Sun City - Reigning Production Vehicle champions Anthony Taylor and Dennis Murphy have a gilt edged opportunity to tighten their hold on winning back to back titles when they line up for the Force Fuel 450, Round 5 of the SA Cross Country championship, at Sun City on 8 and 9 August.
Wins on the RFS 450 and the Nkomazi 450, along with a 50 point haul at the Toyota 1000 Desert Race in Botswana, have given the Toyota Hilux factory crew a commanding championship lead in both the overall and premier Class T categories. Taylor and Murphy are 28 points clear of brothers Johan and Werner Horn, the surprise package of the season in a privateer Toyota Hilux.
A string of podium finishes in their first season in Class T has lifted the Horns, ironically campaigning the Toyota Hilux in which Taylor and Murphy won the 2013 title, two points clear of Manfred Schroder and Japie Badenhorst in the works Ford Racing Ranger. A tight situation is completed by Leeroy Poulter and Rob Howie, who are only a further three points adrift in the second of the works Toyota Hilux entries.
The Horns, the team of the season so far, have had a fairytale run of results. They are being chased by three factory teams in Poulter and Howie, Schroder and Badenhorst, and Gary Bertholdt and Siegfried Rousseau, in the second Ford Racing Ranger, and one wonders how much longer the brothers can keep everything together.
Bertholdt and Rousseau, fifth in the championship, trail Taylor and Murphy by 50 points - the equivalent of two wins - and time is running out for them. Much the same can be said of the rest of the Production Vehicle championship runners, but there are some enticing clashes that add a little extra flavour to the Sun City mix.
Only one point separates Nissan Navara team-mates Terence Marsh and Mike Whitehouse. What makes their little cameo all the more enticing is that each will be accompanied by a celebrity co-driver.
Marsh will be accompanied by Top Billing presenter Jeanie D, while Whitehouse will have former Springbok rugby captain and Sharks franchise chief executive officer John Smit sitting alongside him. This is the first celebrity 'double header' since the series was launched at the same race in 2011, and both teams will be watched with interest.
After the Toyota 1000 Desert Race, the Bloemfontein pair of Louw de Bruin and Riaan Greyling in a diesel-powered Ford Ranger, have gone back to the top of the Class S championship for cars up to four litres with solid-axle rear suspension. They have a comfortable 22 point lead over former leaders Deon Venter and Ian Palmer (Toyota Hilux) and veteran former South African champions Jannie Visser and Joks le Roux, also in a Hilux.
After missing an event earlier in the season, Visser and le Roux bagged a full-house of 50 points in Botswana and rocketed back into championship contention. The pair will be relishing another taste of North West province conditions and will have plenty of support.
A fair slice of the Class S attention, however, will be on the husband and wife crew of Marius and Jolinda Fourie who, after missing a couple of events, have switched from the Special Vehicle category and joined the Production Vehicle brigade in a Toyota Hilux. The Fouries were consistently among the frontrunners in the Special Vehicle category, and it will be interesting to see how they adapt to the Hilux.
An interesting situation has also developed in Class G, or the Side by Side category, where only six points separate the two top teams. A rich haul of points on the Toyota 1000 Desert Race has seen KwaZulu-Natal crew Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer (Polaris) close to within six points of championship leaders Brian Capper and Jaco Swart in the Regent Racing Polaris.
They will be chased by Leander Pienaar and Carl Swanepoel (Can-Am Maverick) who won the inaugural Class G race at the RFS 450. Also in the mix will be Werner Mostert and Denzel Shrives in a Polaris.
For some championship hopefuls this will be a last roll of the dice as the Force Fuel sees the start of the second half of the season with the championship evenly balanced. But some teams could see their championship hopes go up in smoke over the weekend.
After a miserable time of it at the Toyota 1000 Desert Race in Botswana it for Gerhard and Hardus du Plessis and their Jimco, former champions Quintin Sullwald and father Kallie (BAT Venom) take a slim 10 point lead over the North West crew to Sun City.
The Du Plessis crew are eight points clear of KwaZulu-Natal pair Arthur Barnes and Anthony Usher (BAT), who are probably a little surprised to find themselves third in the title chase in their first season of national competition.
LAST CHANCE SALOON
Barnes and Usher, however, have surprisingly not entered for the Force Fuel 450 outing, and behind them there is a bunfight that includes crews who are entering the Last Chance Saloon. Only seven points separate Laurence du Plessis and Gielie le Roux (Zarco), who are tied with Class P crew James Watson and John Thompson (Zarco), and Daniel Brookes and Gavan Gray (BAT) in eighth overall.
Sandwiched between du Plessis and Le Roux, and Watson and Thompson are former SA champions Wichard and Hermann Sullwald (Fuel Stryker), John Thomson and Maurice Zermatten (Zarco), and reigning South African champions Evan Hutchison and Danie Stassen in their BAT Viper. The Sullwalds revived their championship hopes with a good Toyota 1000 Desert Race but, along with Hutchison and Stassen, are still very much in the danger zone.
The double points on offer at the Toyota 1000 Desert Race have also produced a volatile situation at the top of the Class P championship. A 50 point haul enabled KwaZulu-Natal crew James Watson and John Thompson (BAT) to draw level with reigning champions John Thomson and Maurice Zermatten in their Zarco.
The two crews are 41 points clear of Sean Reitz, who will be partnered his Jimco by George Myburgh and will be playing for high stakes at Sun City. But none of the top three crews can match last year's overall winners Colin Matthews and Rodney Burke (Century Racing CR3) for pace, and reliability becomes a factor.
Burke went into the record books with last year's win in his first ever cross country race. Matthews and Burke have been plagued with reliability problems this season, but could play a major role in the championship battle going on ahead of them.
WHERE AND WHEN?
The Force Fuel 450 will be run in conjunction with a round of the Northern Regions championship with race headquarters, the start/finish and the designated service park all located at the Sun City complex. Public entry to these areas and spectator points along the route is free of charge.
The qualifying race to determine grid positions will start at 11.30am on Friday 8 August and the race proper at 8am on Saturday 9 August.