Tree stumps and other tough conditions in Eastern Botswana at the weekend made the first running of the Toyota 1000 Desert Race out of its new home at Selebi-Phikwe a tough ride for all competitors with Chris Visser and navigator Phillip Herselman taking the honours in their Class FIA Toyota Hilux, supported by Atlas Copco.
Lance Woolridge and Ward Huxtable (T34) extended their winning streak in Class T of the 2019 SA Cross Country Championship by topping both heats of the punishing three-day event – in the process notching up their fourth consecutive win of the season.
With team-mates Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer (T77) wrapping up their weekend with two second-place finishes, it was a perfect outing for the Ford Castrol Cross Country squad as they secured a maximum double-points haul and extended their advantage at the top of the championship points table.
“What a race! Everything just felt right, and even though we had our fair share of challenges along the way, we managed to stay out of trouble and bring the Toyota Hilux home in first place,” said Visser.
Visser and Herselman were quick from the get-go, setting the fastest time in Friday’s qualifying race. They were kept honest, however, by the three factory Toyota Gazoo Racing SA crews of Henk Lategan/Brett Cummings, Giniel De Villiers/Dennis Murphy and Shameer Variawa/Juan Möhr, who occupied positions two to four after qualifying.
However, things soon changed for two of the three Toyota Gazoo Racing SA crews, as first De Villiers/Murphy and then Lategan/Cummings fell foul to the tricky terrain in eastern Botswana, each hitting tree stumps and damaging their Toyota Hilux race cars as a result. De Villiers was the first to falter, losing more than an hour making roadside repairs during the first full race day’s second loop – this after setting the pace throughout the opening loop of the race.
“It was very disappointing for us,” said the former Dakar winner. “The car felt good, and we really pushed hard from the start. Unfortunately, we damaged the car after hitting a tree stump in sixth gear, and lost a lot of time repairing the car. Of course, we would’ve wanted to be on the podium, but the reality of racing is that you don’t always have things your way…”
A similar fate befell teammates Henk Lategan and Brett Cummings, but if anything, it hurt the youngsters even more than their more experienced teammates. Lategan was second-fastest in qualifying, and set a blistering pace on the opening day of the main event. By the time the dust settled over the Botswana bush after the first race day, Lategan/Cummings were sitting pretty at the top of the standings.
Lategan was in this exact position mid-way through the 2018 edition of the Toyota 1000 Desert Race, having won Day 1 of the event. But this time, things quickly fell apart on the final day:
“We started okay, but suffered one puncture after the other early in the loop,” said a rueful Lategan. “Eventually, we ran out of spare wheels, but Shameer stopped to give us one of his spares, which I’m very grateful for.”
After changing the wheel, Lategan/Cummings found themselves in their teammates’ dust, and fell foul to a tree stump as a result. “It was a terrible end to a very promising race. We had won the first day’s race, and were still very much in contention for overall victory, until we ran into the tree stump.”
The pair spent more than one-and-a-half hours fixing their car, and eventually finished as the 14th Production Car across the line – with teammates De Villiers/Murphy going three spots better.
In the midst of all the mayhem, Variawa and Möhr kept their cool. The pair were fourth-fastest in qualifying, but never set a foot wrong throughout the race weekend. Midway through the final day, the pair found themselves in second place, with just Visser/Herselmal ahead of them. Keeping cool heads, they piloted their Toyota Hilux with aplomb, avoiding trouble and reaping the rewards for second place as a result.
In the end, the overall podium consisted of Visser/Herselman; Variawa/Möhr; and Ford’s Lance Woolridge and navigator Ward Huxtable. The latter pairing also took victory in the fiercely contested Class T. The Class FIA podium was rounded out by Johan van Staden and Mike Lawrenson (Renault Duster).
The dense bushveld conditions and resulting slow average speeds saw the organisers cutting Saturday’s planned 200 km loop east of Selebi-Phikwe down to 171 km. The first loop included a bit of drama for the Class T race leaders, as they slid into a tree which crushed the exhaust, forcing them to complete the second half of the lap with significantly reduced power. And then 80 km from the end, wire got wrapped around the rear axle and cut the brake line, which meant they had to limp back to the service park where the repairs were completed in the allocated 30 mins.
In the overall standings, this meant that Gareth and Boyd had taken over the lead at the halfway point after completing the first loop without incident. However, the roles were reversed on the second outing as Lance and Ward enjoyed a faultless second lap, while Gareth and Boyd damaged a wheel on a rocky patch and lost around 13 minutes.
Nevertheless, the two Castrol-liveried Ford Rangers were in a class of their own, earning their places at the top of the Class T podium in the combined Friday and Saturday results for the first heat.
Sunday’s second heat took place on an entirely new loop east of the mining town, but was also reduced due to time constraints with the original 220 km route cut to 189 km. The Ford crews were once again in a different league to their rivals and landed up challenging the faster FIA class entries for position – while several of the top contenders faltered in the tight and unforgiving terrain.
Despite having to contend with endless dust from fellow competitors, both of the Ford crews ultimately produced epic, incident-free drives to snatch the top two places in the overall results for the second heat of the 2019 Botswana Desert Race – a remarkable performance from the lower-specification Class T machines.
“This was an excellent weekend for the team, and winning overall today by beating the FIA cars was just the cherry on the top,” said team principal Neil Woolridge. “We built a new car for Lance at the start of the year and completed Gareth’s new car just two weeks before the Desert Race. To come to Botswana and have a trouble-free run with both Rangers in these tough conditions is really special.”
At the same time, Toyota Gazoo Racing SA’s Guy Botterill and stand-in navigator Schalk van Heerden were in action at Round 3 of the 2019 SA National Rally Championship, where Botterill took the honours for the third time this year. Their Class R2N Toyota Etios never missed a beat, and the pair romped to victory with a margin of more than forty seconds to the second-placed crew, at the 2019 King Price Rally.
“We were very pleased with the way this weekend’s race went,” said an ecstatic Botterill after bringing his trusty steed home in first place. “The car ran well, Schalk did a great job on the notes, and I couldn’t be happier with the result.”