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Toyota will go to this weekend's Kalahari Botswana 1000 Desert Race, Round 4 of the SA Off-Road championship, confident that they have the ammunition to finally get the Production Vehicle monkey off their back.
Toyota have not won their own event since 1999 but there are encouraging signs that suggest honour could be restored this year. Works Hilux pair Duncan Vos and Rob Howie go to Botswana with two consecutive wins under their belts, and have comfortable leads in both the overall and premier Class P championships.
Anthony Taylor and Chris Birkin, who came within kilometres of a win in the 2011 Desert Race in the second Toyota factory entry, are third in the championship behind Vos and Howie, and Ford Racing pair Chris Visser and Japie Badenhorst, and have a point to prove.
Vos and Howie, and Taylor and Birkin finished first and second in the Toyota Dealer 400 in Mpumalanga to end a 13-year Toyota drought on Toyota-sponsored races. Vos and Howie followed that up with a convincing victory on the Timbertrack 400 and the two Toyota teams are the form horses at the moment.
For the rest, inconsistency has been a consistent thread in the SP Class. Last year's Botswana winners, Visser and Badenhorst, have twice in a row had to fight rearguard actions to salvage the points that keep them three ahead of Taylor and Birkin in the overall standings.
If they have a clean run the Ford Racing pair could throw a spanner in the works where the Toyota crews are concerned. This also applies to 2010 winners Hannes Grobler and Hennie ter Stege (BMW X3) who have a huge advantage in experience with Grobler, a multiple winner of the only marathon event on calendar, and who also who has a huge following in Botswana.
Gary Bertholdt, linking up again with Siegfried Rousseau in a Toyota Hilux, will have been encouraged by a good result on the Timbertrack 400, as will young Pretoria crew Christiaan du Plooy and Henk Janse van Vuuren in the second BMW X3.
Lance Woolridge and Ward Huxtable, in the second Ford Racing Ranger, will be looking to put recent disappointments behind them, as will Toyota Hilux crew Pikkie Labuschagne and Rikus Erasmus from Wolmarransstad.
Reigning champions Jannie Visser and Joks le Roux (Toyota Hilux) will also have been encouraged with their first points of the season on the Timbertrack 400 and, like most of the North West province crews, will be at home in the conditions.
A Nissan Navara on which Terence Marsh and Mike Whitehouse will share driving duties with Matthew Carlson in the hot seat, also comes into the equation, along with the Navara of Thomas Rundle and Juan Mohr who will be making their first appearance of the season.
Despite missing the last race Marsh is still fifth in the championship and all the crews will be aware of the affect points-and-a-half awarded for this race can have on their championship challenges.
Another Navara will be in the hands of the experienced Archie Rutherford and Gerhard Schutte, with Willem Vos and Rudi Balzar out in a third BMW X3. For Rustenburg-based Vos this is almost a home race.
All the more fancied teams will go into the race knowing that the prologue and Day 1 are a waiting game, with the final 100 kilometres on Day 2 invariably producing a sting in the tail - just ask Taylor and Birkin. The leading crews will also be aware that a win for Vos and Howie, who already lead the championship by 21 points, will put them at huge advantage for the rest of the season.
Cliff Weichelt and Johan Smalberger (N1 4x4 Toyota Land Cruiser) currently lead the Class D title race but there is plenty of tough opposition. Weichelt's son Louis and Maret Bezuidenhout will be back, along with Mpumalanga brothers Johan and Werner Horn (each in a Land Cruiser) fresh from a class win on the Timbertrack 400.
Sheer consistency has kept reigning champions Jack and Sarel Oosthuizen (Land Rover) in the championship mix, 12 points behind Weichelt and Smalberger, as are youngsters Jason Venter and Vincent van Alleman (Toyota Hilux) who have also had a patchy season so far and are due a good result.
Pace and patience will be key ingredients in the chase for Special Vehicle honours. Only nine points separate the top five teams in the Special Vehicle category, and the gap in the premier Class A championship is even closer - just seven points separate the top five - and with points-and-a-half on offer in Botswana the race takes on even greater importance.
For the first time in the series a Class P crew leads the championship with Century Racing pair Colin Matthews and Alan Smith three points clear of reigning champions Hermann and Wichard Sullwald in their Porter. Johan van Staden and Mike Lawrenson (BAT) are next, ahead of Laurence and Gerhard du Plessis (Zarco), and former champion Evan Hutchison and Danie Stassen in a BAT Venom.
The Class A teams will have the power to deal with the thick sand but Matthews and Smith will have the more manoeuvrable car. There is no doubt Matthews and Smith have the pace to win overall, but whether or not they have the patience to see out three days of racing remains top be seen.
For Desert Race success you can add reliability to pace and patience and here there will be a question mark over the Century Racing crew. In an about-turn from last season Matthews and Smith have a perfect finish record this year that includes an overall win and three Class P victories.
CAPABLE OF UPSETS
Herman and Wichard Sullwald and team mate Quintin and Kallie Sullwald have all the requirements to make life difficult for the competition, and Hutchison and Stassen will fancy their chances. So too will Marius and Jolinda Fourie who have quickly come to terms with their BAT and the rigours of Class A.
Van Staden and Lawrenson also have the right credentials to score a second win this season, and the du Plessis brothers are likely to be there or thereabouts. Nick and Ryan Harper are also coming to terms with the 4x4 Revo while brothers David and Gary White (BAT) are capable of upsets.
KwaZulu-Natal crew Clint Gibson and Gary Campbell (Porter) also fall into the 'capable of upsets' category along with former winner Mark Corbett and Julien Hardy in their CR3. In a field loaded with quality, pace, patience and reliability add up to race management - this could be the key factor.
There will be a great deal of local interest in Botswana drivers Keith du Toit (BAT) and Mogrey Mabille (Zarco) who are respectively paired with the experienced Ashley Thorn and Zelda Niemandt. Local sentiment, however, may not be enough for either team.
Whoever manages the race best over the prologue and two days of tough competition will be in the box seats. The Kalahari 1000 Desert Race is invariably won and lost over the last 100 kilometres, but this simply adds another twist to what should be an enthralling contest.
Race headquarters and the designated service area will be at Kumakwane on the outskirts of Gaborone. The prologue to determine race-start positions will be flagged away at 12.30pm on June 22 with the race starts scheduled for 8.30am on both Saturday and Sunday.