Despite a mid-event rollover, Fernando Alonso (with Marc Corma in the navigator’s seat) had a good outing in his first off-road race, finishing 16th overall in Lichtenburg while Toyota claimed a podium lockout.
Toyota Gazoo Racing SA’s Giniel de Villiers and navigator Dennis Murphy claimed victory on the Lichtenburg 400, round 5 of the 2019 South African Cross-Country Series (SACCS) at the weekend. At the same time, teammates Henk Lategan and Brett Cummings finished in second place, clinching the overall SACCS championship for 2019 in the process.
Lance Woolridge and Ward Huxtable had plenty of reason to celebrate when their season-long dominance of the Class T Production Vehicle championship was rewarded with a second consecutive title in the highly competitive South African Cross Country Series (SACCS).
They were fourth overall behind the Hilux of Jason Venter and Jaco van Aardt.
“It was a close-run race in the end,” said Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Team Principal, Glyn Hall, after the race drew to a close. “Initially it looked as if Henk had won the race by 11 seconds from Giniel, but most of the field was penalised for speeding in a controlled section. Unfortunately, Henk also fell foul to such a penalty, handing the victory to Giniel – but importantly doing enough to win the title.”
Lategan/Cummings were 23 points ahead in the overall championship going into the race weekend, with Ford’s Lance Woolridge and Ward Huxtable in second place. In the end, Lategan/Cummings earned 23 points for their second place; while Woolridge/Huxtable added only 12 points to his tally – giving the Toyota Hilux crew to margin they needed to clinch the title with one round in hand.
The weekend started perfectly for Lategan/Cummings, when they took victory in the 55 km-long Qualifying Race by 26 seconds over De Villiers/Murphy. An epic battle between the two Toyota Hilux crews ensued over the two loops that made up the main race, with De Villiers closing the gap to Lategan to just 11 seconds at the chequered flag.
“Then came the penalties, which saw all but three crews dropping down the order. Giniel and Dennis managed to avoid the penalties, and as a result they moved to the top of the standings,” explained Hall.
“We’re delighted regardless, since Giniel won the race for us; and Henk won the title. All in all, a great weekend for the team.”
At the same time, Shameer Variawa and Juan Möhr, in the third Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Hilux, struggled with the setup on their car during the qualifying race; and was then hampered by dust due to their starting position. With that said, they caught up with the cars ahead of them on both loops, and were classified as the fifth-fastest Class FIA crew in the end.
The Lichtenburg 400 was also the first competitive outing for Fernando Alonso and navigator Marc Coma, as part of their continued training for a possible entry to the 2020 Dakar Rally. The pair set the third-fastest time during the qualifying race, but suffered a setback when they had a soft roll 27 km into the first race loop. They lost significant time dealing with a broken windscreen before returning to the DSP.
The pair set out for the second loop with a new windscreen, but a bird strike shortly after the start of the stage saw them racing with a second broken windscreen. Despite these setbacks, they completed the race and were classified in 16th place.
Alonso/Coma showed their pace during the qualifier, and gained invaluable experience and seat time over the remainder of the event. They will next be in action at the Rally of Morocco, which takes place from October 3. Toyota Gazoo Racing South Africa will also be fielding three cars at the event, with Dakar champion Nasser Al Attiyah; Giniel de Villiers; and Bernhard ten Brinke all taking part.
Although Friday’s short 55km qualifying session did not go the way of Woolrdige and Huxtable due to a small navigation error near the end of the stage – which dropped them to a fifth-place starting position for Saturday’s main race – the deficit was a mere 48 seconds to the leading pair of Gary Bertholdt and Geoff Minnitt (Toyota) and the Ford Ranger duo were determined to claw back the margin.
Their efforts were largely scuppered on the second half of the 189 km opening loop, though, as they were caught in the dust of one of the two-wheel drive special vehicles, with no way of getting close enough to find a way past. Nevertheless, they made up time on team-mates Marcos Baumgart and Kleber Cincea (T20) in the second Castrol Ford NWM Ranger to slot into fourth place.
The exceptionally fast and open terrain was tackled flat-out on many of the farmland sections, with the competitors often topping 180 km/h on the straights. The second loop was no different, with little opportunity for the reigning champions to make up time in the tight and twisty bits. They crossed the line fourth in class, only for a slew of penalties to be dealt out by the organisers for even the most marginal of speed transgressions on a last-minute change to the route, which included a short 500-metre deviation through the town of Coligny.
While they already had the Class T title in the bag with their fourth-placed finish, Woolridge and Huxtable were promoted to second place in the final results, thus adding yet another podium finish to their exceptional results this year.
“It is a very special feeling to win the Class T championship this year on the back of four wins in a row,” an elated Woolridge said. “We’ve had a perfect car this season and the team has done a fantastic job. We were aiming for victory, but it just didn’t go our way during the prologue on Friday, and we were on the back foot from there.
“However, after last year when the championship went down to the wire, it is great to wrap this one up early and take the pressure off for the final race, so we can go and have fun and fight for another race win.”