Works Toyota crew Anthony Taylor and Dennis Murphy have wrapped up the SA Cross Country Production Vehicle championship with a fourth-place finish in the Ford Dealer 400, penultimate round of the series, in Thaba 'Nchu.
In a dramatic race with bush fires twice forcing race officials to think on their feet and revise the route in a hurry, outgoing title-holders Duncan Vos and Rob Howie - also in a works Hilux - took their first win of the season ahead of Ford Racing crews Chris Visser and Japie Badenhorst, and Lance Woolridge and Ward Huxtable.
Taylor and Murphy finished, but started the day with a 20 point lead over Visser and Badenhorst and did enough to avoid a tense shoot-out at the final race of the season.
Taylor was still a teenager when he won the first of a string of national circuit-racing titles - the South African GTi championship and with it the South African Drivers title. He's still the youngest overall SA Drivers' champion and at the time was the youngest national champion in SA motorsport history.
For Murphy it has been a dream season. He joined the Toyota factory team at the start of the season, and on the way to winning the championship he and Taylor have scored four wins.
SIXTH AT THE HALFWAY MARK
Taylor and Murphy started the race alongside the Toyota crew of Sarel van Biljon and Philip Herselman, and two seconds ahead of Visser and Badenhorst, but a puncture and a brake-pipe problem slowed the works Toyota pair on the first of the two 170km loops that made up the race.
That dropped them to sixth at the halfway mark, but they recovered to finish fourth; regardless of what happens at the final race of the season they cannot be caught in the championship. They also came close to bumping Woolridge and Huxtable off the podium - the gap between third and fourth at the finish was just two seconds.
For Visser and Badenhorst, who have been models of consistency with seven podium finishes this season, it was a case of a bridge too far. They were hoping to take the championship into the final round for the second consecutive year.
Dakar quad star van Biljon and Herselman produced their best result with a top-five finish and were followed home by North West crew Malcolm Kock and Johan Burger in their Toyota Hilux. Behind them Bloemfontein crew Louw de Bruin and Riaan Greyling (Ford Ranger) led home a small convoy.
The Free Staters were only 13 seconds clear of Mike Whitehouse and Mathew Carlson (Nissan Navara) with Hugo de Bruyn and Henri Hugo (Toyota Hilux) another 16 seconds adrift. Following them in quick succession were Gary Bertholdt and Siegfried Rousseau (Nissan Navara), Johan van Staden and Mike Lawrenson (Toyota Hilux), Terence Marsh and Gerhard Schutte (Nissan Navara) and KwaZulu-Natal crew Rowan Lamb and Lyle Parker in a Ford Ranger.
There was also a tight finish in Class D where brothers Johan and Werner Horn (Toyota Land Cruiser) finished only nine seconds clear of championship leaders Jason Venter and Vincent van Allemann in a Toyota Hilux. It was the Horn's third win in a row, and puts a little pressure on Venter and van Allemann going into the final round of the series.
With Dirk Putter and Koos Claasens already having clinched back-to-back Class E championships the pair gave this race a miss, so Doug Fear and Kurt de Villiers (Toyota Hilux) took full advantage to score their second win of the season, more than 10 minutes ahead of Johan Pretorius and Gesina Dauth in another Toyota Hilux.
Reigning South African champions Evan Hutchison and Danie Stassen (BAT Viper) took a huge step towards winning back-to-back Special Vehicle titles with an emphatic win at Thaba 'Nchu, leapfrogged their closest rivals to open up a 12.5 point lead at the top of the championship.
There was more drama, this time in the boardroom, when Congolese brothers Eduardo and Roberto Argazzi (Zarco) were bumped off the podium after being penalised 10 minutes for not stopping at a road crossing.
That dropped them down to sixth, robbing them of their best finish yet in the SA Cross Country series. With a host of more fancied crews falling by the wayside it also elevated Neil Meyer and Phillip Smith (Zarco Challenger) into second for their career-best finish.
MAIDEN PODIUM FINISH
The Argazzi’s relegation also moved Philip de Vries and Johan Viljoen (Porter) into a maiden podium finish and saw them join what is going to be a tense championship finish at the final race of the year. KwaZulu-Natal pair Daniel Brookes and Gavan Grey (BAT) and brothers Daniel and Louw Zeelie (Porter) also moved ahead of the unfortunate Argazzis.
Three of the crews who started the day level or ahead of Hutchison and Stassen in the overall and Class A championships failed to finish, including championship leaders Clint Gibson and Gary Campbell (Porter), Hermann and Wichard Sullwald (Stryker) and Quintin and Kallie Sullwald (BAT), each suffering problems on a tight, technical and very rocky route.
Hutchison and Stassen dominated throughout the weekend, winning a shortened prologue and eventually coming home with six minutes to spare ahead of Meyer and Smith, with De Vries and Viljoen about three minutes further back, quietly working their way into championship contention.
A trademark steady run saw Brookes and Gray finish 38 seconds adrift of De Vries and Viljoen with Brookes and Gray enjoying a 16 second cushion ahead of the Zeelie brothers. They were followed in the results by the Argazzis and former Class B champion Derick du Toit, in his first start in three years, and teenager Sean van Staden in a BAT.
Completing the top eight were Coetzee Labuscagne and daughter Sandra (Zarco) who also took the Class P honours. Second and third in class were the father/son combination of Tony and Michael Gouveia (BAT) and Colin Matthews and Rodney Burke in a CR3.
KwaZulu-Natal crew James Watson and John Thompson (BAT), who earned a free entry into this event, took full advantage of their good fortune. They won Class B ahead of fellow KwaZulu-Natal crew Grant Watkins and Jeffrey Guscott in a Zarco.
The final race of the season will be the Atlas Copco 400 in Westonaria on 22 and 23 November.