Offroad, or cross-country, racing is usually a series of highs and lows – and that is not only with regard to the terrain – as the top teams discovered in the return to racing in the sugarcane fields of Eston in KwaZulu-Natal at the weekend.
For Toyota it was a great event with Giniel de Villiers/Dennis Murphy winning overall from a happy, if slightly sore, Henk Lategan having his first race outing since his crash in the Dakar earlier this year finishing second with navigator Brett Cummings and the evergreen stalwarts of the sport, Johan and Werner Horn coming home third and winning Class T.
De Villiers was not so much a happy man before the start of the Sugarbelt 400, having been held up in the Prologue on the Friday by a competitor who had ‘wrong-slotted’.
“It is just impossible to pass and the dust was horrendous,” he said.
However, the weather changed overnight to be cold and overcast with some rain having fallen and he conceded that might help tone down the dust.
For Ford and the Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) team it was a pretty horrible affair. Eston is effectively their ‘home’ race with the headquarters of the team in Pietermaritzburg, not too far up the road.
It was a memorable win Giniel de Villiers as he last won this race in 2001, then partnered with Francois Jordaan. Now, 20 years later, he had Dennis Murphy reading the notes, but the victory was just as sweet as two decades ago.
“We joked before the race, saying it would be nice to make it two wins twenty years apart,” said an elated De Villiers from the Designated Service Park (DSP) near the farming community of Eston, in KwaZulu-Natal. “As it turned out, I can now add a second Sugarbelt trophy to my collection.”
The race was run over exceptionally tricky and rough terrain, with the tunnel vision imposed by the lanes of sugarcane making navigation a challenge. As a result, the attrition rate of the race was high, though both Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Hilux race cars made it through the race without serious mechanical issues.
The weekend started with Henk Lategan winning the 50 km long prologue and then set about the first race loop on the Saturday with determination, despite having to open the route. The pair set highly competitive times throughout the loop, with teammates De Villiers/Murphy in hot pursuit.
Both crews faced challenges along the way, with Lategan/Cummings losing time when their car started overheating mid-way through the second loop.
“The bracket of our water reservoir came undone, and the system lost pressure as a result. The engine temperature climbed rapidly, and we had to adjust our pace in order to manage the situation,” explained Lategan after the race.
At the same time, De Villiers/Murphy powered ahead, only to suffer two punctures in the second loop of the race. Navigator Murphy was also plagued with motion sickness, and the pair were forced to hunt for the route in places. But in the end, they did enough to secure victory, finishing 1min 52 sec ahead of teammates Lategan/Cummings.
The Horn brothers, campaigning an older generation Class T Hilux, finished in third place overall, just behind Lategan/Cummings. The pair have stolen an early march in the championship, and will be looking to build on this during Round 3 of the 2021 season.
The short 51 km qualifying for round two of the South African Cross Country Series (SACCS) on Friday 21 May saw Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer (#377) set the second-quickest time in their new EcoBoost-powered NWM Ford Ranger, finishing just 47 seconds off the lead vehicle.
They subsequently received a 2-minute penalty for exceeding the 40 km/h speed limit in a decontrol section by 6 km/h due to a discrepancy between the vehicle’s speed sensor and the series’ RallySafe system. This saw them dropping to fifth in FIA-class and eighth overall.
Team-mates Lance Woolridge and Elvéne Vonk (#334) adopted a relatively cautious approach to the opening stint in the sugarcane fields that characterise this scenic region of the province, and were ultimately classified third in FIA-class and fifth overall once penalties had been handed out to various competitors.
While the expected rainy weather held off, race day on Saturday 22 May dawned cloudy and cold
– and soon dealt a cruel blow to Lance and Elvéne on the opening 160 km race loop. Just 41km into the stage, the round one winners’ Ranger suddenly suffered a significant power loss, and they were forced to retire.
A similar fate befell Gareth and Boyd’s Ranger on the opening loop, but they were able to soldier on – albeit rapidly dropping down the running order. They made it to the mandatory 30-minute service stop, but the team wasn’t able to rectify the problem, so they persevered and started the second loop.
Eventually the team decided to call it quits as they had dropped out of the points, and didn’t want to risk damaging the engine.
The team’s investigations immediately after the race revealed that the air induction pipes leading into the turbochargers had failed due to the immense suction pressure – a relatively minor component fault that unfortunately turned the tables on the team’s dream debut at the season- opener.
“It was not a great weekend for us, especially on our home turf,” NWM team principal Neil Woolridge mused. “However, we can take a lot of positives from this race. All of the engine calibration and suspension upgrades we did leading up to this race worked really well. Gareth proved this during qualifying and Lance was going really well on Saturday morning until he had to stop, so that is really encouraging for us.
In the Class T championship, the strong contingent of NWM-supported Ford Ranger privateers had another good weekend. Malcolm and Frans Kock (#T4) scored their second runner-up finish in a row, with Wors Prinsloo and Andre Vermeulen (#T41) joining them on the podium in third. Christo Rose and Arno Olivier (#T58) racked up another finish in their first season with the Ranger V8 by coming home fifth, and the Ford NWM Development Team of Bapi Rubuluza and Fanifani Meyiwa (#T49) ended sixth on their debut in the Ranger V8.
The next race is the Toyota 1000 Desert Race in Upington, from 18 to 20 June 2021.