Harrismith, Free State - A slice of racing history will be made at the opening round of the SA Cross Country Championship, the RFS 450, on February 28 and March 1.
The new Side by Side category will make its official debut and rounds of the Northern Region and KwaZulu-Natal regional championships will also be run in conjunction with the national race. Northern Region and KwaZulu-Natal regional races have previously been held in conjunction with national races, but never at the same time.
The Side by Side category is aimed at bringing new competitors into cross-country racing, and will act as a feeder for classes in the premier Production and Special Vehicle categories. Only the Polaris RZR and Can Am Maverick have been approved for Side by Side racing, and competitors will complete the qualifying race and one of the two 175km loops that make up the RFS 450.
At this stage the Side by Side teams are something of an unknown quantity. Best known are Brian Capper, paired with Petrus Swart in a Polaris, and Gareth Woolridge who will share another Polaris with Simon Harrison.
The Toyota and Ford Racing factory teams won seven of the eight races in the 2013 season, and the status quo looks likely to continue.
The Toyota steamroller, spearheaded by Anthony Taylor and Dennis Murphy, took five wins on the way to clinching the overall Production Vehicle and SP Class championships with a round to spare. This season the SP Class has been split into two categories, but that won't affect the battle between the two factory giants.
The factory teams will compete in Class T which now caters for vehicles powered by engines of four litres or more with solid rear axle or independent suspension. Class S will accommodate vehicles of up to four litres with solid axle suspension, and both categories will score points in their own class as well as the overall championship.
Taylor and Murphy will share the Hilux that finished fourth in this year's Dakar Rally, and will be joined by Leeroy Poulter (who replaces former champion Duncan Vos) and Rob Howie in another Dakar-specification Hilux.
PROBLEMS FOR FORD RACING
The Ford Racing squad, by contrast, is in disarray with rising star Lance Woolridge out for the season after back surgery, and former South African champion Chris Visser missing the first race following neck surgery after an accident on the Dakar.
Standing in for Woolridge, however, will be the vastly experienced Gary Bertholdt and Siegfried Rousseau; they were the pick of the privateers last season, and should blossom in a 'works' environment.
Former SA champion Manfred Schroder will join navigator Japie Badenhorst for the first race in the second Dakar-specification Ranger.
Access to additional resources gives the factory teams an advantage but there is enough quality among the privateer ranks to giver the works crews a few grey hairs.
Thomas Rundle and Juan Mohr will line up in their Toyota Hilux, looking to build on an impressive Dakar debut, alongside Johan van Staden and Mike Lawrenson in a new Nissan Navara, and Sarel van Biljon and Philip Herselman in a Toyota Hilux.
Former Sun City 400 winners Christiaan du Plooy and Henk Janse van Vuuren will debut a new Ford Ranger alongside team mates Hennie de Klerk and Johan Smalberger in the RFS BMW X3.
Richard Fuller and Gary Austin will be out in the ex-RFS BMW X3, up against two Nissan Navaras - one for Mike Whitehouse and George Myburgh, the other for driver Terence Marsh and a succession of celebrity navigators, starting with television personality and international model Marius Roberts.
Harrismith-based cross-country talwart Kobus van Tonder has entered two ex-factory Ford Rangers - one in Class S and one in Class T. Van Tonder and son-in-law Freddie Kriel will be in the Class T entry with siblings Jacques and Lizelle van Tonder in the Class S car.
The four-litre category is wide open and it will be interesting to see how much of a nuisance they will be to their Class T counterparts.
Former champions Jannie Visser and Joks le Roux (Toyota Hilux) link up with Pieter Ruthven and Hansie Rheeder (Toyota Hilux) and Louw de Bruin and Riaan Greyling in a Ford Ranger, facing off against Nissan Navara crews Archie Rutherford and Gerhard Schutte, and Jurgen Schroder and Mike Abramson.
SPECIAL VEHICLE CHALLENGERS
Reigning champions Evan Hutchison and Danie Stassen, in their BAT Viper, will be looking for a hat-trick of titles with confidence and a touch of bravado - but they'll be under no illusions about the severity of the competition.
Consistency is what all the top teams will be looking for this season; that's what took Porter crew Philip de Vries and Johan Viljoen, unfancied at the start of the season, into second place in the championship.
The father/son combinations of Quintin and Kallie Sullwald (BAT Venom) and Hermann and Wichard Sullwald (Stryker) were undone last season by reliability problems. The husband and wife crew of Marius and Jolinda Fourie (BAT) were in the same predicament, and all three will be aware that regular scores often outweigh the number of race victories.
Colin Matthews, partnered by Martin Hermida, has finally joined the Class A brigade and will be out in the Century Racing CR4 driven by Mark Corbett in recent seasons.
Corbett, for his part, will be joined by Julien Hardy in the new CR5; a similar car is being built for Matthews and Hermida for later in the season. New racing cars are notoriously fickle pieces of machinery, and Corbett and Hardy will be satisfied with a finish anywhere in the points.
Class P champions John Thomson and Maurice Zermatten (Zarco) will be back to defend their title, and with Matthews out of the picture the title race could turn into a tight affair.
Veteran Coetzee Labuscagne will again be paired with daughter Sandra in their Zarco. John Telford, partnered by Andrew Makenete, returns to action in a BAT with Makenete's brother Keith again joining Peter Hlutwa in a Zarco.
WHERE AND WHEN
The start/finish and the designated service park will all be at the La La Nathi resort on the outskirts of Harrismith. Public entry to these areas and to spectator points along the route is free of charge.
The qualifying race to determine grid position will start at 11.30am on Friday 28 February 28 and the race proper at 8.30am on Saturday 1 March.