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Toyota finally got the monkey off their back after 13 years without a win in the Kalahari Botswana 1000 Desert Race - which they sponsor - with a superb 1-2 finish at the weekend.
Works Hilux crews Duncan Vos and Rob Howie, and Anthony Taylor and Chris Birkin, came home in that order in Round 4 SA Off-Road Championship to give Toyota their first win on the Botswana classic since 1999. Only 35 seconds separated the two crews at the finish, with Vos and Howie taking their third consecutive win of 2012 to tighten their hold on the Production Vehicle category.
“We are over the moon,” said a tired but elated Vos after the only marathon event on the South African off-road calendar. “A 1-2 in the toughest race on the calendar was a great team effort.
“This was a typical Desert Race - you had to concentrate every inch of the way.”
The two Toyota crews dominated from early in Racing Section 1 on Saturday when they passed prologue winners Hannes Grobler and Hennie ter Stege (BMW X3), who completely disappeared off the race radar later in the day. From that moment on the two works Toyotas were simply unstoppable.
At the end of Saturday's proceedings the gap between the Toyota pair was 11 seconds. A puncture that delayed Taylor and Birkin on the first of Sunday's two 200km loops that made up Racing Section 2, saw the gap stretch to just over three minutes.
PLAYING IT SAFE
With so much at stake Vos and Howie understandably took their foot off the gas on the final 200km to stave off the sort of misfortune that befell their team mates in 2011. Taylor and Birkin led last year until a mechanical problem less than 20km from the finish saw them end up second behind the Ford Racing Ranger of Chris Visser and Japie Badenhorst.
The final podium position went to the impressive young Pretoria crew Christiaan du Plooy and Henk Janse van Vuuren in the second BMW X3. It was their best result of the season with the pair holding off a determined challenge from Visser and Badenhorst over the last 200km.
After 1000km of racing the final gap between the BMW and the Ford Racing Ranger was just 13 seconds. The top five were rounded out by North West crew Hugo de Bruyn and Henri Hugo, a further eight minutes in arrears in their privateer Toyota Hilux in what was also their best result of the season.
Behind the first five there was a good battle between Mike Whitehouse, Terence Marsh and Mathew Carlson (Nissan Navara), Lance Woolridge and Ward Huxtable (Ford Ranger), and Thomas Rundle and Juan Mohr in another Navara. The trio were separated by less than three minutes with Rundle and Mohr fighting back after a disappointing Racing Section 1.
The Class D battle turned into a family affair with Louis Weichelt leading home father Cliff, each in a Toyota Land Cruiser. The younger Weichelt, partnered by Maret Bezuidenhout, was around 40 minutes ahead of his father and Johann Smalberger, with reigning Class D champions Jack and Sarel Oosthuizen (Land Rover) continuing a remarkable sequence of finishes in third place.
The result also saw Louis Weichelt join a small band of competitors who have won the Kalahari 1000 Desert Race both as navigator and driver. A couple of seasons ago Weichelt won overall with Duncan Vos as a stand-in navigator
Class E championship leaders Dirk Putter and Koos Claasens (Toyota Hilux) scored their third win in four outings this season, more than an hour ahead of Diederik Hattingh and Kristo Bosman in another Hilux.
That gave Toyota a clean sweep of the premier SP Class, Class D and Class E. Toyota also won the manufacturers award.
Former South African champion Evan Hutchison scored a double triumph in the Special Vehicle category, as he added a win in South Africa's only off-road marathon to an already impressive resumé, and in the process won a free entry for the 2013 Dakar Rally in South America.
The Kalahari 1000 Desert Race is one of four races worldwide counting towards the Dakar Challenge with the prize a free entry - worth about R250 000 - for the world's toughest race.
An ecstatic Hutchison said at the finish: “What can I say? It doesn't get much better than winning the Desert Race for the first time and getting a free entry into the Dakar Rally.”
It was, however, touch and go whether or not Hutchison and Stassen would make it to the finish. As the pair left the designated service park to start the last 200km of the race their BAT suffered an alternator failure, and they saw out the distance on a wing and a prayer.
They came home with six minutes 36 seconds to spare over Johan van Staden and Mike Lawrenson, also in a BAT. This race scores points-and-a-half towards the championship standings and Van Staden and Lawrenson's workmanlike display over the entire weekend did nothing to harm their title challenge.
The final podium position went to Quintin Sullwald and his father Kallie in their BAT. The former SA champions are previous winners of the Desert Race, but on that occasion Kallie was doing the driving and Quintin the navigating.
A proud Kallie said: “Third on this race in his first year as a driver is no mean feat. Quintin drove like a champion and this will do his confidence a world of good.”
The Sullwalds came home a little more than four minutes ahead of another father and son combination, Nick and Ryan Harper, in their Revo 4x4. The Harpers came under intense pressure late in the race from Class P winners Richard Fuller and Dennis Murphy, in a BAT, who were only 20 seconds further adrift at the finish.
Steady performances took Laurence and Gerhard du Plessis (Zarco), Naeem Moosajee and Rayhaan Bodhanya (Porter), and Free State crew Pieter Ruthven and Leander Pienaar (BAT) into the top eight. It was Ruthven and Pienaar's best performance of the season so far as they were followed home by reigning SA champions Hermann and Wichard Sullwald (Porter) and David and Gary White in another BAT.
A top-five finish and victory in Class P was just reward for Fuller and Murphy, who hardly put a wheel wrong all weekend. The pair took control of Class P on Racing Section 1 on Saturday when Special Vehicle and Class P championship leaders Colin Matthews and Alan Smith, in a CR3, ran out of fuel.
Matthews and Smith lost more than an hour but a good fight-back saw them finish second in Class P.
A tough route took its toll and there were no Class B finishers.