Harrismith, Free State - The factory Toyota Hilux squad got their 2014 campaign off to the best possible start with a Production Vehicle 1-2 on the RFS 450, the opening round of the South African Cross Country series, at the weekend.
Reigning SA champions Anthony Taylor and Dennis Murphy led the Toyota challenge, after a perfect weekend during which they also won the 100km qualifying race to determine grid positions. Taylor and Murphy led home team mates Leeroy Poulter and Rob Howie, who started the day in fifth, with the two crews separated by about 10 minutes at the finish.
The final podium place went to veteran Manfred Schroder, standing in for injured regular driver Chris Visser, and Japie Badenhorst in a works Ford Ranger, with local privateers Kobus van Tonder and son-in-law Freddie Kriel fourth in their ex-factory Ford Ranger.
Johan van Staden and Mike Lawrenson rounded out the top five on their debut outing in their new Nissan Navara, but it was Van Tonder and Kriel who were the home-town heroes of the day.
Taylor said at the finish: “We had a couple of wrong slots early in the day, but recovered quickly; that was important but for the rest it was a clean run and the car ran like a dream.”
Schroder, a former Class D and E champion, has not raced nationally for a number of seasons, and had never driven one of the Dakar Rally spec cars in anger. Although plagued by a misfire, he and Badenhorst held on for a podium place when team mates Gary Bertholdt and Siegfried Rousseau got stuck in a mud hole on the second of the two 175km loops that made up the race.
Both official Rangers were late out of the pits after the compulsory 15 minute halt at the end of the first lap, and were overtaken by Poulter and Howie. When Bertholdt and Rousseau slipped back in the field, the steady Van Tonder and Kriel, and Van Staden and Lawrenson consolidated their hold on fourth and fifth for a highly encouraging start to the season.
The unfortunate Bertholdt and Rousseau, making their debut in the works Ford squad, eventually trailed in 12th overall and ninth in Class T.
Youngsters Jason Venter and Vince van Allemann (Toyota Hilux) completed the top six in their Class T debut. Peter Ruthven and Hansie Rheeder, in a Toyota Hilux, were the first of the Class S contingent in seventh overall ahead of rookie crew Piet Kotze and Salomon Victor in another Hilux, with Louw de Bruin and Riaan Greyling third in an ex-factory diesel powered Ford Ranger.
There was also a promising Class T debut for Mpumalanga brothers Johan and Werner Horn in an ex-factory Hilux who were seventh in class and eighth overall. It was a more difficult outing for Christiaan du Plooy and Henk Janse van Vuuren, however, who ran into teething problems in the new RFS Ford Ranger, although the race was a useful research and development exercise.
Former South African champions Quintin and Kallie Sullwald scored a somewhat fortuitous Special Vehicle category victory; the son and father combination, started their BAT Venom from pole position after winning the 100km qualifying event but dropped to second by the end of the first loop.
They started lap two just 43 seconds behind reigning South African champions Evan Hutchison and Danie Stassen in a similar BAT, and the two crews put a superb dice until Hutchison, who was leading at the time, picked up a puncture 40km from the finish and handed the advantage to the Sullwalds.
“It was a frustrating end to the race,” Hutchinson said, “after working so hard to get into the lead and stay in front.
“On the plus side it was a positive start to the season, and we had a really good dice with the Sullwalds.”
For their part it was a nervous finish for the Sullwalds.
The Venom's alternator warning light came on shortly before the finish, and than driver Quintin also found himself in a 'mobile sauna' when the cool-air hose attached to his helmet malfunctioned.
“It wasn't an easy race and we were a little lucky,” he admitted, “but a win is a win.”
It was his second national win as a driver after previously having navigated for his father.
The final place on the podium went to veteran Gerhard du Plessis and his 17-year-old son Gerhardus in an ageing Jimco that had its first race in 2000. The elder du Plessis missed the whole of last season, and for his son it was a dream introduction to national championship racing.
Behind them were KwaZulu-Natal BAT Venom crew Arthur Barnes and Anthony Usher, fourth on their national championship debut, holding off the husband and wife team of Marius and Jolinda Fourie (BAT) by just 29 seconds.
John Telford and Andrew Makenete (BAT) scored a comfortable win over veterans Rob Wark and Ashley Thorn in a Aceco. Wark and Thorn lost a lot of time in the qualifying race, and had to battle back through the field to edge out Frikkie Botha and Koos Visser in a BAT.
Reigning Class P champions John Thomson and Maurice Zermatten (Zarco Magnum) were a distant fourth ahead of Nic Goslar and Joe Lima in another Zarco Magnum.
SIDE BY SIDE
Leander Pienaar and Carl Swanepoel carved a little South African motorsport history for themselves when they won the inaugural Class G – also known as Side by Side – category. Pienaar and Swanepoel, in a Can-Am Maverick, dominated both the qualifying race and the main event.
After starting the day from pole they gradually pulled away from Pietermaritzburg youngsters Gareth Woolridge and Simon Harrison (Polaris Razor) to win by almost 14 minutes.
Woolridge and Harrison also had a handy lead over motorcycle stunt rider Brian Capper and Jaco Swart in a Polaris, who came in three seconds short of 20 minutes behind Woolridge
Grant Hulley and Warren Germishuys, and Otto Graven and Shamendra van Rooyen, each pair in a Can-Am Maverick, rounded out the top five, with less than half a minute separating them.
The next round of the series will be the Toyota Dealer 450 in Mooi River, KwaZulu-Natal on 4 and 5 April.