de Bruin and Riaan Greyling (Ford Ranger) are the only crew in the class with a 100 percent finish record, and that has taken them to the top of the championship and set up some interesting racing.
Dewald and Anton Nienaber (Toyota Land Cruiser) have Class D to themselves while Toyota Hilux crew Doug Fear and Kurt de Villiers will fight it out with similarly-mounted Reagan Austin and Warren Vos in Class E.
Gerhard du Plessis and his teenage son, Hardus, will go into the Mpumalanga outing in an ageing Jimco with a 15 point lead over another father-and-son pairing, Quintin and Kallie Sullwald in their BAT Venom.
But only 15 points separate the Sullwalds and the next 10 crews in the overall championship - with a couple of Class P teams in among the Class A big guns.
The Du Plessis Jimco is the only Class A entry to have finished both races in the championship so far, putting early pressure on the Sullwalds, reigning champions Evan Hutchison and anie Stassen (BAT Viper), Clint Gibson and Gary Campbell (Porter), and Daniel Brookes and Gavan Gray in their BAT.
CONGESTED POINTS TABLE
The Sullwalds have a six-point lead over Hutchison and Stassen, and Brookes and Gray - who scored a maiden podium finish in Mooi River. Next up, four points in arrears, are Derick du Toit and Craig Gray (BAT) and Class P leaders John Thomson and Maurice Zermatten in a Zarco Magnum - with two points separating the next six crews.
Two Class A crews - former South African champions Hermann and Wichard Sullwald (Stryker), and Lance Trethewey and Geoff Minnitt in their newly acquired BAT Venom, have two strikes against them and are particularly vulnerable. After a horrid run of results that date back to last season, the Sullwalds will be happy to simply make it to the finish.
Brett Parker and VZ van Zyl (Jimco) are also due a good result, while Mark Corbett and Juan Mohr, after an outing in the United Arab Emirates, will make their first appearance in the new Century Racing CR5. Their progress will be watched with interest.
As in Class A, reliability is becoming an issue; only reigning champions Thomson and Zermatten and Nic Goslar, among the drivers, are batting two for two.
That has taken Thomson and Zermatten to the top of the class championship ahead of Harrismith winners John Telford and Andrew Makenete in their BAT. Goslar is third among the drivers but all the Class P crews - along with the Class A brigade - will be keeping an eye out for Colin Matthews and Rodney Burke in the Century Racing CR3.
Matthews is among those with two consecutive DNFs but, given a clean run Matthews, who won last year's event with Alan Smith ahead of the Class A opposition, is a distinct threat when it comes to overall honours.
WERE AND WHEN?
Race headquarters, the start/finish and the designated service point will all be at the Riverview Preparatory School on the outskirts of Malalane. Public entry to these areas and viewing points along the route will be free, and spectator guides will be available at race headquarters and Malalane Toyota.
The 100km qualifying race to determine grid positions will start at 11.30am on Friday 16 May and the race at 8.30am the following day. Competitors will complete two laps of about 175km, with a compulsory 15-minute pit stop at the end of the first loop.