Colin-on-Cars – Top step for Toyota in Free State offroad chase

It was not an easy chase to the top step of the podium for Henk Lategan and Brett Cummings but they overcame some early issues to take their third consecutive victory in the 2020 South African Cross-Country Series (SACCS), this latest event the Total Agri 400 run in Bothaville.

The pair won the qualifying race leading up to the event, and set off in pole position as a result, setting the pace early on, but came across two closed gates in the middle of the first loop of the main event. They lost some time opening them, and gave up more time searching for the route in the long grass. The organisers refunded their time for the gates, but a titanic battle for the overall victory played out during the race.

Lategan/Cummings’ main challenge came from Brian Baragwanath and Taye Perry, in their Century CR6 buggy. The two-wheel-drive buggy is known for its pace over open terrain, and pushed the Class FIA Toyota crew hard throughout the race. Baragwanath/Perry started the race down in the order after incurring a time penalty for deviating from the route during the qualifying loop, but the Dakar quad rider made up significant time during the first loop, putting himself in a position to challenge for the overall victory during the second race loop.

“As a matter of fact, Brian pipped us during the first loop, and we set off behind him at the restart,” said Lategan after reaching the end of the race at NAMPO Park, on the outskirts of Bothaville. “We immediately pushed to try to overtake him, but it was just too dusty.”

The Toyota Gazoo Racing SA crew fought a ding-dong battle with the buggy crew, eventually catching up with the flying Baragwanath. The choking dust kicked up by the buggy, however, saw Lategan/Cummings suffer a puncture shortly before the end of the race.

“We had only 7km to go, and knew that a tyre change could lose the race for us, so we simply went for the finish on three wheels,” continued Lategan. “In the end, we managed to hold onto our lead, and eventually took the chequered flag 2min 01sec ahead of them.”

Both crews fighting for the lead had to also fend off a charge from Chris Visser and Danie Stassen, in their Class FIA Toyota Hilux. Visser excelled in the deep sand, which was reminiscent of his home terrain near Vryburg. However, the engine developed a technical problem during the second loop, and the pair were forced to the side lines.

This opened the door for Toyota Gazoo Racing SA driver Shameer Variawa and navigator Dennis Murphy to capitalise on a steady performance throughout the weekend. The businessman was ecstatic to secure his first podium of the season, ensuring that two of the top three spots went to Toyota.

Dakar legend, Giniel de Villiers, racing with stand-in navigator Juan Möhr in Bothaville, started the race as the second car on the road, after Baragwanath’s penalty. Two early punctures, however, cost the pair dearly, and dropped them down the order. They fought back throughout the race, eventually settling for 5th in the final standings.

The Ford Castrol Cross Country Team emerged with a solid tally of championship points with Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer (#377) finishing the 396 km event in an impressive fourth place overall and in the FIA class, with team-mates Lance Woolridge and Elvéne Vonk (#334) crossing the line sixth.

It was clear that everyone was on a charge from the moment the flag dropped on the opening 178 km loop, but the running order changed significantly with several of the front-runners making navigational errors or encountering mechanical issues.

There were no such mistakes from Gareth and Boyd, though, and they entered the designated service park at the NAMPO complex in a superb third place overall – having thoroughly enjoyed the fantastic new route.

Lance and Elvéne held station in fifth place, despite an exceptionally hard impact on a double-caution jump, which they only saw at the last second while following in the dust of Gary Bertholdt and Geoff Minnitt in a long-running attempt to get past the Class T Toyota Hilux crew – which they later managed in the second half of the lap, as did their team-mates in their progress up the field.

Aside from minor front bodywork damage on the #334 Ranger, it was a hassle-free service stop for the Ford Castrol squad, and they headed into the second 178km loop with determination, driving their slightly modified Class T-based Rangers to the limit against a formidable line-up of full Dakar Rally-specification competitors in the FIA class.

The final loop was completed without incident, as Gareth and Boyd posted near-identical times for the two stints – separated by just 22 seconds. Their podium aspirations were unfortunately dashed as they were relegated to fourth place when the final times were calculated, missing out on third place by a scant 8 seconds to Shameer Variawa and Dennis Murphy (Toyota). Nevertheless, it was a hard-fought result they could be exceptionally proud of.

“We had a clean race without any problems, and the team did a fantastic job on our Ranger, as it felt like a different car with big improvements compared to the last race,” Gareth said. “Coming into this race I didn’t have very high hopes, as I thought it would be a fast maize-lands type race that doesn’t seem to suit our car, but there was a mix of fast and tight sections, including driving along the Vaal River. Boyd and I really enjoyed the race, and this is part of the recipe for doing well.”

The next and final race of the season takes place in Parys in the Free State, on 23 and 24 October 2020.

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