If the recent seeding event for dirt bike and quad off riders was anything to go by, the first round of the 2013 SA Off-Road championship - the Vogelstruispan 200 on 2 March in the Bela Bela area of Limpopo Province - will not only produce extremely competitive action, but will also kick off an exciting season.
The format of the series has been changed; the championship will now be run over some shorter sprint-type events as well as a few longer races and a 'double header' that will take competitors back to Botswana for the desert race marathon.
The time-trial system has been abandoned and the results of the seeding event on 26 January near Bronkhorstspruit, will determine the starting order for the Vogelstruispan 200 this weekend.
This will be a sprint-type race in which 180km of difficult terrain over a route will test the fitness and concentration of riders with close racing action from start to finish.
Round 1 of the series has attracted the largest entry in recent years with about 130 motorcycle and 72 quad competitors competing at national level - but closer to 380 motorcycle and 111 quad riders will be in action; this will also be the second round of the Northern Regions championship as well as the second round of the GOC club series.
First off on the sandy route will be the four-wheelers, who will tackle the race in pairs.
Three Polokwane riders finished at the top of the leaderboard last year and they will continue their battle this season. Brian Baragwanath (Yamaha) posted the fastest qualifying time and will start next to André du Plessis (Suzuki) with defending champion Jurie Meyer (Yamaha) just behind them and alongside John Aylward (Yamaha).
Also in the top ten are three former Junior National championship competitors, Mike Wagner (KTM), Jay-Zet Potgieter (Suzuki) and Jaco Moller (Suzuki) while Danie Erasmus (Suzuki) and Stefan Swanepoel (Honda) will round off the top 10.
Both the Senior and Master Classes have also attracted healthy entries; Jacques 'Boesman' Struwig (Suzuki) has moved to the Senior Class, posting the fastest qualifying time (he will start in the top 10) with Russell Ferreira (Honda) just behind him, while the former champion, Paul Chomse, will aim for the title again on his trusted Yamaha Banshee.
In the Master Class for riders over the age of 46, Vicus Breedt (Suzuki) will lead the field, but he will be aware of two former champions, Jurie Meyer (Yamaha) and Milton Thesen (Yamaha), breathing down his neck, as well as Thesen's team mate, Peter Schenk, who finished second in the Senior Class last year.
There will be a three-way battle in the Ladies Quad Class where Adi du Plessis (Suzuki), Chardri Monk (KTM) and Liezel Barnard (Can-Am) will aim for victory while strong competition can also be expected in the Silver Class Challenge.
The two-wheelers will start eight abreast and the front row looks pretty impressive, with Kenny Gilbert (Yamaha), fastest at the seeding event, starting shoulder to shoulder with defending champion Louwrens Mahoney (Yamaha), Nicholas Pienaar (KTM) and Husqvarna SA's Altus de Wet.
They're running in OR1 (Open Class) and will share the front row with two Yamaha riders - Michael Pentecost (fastest in OR3/200cc) and Timmy Young (OR2/250cc) - as well as Dillon Inggs (KTM - OR2) and Mahoney's new team mate, Louw Schmidt (OR4 - U-21), winner of the 2012 Silver Class Challenge.
After some musical saddles at the end of the 2012 season, some of the teams look totally different. The 2012 OR2 champion (De Wet) and OR4 title-holder(Michael Creevy) are both competing under the Husqvarna SA banner, while Juan 'Bollie' van Rooyen has swopped his Kawasaki for a place in the 'official' KTM team together with Jonathan van Wyk, who has recovered fully after losing his index finger during a race last year.
SENIORS AND MASTERS
Enduro specialist, Marc Torlage (Yamaha) will also be back in action, as will the Yamaha-riding Webster brothers from Queenstown, Jonathan and Chris, who finished overall runner-up behind Mahoney last year, but who will start a bit further down due to a problematic seeding event, while Dakar Rally heroes Riaan van Niekerk (KTM) and Brett Cummings will also be back in action
The Senior and Master motorcycle classes have received enough entries to make for another healthy championship. Keep an eye on the battle between multiple former title-holder Wayne Farmer (Gas Gas) and defending champion Guy Henley (Kawasaki) while a gaggle of new names and riders could cause an upset in this class.
The Master Class championship might see a new name as current holder Neil Gailey, doesn't appear on the entry list; that of Jan Berning (KTM) who finished second last year, does, however will be in action again.
The Vogelstruispan 200 will start at 8am when the quad competitors tackle the race while the bike race will start at noon. Spectators can take the R516 from Bela Bela (Warmbaths) to Thabazimbi. About 9km from Bela Bela town centre, turn left at the Vogelstruispan dirt road and continue for about 12km; enter the farm Aliwal on the left and follow the dirt road to the pits.