Colin-on-Cars – Toyota wins dusty battle in the bush

In mainly dusty conditions, but with a bit of mud thrown in for good measure, defending South African Cross-Country Series champions, Henk Lategan and Brett Cummings, picked up right where they left off five months ago with victory in the Bronkhorstspruit 400 at the weekend.

The pair lead from flag to flag, despite some challenges, adding valuable points in their quest for a second consecutive championship.

The race got under way with a short qualifying race on the Friday, followed by two race loops of roughly 150 km each on the Saturday. Lategan wummings made their intentions clear by winning the qualifying race by more than 20 seconds over Chris Visser and navigator Danie Stassen, also in a Class FIA Toyota Hilux.

“We got off to a slightly shaky start,” said Lategan after the qualifying race. “I had forgotten my water bottle in the footwell of the car, and I had to fend off the errant bottle throughout the first part of the stage. But then, in a controlled zone,I managed to get everything squared away, and we picked up the pace towards the end.”

The pair put their Hilux, sporting some upgraded and new components, on pole position for the main event, and made the most of their position despite having to open the route – quite literally, in one instance.

“During the first loop, we got stuck behind a closed gate,” explained Lategan mid-way through the race. “Brett had to get out and open the gate, and we lost about one-and-a-half minutes in the process. In the end, the stewards gave us that time back, so no harm done.”

Things nearly came undone when the pair reached a dam wall mid-way through the second loop. Lategan drifted slightly wide when turning onto the wall, and the Hilux slid down the bank, nearly rolling into the water. He managed to keep the car dry, but it was precariously balanced over the water.

“We both climbed out of the car to assess the situation, and then decided to try to extricate the Hilux. I got back in, while Brett waited on the side. Plenty of power and a bit of luck saw us back on the road, and we had a clean run to the finish from there,” continued Lategan.

The pair brought the car home in first place, after a ding-dong battle with Visser/Stassen, who held onto their starting position to finish in second place. Third place went to Toyota Gazoo Racing SA’s Giniel de Villiers and stand-in navigator Juan Möhr.

The pair qualified in third place, and found themselves unable to close the gap to Visser/Stassen during the race.

“Juan and I worked well together, but it is always a challenge to race with a new navigator,” said De Villiers after the race. “Chris and Danie were really quick, and we just couldn’t catch them in the end.”

The third Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Hilux was again in the hands of Shameer Variawa and former champion navigator, Dennis Murphy. Variawa, himself a former champion, found the going tough in places, suffering a number of overshoots both during qualifying and the race itself. As a result, Variawa/Murphy posted the 6th-fastest time in Class FIA during the qualifying race, and managed to move up one place to finish in 5th during the main event.

For the Ford Castrol Cross Country team, it was a largely incident-free two days of racing in the extremely dry and dusty farmlands located on the provincial border of Gauteng and Mpumalanga. Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer  were the top-ranked Ford Ranger, completing the fast and furious 367 km of racing in sixth place overall.

This was the young crew’s first race in 14 months in the Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) designed and built Ford Ranger, and their first outing in the premier FIA class. They completed Friday’s short sprint-style 67 km qualifying loop fifth quickest, just 10 seconds behind team-mates Lance Woolridge and Elvéne Vonk who set the fourth-best time.

The first 150 km loop on Saturday saw both Woolridge brothers encountering minor trouble, with Gareth and Boyd beaching their Ranger in the soft sand at one of the route’s road crossings – a mishap that cost them almost two minutes.

Lance and Elvéne suffered a broken damper spring on the right front suspension at the 104 km mark after hitting a mound in the road – the first such failure since the team started racing the current Ranger in 2013.

Elvene Vonk and Lance Woolridge

Although the dual-damper set-up ensured they could continue without drama, it did impact their overall pace slightly for the remaining 46 km. The entire damper was replaced at the mandatory 30-minute service stop, and they completed the second loop of the race without any other issues, eventually crossing the line seventh overall and in the FIA class.

“Overall, it was a good weekend for us having not raced for the past 14 months, so we weren’t all that confident at the start, but we soon found our rhythm and started pushing,” Gareth said. “Aside from getting beached in the sand on the first loop, we had a clean race and went almost four minutes faster on the second loop, and the car performed perfectly.”

Lance commented: “It was a bit of a frustrating race for us. I drove as hard as I could, but without cutting corners or making mistakes. Clearly, this race doesn’t seem to suit our current solid rear axle set-up, but we scored some good championship points and the cars were reliable, so we did our best.”

The next round of the 2020 SACCS season is the Nampo 400, which takes place around the Freestate town of Bothaville, on 18 and 19 September, 2020.

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